Some leaders estimated that it would take students at least three years to recover from the effects of the pandemic, with others predicting that the impacts would follow children throughout their school lives.
In their second of two reports, Sheffield Hallam University – in partnership with Ipsos UK and the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) – present their research into how schools in England have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Department for Education commissioned the study, which took place during the 2020-2021 academic year (Year 1 findings) and 2021-2022 (Year 2 findings). Researchers from Sheffield Hallam's Institute of Education conducted in-depth interviews with 63 school leaders and Ipsos UK gathered survey responses from over 1750 primary and secondary schools.
The report describes schools’ efforts to recover lost learning after the disruption of the lockdowns. Most schools reported pockets of progress in academic catch-up but significant learning gaps remained. Recovery was hampered by pupil and staff absence due to Covid-19 related illness or isolation.
One primary head described the learning gaps: “Really quite staggering – Year 1 and 2 were miles behind in their maths and English… they were all, on average, I’d say about six months behind where they should have been.”
Strikingly, most leaders said that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers was wider than ever before.
Schools recognised that pupils’ mental health and wellbeing was a top priority. Leaders reported that pupils had ‘suffered massively’ and the impacts were lingering, especially in secondary schools. Support for wellbeing was seen as the foundation of academic progress.
In the words of one secondary leader: “For us it was all about the wellbeing first. That has to come first. A lot of the reintroduction and the coming back into school was actually not about learning first, it was about how are you, let’s get you back on track.”
Lack of maturity was obvious in younger pupils in primary and secondary schools. Leaders noted gaps in social skills and understanding of appropriate behaviour. There were also reports of a rise in severe behaviour incidents including physical violence and verbal abuse, which some leaders attributed to unmet emotional needs.
One secondary leader said: “Year 8 and Year 7 – mentally, socially, emotionally, they’re still in primary. We are managing their behaviour more than their studying at the moment.”
Schools appreciated the Covid-19 recovery funds and support schemes provided by government but these fell short of what was needed. Leaders called for commitment to more funding to support long-term recovery. They had deep concerns about the crisis in recruitment and retention of teaching staff in the wake of the pandemic.
School leaders also reported that the effects of the cost-of-living crisis were merging with the impacts of the pandemic. A wider range of families were struggling, and poverty was a growing barrier to recovery efforts.
The report identified some positive outcomes of the pandemic, including the rapid advancement in digital skills of both staff and students thanks to the switch to online learning. The unprecedented challenge also shone a light on the sheer dedication, drive and flexibility on the part of school leaders and teaching staff.
Bernadette Stiell, from Sheffield Hallam University, said: “This report highlights the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on schools and pupils. One of the biggest concerns we found was that as the academic year progressed, leaders reported that disparities in pupils’ social, emotional and academic progress increased. Schools have made valiant efforts to support their pupils during and since the pandemic but they need ongoing funding to build on their work.”