Learning time for children declined as 2020 Covid lockdown progressed – study

Less time was spent learning by July than at start of pandemic despite best efforts of schools and parents, says IFS

The amount of daily schoolwork children completed at home during last year’s lockdown declined the longer they stayed out of the classroom, according to new research compiled by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Rather than schools and parents getting more adept at home schooling as the shut-down continued, the IFS study of hundreds of children in England found that the amount of time spent on learning continued to shrink. By the end of the summer term children were spending only about 50% of the time studying at home that they would have normally spent learning in the classroom.

Christine Farquharson, a senior research economist at the IFS, said: “We are going to need a big programme of support for pupils to undo some of the damage the pandemic has caused.”

The IFS tracked the activities of 650 school-aged children and recorded their time in April-May, during full lockdown, and again in June-July, when restrictions had eased and several year groups had been allowed back into the classroom full time.

“Despite schools’ and policymakers’ efforts to improve home learning during the first lockdown, pupils who remained at home were spending less time learning in June and July than they had been at the start of the pandemic,” said Adam Salisbury, a research economist at the IFS.

“These falls were particularly big among secondary school pupils. The lack of ‘settling in’ to home learning means that for students who were out of school over the whole period from March to September learning loss per week likely got worse rather than better.”

Those children who did not return at all by the end of the school year suffered the largest falls in time spent learning. Before the pandemic lockdowns, the IFS estimated that secondary school pupils worked for about 6.5 hours each day on average. That slipped to four hours and 15 minutes in April-May, and then shrank by a further 50 minutes by the start of the summer holidays.

The latest IFS results chime with assessments conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research that revealed sharp falls in the rate of progress in maths, reading and writing made by primary school pupils. An earlier IFS study also suggested that “lost learning” could account for a £350bn fall in lifetime earnings by those educated during the lockdowns and school closures over the past 12 months.

For those children in year groups that were able to return before the end of the summer term, the IFS found that well-off families were far more likely to send their children in to school compared with those from disadvantaged backgrounds – potentially worsening the country’s educational inequalities.

Parents told the IFS that their main reason for delaying a return to school was for health concerns, with disadvantaged families saying they were reluctant for their children to be among the first ones to return, as well as citing practical difficulties such as transport.

Pupils from less well-off families were just as likely as their more advantaged peers to be offered the chance to return to school by summer, though they were substantially less likely to take up the offer.

On Thursday the Guardian revealed that the government in England plans a PR campaign aimed at convincing parents that schools are safe for their children, along with increased wearing of masks in secondary schools and the use of rapid lateral flow tests both at school and at home.

The IFS concluded that “at a minimum, policymakers should engage consistently and proactively with local authorities, schools and families themselves to address concerns about the return to school”.

The report advised against allowing families to voluntarily opt out of sending their children back to school, warning that it would have “undesirable consequences for inequalities”. In practical terms that would mean reinstating fines for non-attendance.

“Public health messaging about the risks of Covid-19 for children should be carefully communicated. Careful thought also needs to be given to provision for children living with high-risk family members. The fact that the vaccination rollout is prioritising many of the most vulnerable should help mitigate some of these concerns,” the report said.

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Richard Adams Education editor

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