29th October 2021

EPI research for the Department for Education on pupil learning loss

Today the Department for Education (DfE) has published new research on the extent of learning loss among pupils in England during the summer and spring terms.

The research, which provides new evidence on the impact of the pandemic on pupils’ school attainment, was carried out by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and Renaissance for Learning

The analysis from EPI researchers considers the extent of pandemic learning losses at both a national and regional level, in primary and secondary schools, and by pupil characteristics – including among pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds.

The research is comprised of two new DfE reports, one examining pupil learning loss during the spring term 2021, and another covering pupil learning loss during the more recent summer term 2021.

“Learning loss” refers to the months of learning pupils are behind following the pandemic, compared to a typical, pre-pandemic school year.

The new report finds that:

  • Pupil learning losses reduced by around a month after the return to schools in the 2021 summer term, but pupils have still suffered substantial losses, particularly disadvantaged pupils and those in deprived areas.
  • Pupils in parts of the north of England and the Midlands saw greater learning losses than those living in other regions.
  • Disadvantaged pupils in secondary schools had fallen even further behind by the 2021 summer term, compared to where they were in the 2020 autumn term.
  • Researchers find an association between absence from school (despite being open for in-person learning) and higher learning losses – this is the first study to uncover this relationship

 

The new findings have been published today by the government here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupils-progress-in-the-2020-to-2021-academic-year-interim-report

The full table of all the learning loss findings is summarised on p12 in the summer report, here.

 

Key findings from the EPI-Renaissance research for the DfE:

 

Pupil learning loss at a national level

Average learning losses for primary school pupils were over 2 months in reading and over 3 months in maths by the end of the spring term, before recovering by the summer term as pupils were able to return to in-person learning in schools:

  • At a national level, following restrictions to in-person education, by the end of the spring term (March 2021), average learning losses were 3.4 months in maths and 2.2 months in reading for pupils in primary school.
  • By the summer term (June 2021), losses remained substantial, but had recovered to 2.2 months in maths and 0.9 months in reading for pupils in primary school.
  • Secondary school pupils did not recover as much as pupils in primary schools. In reading, secondary pupils saw losses of 1.5 months of learning by the autumn term (2020), but by the summer term (2021), losses were still 1.2 months.


Learning loss for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and deprived areas

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (those eligible for free school meals at some point over the last 6 years) have consistently lost more learning than their more affluent peers throughout the course of the pandemic:

  • At a national level, by the end of the spring term, learning losses for disadvantaged pupils were 4.2 months in maths and 2.7 months in reading for pupils in primary school.
  • Then, by the summer term, learning losses for disadvantaged pupils recovered to 2.6 months in maths and 1.2 months in reading for pupils in primary school.
  • In contrast, disadvantaged pupils in secondary schools had fallen further behind by the summer. In reading, losses in the autumn term (2020) were 1.9 months for secondary disadvantaged pupils. By the summer term (2021), they rose to 2.4 months.
  • These disparities provide evidence of a widening of the “disadvantage gap” – the gap in school attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. EPI estimates that the relative learning loss for disadvantaged pupils over the course of the pandemic is the equivalent of losing up to a third of the progress made over the last decade in narrowing the disadvantage gap in primary.

As well as individual pupil disadvantage, the deprivation of the area in which a pupil lives also plays a role in learning loss – with pupils from the most deprived areas of England also seeing greater losses regardless of individual pupil levels of deprivation:

  • More affluent pupils living in areas with higher levels of deprivation saw a similar degree of learning loss to disadvantaged pupils in areas with low levels of deprivation (for example, both saw 0.9 months in reading in the summer term in primary).
  • Disadvantaged pupils living in the most deprived areas saw the largest losses overall, of 3.0 months in maths at primary, 1.2 months in reading at primary, and 2.7 months in reading at secondary, by the summer term.

 

Pupil learning loss at a regional level

There appear to be significant disparities in learning losses at a regional level, with pupils in some regions experiencing larger learning losses than in other parts of the country. Some regions also look to have experienced a far greater level of recovery in the summer term, while other regions experienced larger losses by this period.

Note: in some areas the sample sizes were relatively small – figures should therefore be taken as indicative of relative size of effects rather than precise estimates.

By the end of the spring term and then the summer term (2021), average regional learning losses in maths for pupils in primary school were:

  • East Midlands: -4.9 months (by the end of the spring term), and then -6.0 months (by the summer term)
  • East of England: -4.0 months / -3.0 months
  • London: -3.0 months / -0.8 months
  • North East: -6.0 months / -4.1 months
  • North West: -1.3 months / -3.6 months
  • South East: -2.7 months / -1.9 months
  • South West: -1.6 months / +0.2 months
  • West Midlands: -7.0 months / -3.6 months
  • Yorkshire and the Humber: -5.6 months / -1.9 months

Regional learning losses for reading and for secondary school pupils can be found in the summer learning loss report on p. 12 and p.46.


The relationship between school absence and learning loss

There is an association between the level of pupil absence in a school and the extent of learning losses. The more time pupils spent in school when schools re-opened for all pupils, the smaller the degree of learning loss:

  • In the autumn term (2020), schools with a low level of pupil absence saw average learning losses of around 2.1 months in primary maths, compared to losses of 3.8 months for schools with a high level of pupil absence.
  • In the spring term (2021), schools with a low level of pupil absence saw average learning losses of around 3.2 months in primary maths, compared to losses of 4.7 months for schools with a high level of pupil absence.

While there is a correlation between absence and learning loss, the relationship is not causal, as there may be other factors influencing it (absence may be linked with disadvantage, less engagement with school, parental involvement, or extenuating medical circumstances, for example).

Findings on pupil absence at an individual level, in reading, and in secondary schools, can be found in full in the summer learning loss report on p50.