Primary school pupils in the Midlands and the north have suffered the sharpest falls in attainment in England during the pandemic, with the poorest pupils now lagging up to seven months behind their peers, according to new data.
Analysis of scores attained by a quarter of a million primary pupils in standardised tests at the end of last term show that in economically deprived areas of England, scores dropped by double the average, with maths results worst affected.
The findings will fuel growing concern about the disproportionate impact of lockdown on the most disadvantaged children – many of whom have struggled to engage with remote learning – which experts fear will further widen the attainment gap.
The data also highlights a stark geographical divide in attainment during the pandemic, with schools in the Midlands experiencing the steepest declines in reading and maths, while the biggest falls in grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) scores were seen in the north of England.
Overall, the results show that primary pupils are on average two months behind in GPS and one month behind in both maths and reading. The most disadvantaged children, however, are now six months behind their peers – a month more than they would been before the pandemic.
However, in year-six maths disadvantaged children were on average nine standardised score points behind their better-off peers, the equivalent to seven months of learning.
Simon Burgess, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol who specialises in education, said: “These data are vital to get a sense of the scale of the learning loss to make up as the government considers strategies to help young people recover. The results confirm fears that most pupils have experienced significant learning losses, and that these losses are unequally distributed.
“For example, the learning gap in maths between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils grew by about 40% for year 6 pupils between 2019 and 2020. This type of evidence is very concerning and needs to be at the forefront of discussions around learning catchup.”
The tests, by RS Assessment from Hodder Education, are used in 6,000 schools across England, usually on a termly basis, to assess children in maths and English in order to help teachers track their progress.
There was some positive news too. The decline in scores was only a fifth of that seen in tests taken at the start of the autumn term, suggesting that pupils were beginning to catch up between September and December before the latest lockdown.
Katie Blainey, publishing director at RS Assessment, said: “We are encouraged to see overall attainment very close to prior years, highlighting the continued hard work of teachers throughout this challenging time.
“However, we are aware that there are increases in educational disparities related to poverty. We hope that our analysis will highlight this and help ensure all children, regardless of background, get a fair education.”
The government is due to unveil further details about its £1.3bn catchup fund imminently, after the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner.
A £650m catchup premium has already been pledged to schools for this academic year, with a further £350m national tutoring programme to provide targeted one-to-one and small-group support for those who need it most this year and next.
MPs sitting on the education committee on Tuesday were told that 125,000 pupils have so far been signed up for tutoring, half the government target of 250,000 pupils this year, with take-up delayed by lockdown. MPs were also told that take-up was lowest in the north.
The Department for Education was approached for comment.