18th August 2021

New research examines the impact of the pandemic on disadvantage gaps | Funded by the Nuffield Foundation

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has launched a new research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, that will examine how the pandemic has affected disadvantage gaps in education in England, including for learners in the important 16-19 phase.

One of the biggest challenges facing the English education system is that at every stage, disadvantaged children experience worse educational outcomes than their peers.

Previous EPI research has shown that prior to the pandemic in 2019, the gap in educational attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had stopped closing for the first time in a decade, with disadvantaged pupils trailing by over 18 months of learning by the time they took their GCSEs.

2020 marks a particularly important year to understand these gaps in the context of the pandemic which has had a profound impact on English education. It is the first year of available data on qualifications awarded during the pandemic – the vast majority being based on teacher assessments. There are widespread concerns that progress to date in reducing educational inequalities will have been compounded by Covid.

This new Nuffield Foundation-funded research aims to provide a comprehensive picture of gaps in grades awarded for different groups of students, different phases of education, and in different parts of the country.

This includes extending analysis of gap measures to include 16-19 year olds during this key transition phase, building on recent research measuring the disadvantage gap in 16-19 education. In particular, the project will explore whether vocational students lost out relative to those doing A-levels under the system of teacher assessed grades.

The research will also examine gaps for other vulnerable learners, including minority ethnic groups, those with special educational needs, Looked After Children and children with Child Protection Plans. EPI researchers will analyse education administrative data including the National Pupil Database (NPD) and Individualised Learner Record (ILR) with findings published in January 2022.

The project will consider how different gaps have evolved over the last decade, what progress is being made and where the greatest challenges remain – with the aim of informing policy development to improve educational outcomes for the most vulnerable in society.


This research project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.