Recovering from Covid: Supporting the learning of disadvantaged pupils

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

After the Covid-19 lockdown, we are facing a growing attainment gap between rich and poor. Bethany Eadie asks how we might spend our Pupil Premium budgets this year and what evidence-based measures we can take to begin closing the gap again

The recent Covid-19 lockdown is likely to have reversed progress made in narrowing the attainment gap in the last decade. Indeed, the Education Endowment Foundation’s recent evidence review predicts that the gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent (EEF, 2020).

While many pupils will likely be returning to school with significant gaps in their knowledge this September, disadvantaged pupils may be disproportionately further behind than their less disadvantaged peers.

In fact, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) recently reported that the disadvantage gap has stopped closing for the first time in a decade – with disadvantaged pupils in England now reported to be 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs (Hutchinson et al, 2020; SecEd, 2020).

It is therefore crucial to put in place provision that is both sustained and targeted for disadvantaged pupils.

“Sustained” refers to support that is long-term without interruptions, not just a "quick fix". “Targeted” refers to specific interventions planned to fill specific gaps in learning for the pupils who need them.

So, here are some suggestions for how to approach this, based on recommendations from the EEF's evidence review (EEF, 2020).

Assess lost learning, and tailor support to match

All pupils will have gaps in their knowledge, but disadvantaged pupils are likely to face extra challenges. First, you need to assess where their gaps are. Do not present pupils with written tests as soon as they come back to school and do not expect staff to carry out formal assessments.

Instead, ask teachers to carry out some low-stakes quizzing and low-threat knowledge checks during lessons to find out what pupils can remember and where they have gaps.

Depending on the subject, these could take the form of a quick quiz at the back of exercise books (e.g. 10 minutes to write down everything you can remember about the Cold War) or multiple-choice questions in a Google Form.

Other options include discursive pair work (e.g. read the textbook for 10 minutes, then can you tell your partner the 10 features you read about?) and checking knowledge through discussion (e.g. can they explain a concept in their own words?).

It is important that disadvantaged pupils are not singled out – teachers should be carrying out this kind of low-stakes assessment for all pupils anyway, so disadvantaged pupils' experiences of this should not be any different.

When you have a clear idea of who has gaps and where they are, you can start to put the measures in place to help.

Use programmes/interventions that are proven to be effective

Put in place focused programmes or interventions that include assessment and targeted support. The EEF has identified 18 promising projects (see further information) that can be used as “catch-up” programmes and that have been shown to have a particularly strong impact for disadvantaged children. When looking at these projects, choose ones that:

  • Are tailored to where your students’ biggest learning gaps are.
  • Worked well in schools that are similar to yours (look for “Were the schools in the trial similar to my school?” at the end of the project summaries).
  • Are within your price range (again, there are details at the end of the project summaries).
  • Can be implemented with the number of staff you have (there is a section entitled “Could I implement this in my school?” at the end of the project summaries).

You can use your Pupil Premium funding to fund this work, as long as you demonstrate that it is supporting two aims: to raise the attainment of eligible pupils, to close the attainment gap between these pupils and their peers. Schools should also be receiving their share of the Department for Education’s £650 million funding to support teaching and learning post-lockdown.

Consider one-to-one or small group tutoring

Evidence shows that this kind of low-cost tutoring can effectively support pupils who have fallen behind (EEF, 2018).

This year, the government’s £350 million National Tutoring Programme should support you with funding, and if you are in a disadvantaged area it should provide you with coaches (full-time trained graduates). To make sure tuition is effective ensure that it is

  • One-to-one or in small groups (up to five pupils).
  • Intensive: Focused around key concepts and taking place over a short period of time.
  • Targeted at pupils' specific needs: Tutors should know exactly where pupils have gaps, or be involved in low-stakes quizzing.
  • Carried out by tutors who are well-trained and supported by teachers, with regular communication happening between teachers, tutors and parents.
  • Aligned with learning that is happening in the classroom (through regular communication with class teachers).

Invest in professional development to improve teaching

Alongside the interventions above, improving the quality of your teaching is the best thing you can do to improve pupil outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged students.

The EEF recommends spending some of your Pupil Premium on improving teaching quality through CPD. It suggests you prioritise the following:

  • Ensuring high-quality materials are available for early career teachers linked to the Early Career Framework (DfE, 2020).
  • Training linked to the best available evidence on improving literacy and maths (e.g. training from the Research Schools Network).
  • Online courses linked to pedagogical approaches that are likely to be particularly effective for disadvantaged learners, such as meta-cognition.

Be aware of the risks of absence

Disadvantaged pupils are at increased risk of being absent this coming term. Disadvantaged pupils typically have lower rates of attendance, and their families are substantially less likely to send their child back to school if given the choice.

Make sure your staff understand these risks and are alert to which pupils are more likely to be absent. Encourage staff to inform the senior leadership team (or whoever manages attendance) as soon as they notice any worrying patterns in disadvantaged pupils' attendance.

Boost the usual procedures you have in place to tackle absence and improve attendance, such as increasing the number of staff monitoring this or adding extra phone calls home and pastoral support for disadvantaged families.

  • Bethany Eadie is a senior content producer at The Key, a provider of sector intelligence and resources for education leaders. The advice in this article is taken from The Key’s resource “School reopening: how to help disadvantaged pupils catch up”. Visit

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