Covid 'lost learning' gaps are closing, but rising pupil absence a key threat

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

Substantial progress has been made by schools during the summer term 2021 to recover learning “lost” during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

However, a clear link between absence from school and learning loss during the pandemic must spark action from the government to tackle soaring infection rates among children and young people, school leaders have said.

The latest pupil progress research finds that by the end of the spring term in March 2021, average learning losses were 3.4 months in maths and 2.2 months in reading for pupils in primary school. But by the summer term – June 2021 – losses had recovered to 2.2 months in maths and 0.9 months in reading.

At secondary level, pupils saw losses of 1.5 months in reading by the autumn term 2020, but by the summer term 2021 these had been reduced to 1.2 months.

The analysis has been undertaken by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and Renaissance Learning and has been published by the Department for Education (DfE, 2021).

However, the overall figures hide the disproportionate impact of Covid lockdown on the learning of disadvantaged pupils.

At primary level, learning losses for disadvantaged pupils are improving but as of the summer term 2021 they still stood at 2.6 months in maths and 1.2 months in reading for pupils in primary school. This compares to 4.2 months and 2.7 months respectively in March 2021.

At secondary level, however, disadvantaged pupils fell further behind by the summer with reading losses rising from 1.9 months (autumn 2020) to 2.4 months (summer 2021).

And for the first time, the analysis has looked at the link between attendance and learning loss, finding perhaps unsurprisingly that “the more time pupils spent in school when schools re-opened for all pupils, the smaller the degree of learning loss”.

The report states that in the autumn term, primary and secondary pupils consistently experienced lower levels of “learning loss” the more they attended in-person.

However, researchers emphasised that this was a correlation but not a causal relationship, pointing out that other factors may well be involved, including absence linked with disadvantage, less engagement with school, parental involvement, or extenuating medical circumstances. This said, the research report finds:

  • Reading: Primary pupils with a low level of absence experienced a learning loss of around 0.7 months by autumn 2020, compared to around 1.3 and 2.1 months for pupils with medium and high levels of absence.
  • Reading: Secondary pupils with a low level of absence experienced a
    learning loss of around a month (2.7 and 5.1
    months for pupils with medium and high levels of absence).
  • Maths: Primary pupils with a low level of absence experienced a learning loss of around two months (3.3 and 5.3 months for pupils with medium and high levels of absence).

The report defines high levels of absence as pupils who are off for 10 per cent of school days or more, whereas low levels of absence were defined as 0 to 2.5 per cent of days.

Responding to the report, the Association of School and College Leaders said the link between learning loss and absence should lead to more concerted action from government to help reduce rising Covid infection among pupils.

General secretary Geoff Barton said: “Unfortunately, high levels of Covid-related absence continue this term, and it is therefore absolutely essential that more is done to reduce this disruption.

“The government must put more effort into rolling out the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-years-olds, encouraging twice-weekly home testing among eligible pupils, and it should make funding available for ventilation systems in schools and colleges.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Head Teachers said that the government could have “ameliorated some of this by acting faster to ensure all children have equal access to technology and connectivity in order to continue learning remotely”.

General secretary Paul Whiteman added: “We should remember that the ‘disadvantage gap’ existed long before the pandemic. The fundamental issues creating disadvantage must be addressed by government if we are to make a real difference in the future.

“Sadly, the investment from the government announced (in the Spending Review) falls far short of what is needed. The increase in per pupil spending announced takes us back to 2010 levels, representing a failure to invest in children’s futures for over a decade.

“Schools will do their best with what they are given, as they always do. This report shows some progress made by educators once children returned to schools in the 2021 summer term. It is important that schools are able to spend the recovery money they are given flexibly on the programmes they know work best for the children in most need in their schools.”

Jon Andrews, report co-author and head of analysis at EPI, said: “While average learning losses fluctuated over the academic year, one trend has remained very clear and consistent throughout – pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and deprived areas have suffered greater losses than their peers.

“Supporting all pupils through effective education recovery interventions will remain critical in the months and years ahead. It’s important that we provide extra targeted support to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those living in areas that have seen larger learning losses.”

  • DfE: Research and analysis: Pupils' progress in the 2020 to 2021 academic year, October 2021:

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