Who has been worst affected?

Written by: Stephan Nicholls | Published:
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New national attainment data released two years after the first lockdown reveals that some pupil groups have suffered greater ‘losses’ to their learning. Stephan Nicholls gives us an overview


When schools had to close their gates to most pupils in March 2020, heads and teachers went to extraordinary lengths to keep pupils engaged through months of staggered start times, class bubbles and waves of staff and pupil absence.

However, two years of disruption to formal education have taken their toll on children’s learning.

Data in the from the National Dataset Report 2022, published by Juniper Education, compares the attainment of primary school children in autumn 2019 – before Covid-19 entered our lives – with key points in time up to autumn 2021. It involves data from more than 6,000 schools encompassing more than 500,000 pupils and looks at the percentage of pupils who are achieving or exceeding age-related expectations in reading, writing and maths.

The data provides a detailed picture of the attainment journey for pupils who were in primary school at the start of the pandemic – the current years 3 to 6. Sadly, the journey has been much bumpier for some pupil groups than others.


The overall picture

An initial look at the data shows that the pandemic has affected primary school attainment across the board. The percentage of pupils in years 3 to 6 who are working at age-related expectations has fallen below 2019 levels. In autumn 2019, 78% of children in years 3 to 6 were achieving as expected for their age in reading, but by autumn 2021 this figure had dropped to 70%. In writing, there was a drop from 72% in 2019 down to 60% in 2021, and in maths the drop was from 79% to 69%. While all year groups have seen falls in attainment levels, the younger year groups saw the steepest drops.


Year 3 most affected

Children in year 3 – whose last “normal” year of schooling was when they were in Reception – may not have had the chance to form secure numeracy and literacy skills, and their ability to sit still, listen and concentrate may not be where it should be developmentally. These factors could have contributed towards the drop in year 3 attainment.

The data reveals that nearly one in three of all year 3 children had not met age-related expectations in reading, writing or maths in autumn 2021 compared with around just one in five before the pandemic, when these pupils were in year 1.

In autumn 2019, 82% of year 3 pupils achieved age-related expectations in reading, 79% in writing and 83% in maths. Two years later these figures have dropped to 68%, 58% and 69% respectively.

Not only has younger children’s learning suffered the most during the pandemic, but it is also yet to show signs of recovery.

While the older year groups saw a slight uplift in attainment in the most recent autumn term, the number of year 3 pupils working at age-related expectations has fallen progressively.

Many schools are implementing strategies to support their younger pupils in rebuilding some of the basic foundations of learning, and this will be critical to accelerating their recovery.


Disadvantaged children

The gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers have widened across all the year groups measured. In autumn 2019, 68% of Pupil Premium children were working at or above age-related expectations in maths compared with 82% of their peers.

By autumn 2021, that gap had grown to 20 points. There were similar drops in reading and writing attainment for disadvantaged children, with the year 3s falling furthest behind their peers in the three core subjects. The pandemic has made life more difficult for the less fortunate in so many ways, and this data confirms the damage done by the Covid-19 crisis to children identified as disadvantaged who already face barriers to success.


Pupils with SEN

Extensive rates of pupil and staff absence have made it more challenging for schools to maintain pre-pandemic levels of SEN support. The data shows that the attainment of primary school pupils with an identified SEN has fallen significantly compared with 2019 figures.

In autumn 2019, 42% of children with SEN were working at or above age-related expectations in reading. That figure dropped to 33% in autumn 2021. The corresponding drops were 35% to 22% for writing and 45% to 34% for maths.

The youngest children with SEN are the worst affected. In autumn 2019 the current year 3 pupils with SEN were 29 percentage points behind their peers in reading attainment. By 2021 the gap had widened to 45 points. Schools are now putting targeted interventions in place to address these challenges.


Writing sees the steepest drops

Of the three core primary subjects, writing has suffered the most from the pandemic. All year groups in the data saw steeper drops in writing than in reading or maths. The biggest fall in writing attainment was for year 3. Only 58% of year 3 pupils were achieving age-related expectations in writing compared with 79% prior to the pandemic.

In year 4, children’s writing attainment fell from 72% in 2019 to 59% in 2021. For year 5 the drop was 71% to 61% and for year 6, 70% to 63%.

While writing attainment was lower than reading or maths before the pandemic, attainment levels have fallen further. Children may have lost some of their stamina for putting pen to paper, and writing can be a difficult subject for parents to support at home. Teachers are having to work hard to rebuild pupils’ handwriting skills and reignite children’s enjoyment of composition. Year 3 teacher Sophie Lamb wrote recently in Headteacher Update (2022) offering some helpful tips for handwriting recovery and her article is worth a read.


Signs of hope

The data report is a difficult read at times, providing an unwelcome reminder of the damage done by two years of turmoil.

However, there are signs of hope. Year 6 pupils have shown the greatest resilience in learning, with more children in this cohort achieving at or above age-related expectations throughout the crisis. There are early indications of a swifter recovery to pre-pandemic levels in this group as they prepare for their transition to secondary education. While we face an uphill climb, schools are putting in place creative and sustainable strategies to help their pupils make up for the in-person teacher time they lost, and these strategies should serve schools well into the future.

  • Stephan Nicholls is a former primary headteacher who works as an education consultant and leads the Primary Training Team at Juniper Education.


Further information & resources

  • Headteacher Update: Recovering handwriting: Five tips for the classroom, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3jbES8S
  • Juniper Education: National dataset report: The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on primary school children’s learning, March 2022: https://bit.ly/36cuD1e


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