Covid-19 is set to widen the Disadvantage Gap

The Covid-19 crisis, and the subsequent lockdown,  has impacted every age group. From the youngest, with nursery and school closures, to the elderly, participating in ‘shielding’ (and all those in between whose working and home lives have dramatically changed).

The UK looks as if it has reached the peak of infections and the Government has decided we must now move into the next phase of the Covid-19 response. The details are yet to be announced but it is expected that school’s will begin to reopen in stages.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI)  produces an annual report on the state of education in England, paying particular attention to the difference in educational attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates. This is called the ‘disadvantage gap’. The 2019 report can be found here.

The EPI defined persistent disadvantage as “…those who have been eligible for Free School Meals for at least 80 % of their time at school, indicating that they have lived in households with little or no employment income, not just temporarily, but long term.”

The reports key findings  were:

  • Disadvantaged secondary pupils are now 18.1 months behind in English Language and Maths at the point of leaving secondary school.
  • Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) remain the furthest behind: 40 months by the end of secondary school for those with greater needs.

The EPI has since produced a report, combining evidence from the 2019 annual report and new data during the Covid-19 crisis. This report presents policy recommendations for the Government in order to prevent a widening of the disadvantage gap. The report states that there are already existing links between attendance and level of attainment; missing significant periods of school (term-time) and the summer learning loss are two key periods where the disadvantage gap is at risk of growing.

Impact on Early Childhood Development (ECD)

The report raises prior concerns with wider services available that are increasingly important to supporting vulnerable families. It found that spending had been cut by 20% per child between 2009/10-19/20, including £1bn cut to Sure Start Centres, £900m to Youth Services (IFS) and the closure of over 1000 childrens’ centres (Sutton Trust). This has seen Ofsted declare that as of August 2019, half of all local authorities children’s services are inadequate or in need of improvement, despite £1.4bn of funding committed by the Government since 2015/16.

Children’s early development is very likely to be impacted by closure of and lack of access to early care and education, already proven to be beneficial for 0-8 year olds. More time spent at home already creates a summer learning loss and is further impacted by possible parental stress, depression and irritability levels. This is most likely going to be felt in lower-income households as the Covid-19 crisis exacerbates financial difficulties and stress levels surrounding the cost of living and work and home life balance. The picture also looks bleak for ECD providers, who are already struggling with workforce shortages and an increasing gap between government funding and costs. 

Impact on the Most Vulnerable 

The pandemic will exacerbate existing inequalities and widen the Disadvantage Gap. This report states that as a result, there will be an increased need for pastoral care and mental health support (especially for those who experienced mental health issues, neglect, abuse and bereavement).

Late Primary and Early Secondary School Groups 

Like ECD providers, schools were struggling before pre-Covid-19 with funding and equality of access to education. New challenges include unstable GCSE results, lost time (academically and across apprenticeship schemes) and long-term unemployment -we know the scarring effects of a recession will likely lead to a 10% unemployment rate. Schools, upon reopening, face two very challenging issues; how to support pupils who have faced neglect, abuse or are experiencing mental health issues; how to support those that have fallen behind academically.

Post-16, Vocational and Higher Education

Between 2011/12-18/19, 16-19 year olds funding was cut by 16%. These are the sharpest cuts experienced across all educational stages over the last decade. This cohort are the biggest real terms losers at any phase of education since 2010/11. Although a one off £400m stimulus is being implemented by the government, this will not be enough in the long run. The threat most universities will face is financial; the loss of income usually generated through accommodation, catering and conference fees will impact less severely than a significant fail in international students and deferrals from domestic students.


In response to the cancellation of National Exams

The impact of exam cancellations on young people will be particularly painful for some given the emphasis placed on exam results by some teachers, peers and parents. On a more technical level, the report critiques Ofqual’s proposed approach for two main reasons:

  • There may be examples of bias in-school grading.
  • Teachers are required to generate grades for individuals from scratch, without a statistical starting point (Ofqual maintains power to override any decision).

In preparing to reopen schools

The following year groups will be transitioning to the next stages of their education and need to be prioritised during the phased return to school process:

  • Reception, year 6, year 10 and year 12.
  • Nursery for 3-4 year olds.

Summer Holiday Provisions

These provisions should be made by schools in conjunction with the Government in order to set up a safe space for learning, although warn this should not be ‘academic catch up’.

  • A combination of youth workers, play and early years workers could  staff it.
  • Set up positive activities, engagement and pastoral support.
  • Pause Ofsted inspections until Dec 2020 (autumn term).

Towards the National Exam Grading 2020 process

  • Schools should be shown what their ranked order would look like if their pupil’s grades followed national patterns from recent years. Teachers should then take this and apply professional judgement based on internal assessments, classwork and homework
  • Schools would need to justify why, if,  they moved a particular group’s grades up or down.
  • The Government should collaborate with exam boards to review content and grading before September 2020 in order to decide if national exams in 2021 should be modified.

Support for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people

ECD providers and wider children’s services

  • Early years Pupil Premium to be doubled for minimum of 1 year.
  • The Government should fund local authorities to develop online database of Early Years Workers in the areas most in need to support providers of early years services and help with recruitment.
  • Additional sustained funding to wider children’s and young people’s services; early intervention, youth services and social care.


  • Double Premium Pupil rates for a minimum of 1 year for those in reception, year 6 and year 10 (these will be moving into year 1, 7 and 11 September 2020). This would support with one-to-one, small group learning and after school learning.
  • Looked After Children’s Pupil Premium should be doubled for one year for all year groups and made available to those on the Child Protection Register (reflecting the outcomes of both these groups are similar -this should be a permanent policy change).
  • The impact of Covid-19 on disadvantaged young people is expected to be enormous, so much so that  the report strongly recommends the Government launch a 1 year ‘Teacher Volunteer Scheme’ to bring back retired and inactive teachers to work with disadvantaged pupils (for pastoral care and academic catch up).

Post-16 provision and further education

  • Disadvantaged Weighting in the 16-19 year old funding formula to be doubled for a minimum of 1 year for year 12.
  • The Government should provide an ‘Education for Recovery’ package to the further education sector: funding for lost learning time, targeted funding for disadvantaged students, maintenance grants and extension of vocational courses and adult re-skilling.

Higher education

The Government should not introduce a blanket cap on numbers, this has an adverse effect on access for disadvantaged students. The EPI recommends:

  • Limit the number of additional students
  • The Office for Students should monitor entry standards
  • Another option would be a fund to support the loss of international students (this will benefit London and high tariff universities the most)
  • A review of these options through collaboration between the Government and experts.

Costs of targeted funding for 2020/21

Doubling Early Years Premium: £31m

Doubling Pupils Premium for reception, year 6 and year 10: £500m

Doubling Pupils Premium for Looked After children: £263m

Applying Pupils Premium to ‘Child Protection’ children:£245m

Doubling Disadvantaged Weighting for year 12:

Reflections from Youth Employment UK

As a nation we have faced unprecedented change across every area of our lives, young people in particular lost access to their education pretty much overnight. Whilst we see strong and positive examples of how young people are adapting we have to recognise the challenge ahead for young people and the education system. This report gives a comprehensive view of the challenges faced by young people with disadvantages across different areas of their school life. Any end to lockdown must come with strong aftercare and thought through support, with funding in place to ensure that those already at a disadvantage aren’t further held back. 

For more information, please email or call 01536 513388.

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