Increase in low-attaining pupils as disadvantage gap 'shows no sign of reducing'

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

The proportion of low-attainers in year 2 classrooms has tripled for reading and doubled for maths post-pandemic, presenting significant challenges for teaching staff.

An analysis has found that the socio-economic attainment gap in key stage 1 is wider now than before the pandemic and “shows no sign of reducing”.

A study published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has investigated the impact of the pandemic on 6,029 pupils who were in Reception and year 1 in March 2020.

It finds that pupils from this cohort who were in year 3 in spring 2022 have, on average,caught-up in both reading and maths compared with pupils before the pandemic.

The picture is more mixed for the year 2 pupils. While these pupils have also on average caught up in maths, they are still behind in their reading by about three months.

However, there are concerns about specific groups. In particular, in year 2, the proportion of very low-attainers in reading has risen from 2.6% before the pandemic to 9.1% in spring 2022. In an average class of 30 pupils, this is the difference between one pupil not reaching the required standards before the pandemic and three after. For year 3 pupils, the proportion of low-attaining readers has more than doubled from 2.5% to 6.5%.

For maths, the proportion of very low attainment in year 2 more than doubled from 2.6% pre-Covid to 5.5% in spring 2022. For year 3 pupils, there was a smaller increase from 2.5% to 3.9%.

Furthermore, the study finds that the disadvantage attainment gap persists. In year 2, the gap in spring 2022 was around six months’ progress for reading and around five months for maths. In year 3, the gap is around nine months’ progress for reading and around eight months for maths.

The study states: “One significant challenge, for both schools and teachers, is the increased proportion of very low attaining pupils who are unable to access the assessments effectively; this is true of both subjects (reading and maths) in both year groups despite the positive results seen overall in year 3.

“This represents a substantial challenge for teachers across the country, particularly for teachers in schools in disadvantaged areas with higher proportions of lower performing pupils.

“In addition to this, a significant disadvantage gap remains despite both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils increasing their scores significantly when compared to the 2021 cohort. While this progress is encouraging, it is clear that disadvantaged pupils have been the worst affected by the disruption caused by the pandemic, suggesting that specific targeted approaches are needed in order to close this gap.”

The findings also highlight significant concerns about pupils’ wellbeing. Two-thirds (66%) of schools surveyed said they were redeploying staff to support social skills and wellbeing, while 63% said they were running small-group wellbeing sessions.

The EEF this week emphasised the importance of targeted support for disadvantaged pupils and urged schools to focus in particular on reading.

It is also calling on the government to protect the amount of funding paid per-pupil under the Pupil Premium, something which could be threatened as the cost of living crisis drives more families over the poverty line making their children eligible for the grant.

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the EEF,said: “It is encouraging to see that, on average, younger pupils are making good progress. However, the findings add to a heavy body of evidence telling us that socio-economic inequality in education – already entrenched before the pandemic – has grown. Schools are doing – and have done a lot to mitigate against this, but it would be naïve of us not to recognise that factors outside of the school gate – such as widening poverty also play a significant part in the widening attainment gap.

“Tackling education inequality – and the factors behind it is the biggest challenge our education system faces. But doing so must be a top priority for this government. At the very least, Pupil Premium funding levels should be protected, ideally increasing in real terms for every eligible pupil.”

Dr Ben Styles, head of classroom practice and workforce at NFER,added:“Schools which already face huge challenges are now faced with a large number of very low-attaining pupils, particularly in reading, who have suffered most at the hands of the pandemic. It is essential that the National Tutoring Programme is protected from government cuts and that funds are distributed in a way which directly supports disadvantaged pupils.”

Commenting on the findings, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Schools are doing all they can to address the aftermath of the pandemic, but education alone is not enough. The government continues to ignore the role of poverty in limiting the horizons of children’s learning.

“Children need warmth, safe housing, and food. Schools need better funding to support their pupils' learning, particularly for those who need extra help. These are essential preconditions for any serious and enduring attempt to close the attainment gap."

The EEF has resources to support literacy development in key stage 1 and 2, including a guidance report (EEF, 2020)which offers eight evidence-informed recommendations for teachers.

  • EEF: Improving literacy in key stage 1: Eight recommendations to support the literacy of 5 – 7 year-olds, September 2020:
  • Wheater et al: Impact of Covid-19-related school closures in key stage 1 on attainment and social skills of pupils in year 2 and year 3 in academic year 2021/2022, Education Endowment Foundation & NFER, November 2022:

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