Empty classroom with desks and chairs

Putting evidence to work in a lockdown and beyond: how we’ve set about addressing the Covid-19 attainment gap

  • COVID-19
  • Education

Professor Becky Francis (Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation) 

When schools were closed to most pupils in March to stop the spread of COVID-19, two questions were uppermost in my mind. First, what would the impact be on the attainment gap which separates disadvantaged children from their better-off classmates? And secondly, given the severe risk that pupils from poorer homes would suffer most, what could we at the EEF do that would make a practical, meaningful and sustained difference?

‘Start with the research evidence’ is how the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) approaches all challenges, and during the pandemic a robust, evidence-led response has been especially important.

The widening attainment gap: how do we respond?

The past decade saw the attainment gap reduce, down from 11.5 months in 2009 to 9.2 months in 2019. Slower progress than any of us would like, of course (and with evidence of this progress tailing off in latter years). But testament nonetheless to the enormous efforts of teachers and school leaders across England, as well as government policies like the Pupil Premium, which provided redistributive funding and focus.

COVID-19 school closures are likely to have wiped out this hard-won improvement. That was the worrying finding from our systematic search of literature on school closures, published in June, which projected that the attainment gap at the end of primary school could widen significantly, by between 11% and 75% between the March closures and the full September re-opening.

Our analysis was lent further weight by surveys of teachers and parents during lockdown conducted by the Sutton Trust, IFS and others. These highlighted that pupils from poorer backgrounds appeared to be missing out most: less likely to have good online access, spend less time on home learning, and less likely to have sufficient educational resources at home.

This stark warning of the potential for educational inequality to become even more entrenched posed a double challenge: how to support poorer children to learn at home during lockdown; and then how best to support their return to the classroom when schools re-open fully from September.

Evidence to support schools and parents during lockdown

In supporting teachers and families during lockdown, our response again started with the evidence. We distilled and adapted the most relevant recommendations from our suite of research-informed guidance reports into a series of COVID-19 support resources for schools, published in April, many of which were designed to be shared directly with parents to help establish effective home learning routines.

We also undertook the fastest rapid evidence assessment I’ve witnessed. In just four weeks, the EEF and Durham University examined 60 systematic reviews and meta-analyses in order to publish a report for schools summarising key findings to support them in delivering remote learning.

Putting evidence at the centre of our COVID-19 catch-up response…

Given the analysis of the scale of likely gap growth and learning loss for socially-disadvantaged students over the lockdown period, our early focus was also on support for these students on their return to school.

Our experimental research and meta-analyses have facilitated identification of the ‘best bets’ in education, those approaches that have been found to best support progress in learning and attainment. Which is why our attention turned straight away to the potential of quality tutoring to support pupils who may have fallen behind as a result of school closures.

One-to-one and small-group tuition are both rated as cost-effective methods in our popular Teaching and Learning Toolkit, with the evidence it summarises suggesting they can boost pupils’ progress by up to +5 months. Randomised controlled trials funded by the EEF have also found positive effects for a range of tuition models. However, access to tutoring is usually limited to the schools and parents that can most afford it.

Our immediate response during lockdown was to launch a programme of online tuition pilots, developed in partnership with three other charities (Impetus, Nesta and the Sutton Trust) and with funding from the Wellcome Trust, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and others. This initiative, supporting 1,600 pupils from June through to September, is testing a number of different delivery models to assess how effectively disadvantaged students can be reached through online tutoring. As with all EEF-funded work, it is being independently evaluated. Unusually for the EEF, this evaluation will provide feedback in real-time throughout the project to enable the tutoring organisations to adapt their delivery, with the ultimate aim of informing any future larger scale-up of online tutoring for disadvantaged pupils.

… and at the centre of the Government’s COVID-19 catch-up strategy

Our analysis of the promise of tuition as one means of addressing the likely attainment gap growth during the period of lock-down sparked the interest of the Department for Education. Intense discussions culminated in the Government announcing on 18 June that it had allocated £350 million to set up a National Tutoring Programme to support schools in providing a sustained response to COVID-19 and to provide a longer-term contribution to closing the attainment gap. In addition, £650m of catch-up funding was allocated directly to schools.

The National Tutoring Programme has two pillars. The EEF – with the support of our charity partners – will support eligible schools to access subsidised high-quality tuition from an approved list of providers, all of whom will all be subject to quality, safeguarding and evaluation standards. In addition, Teach First will support the recruitment, training and placement of trained graduates in schools in the most disadvantaged areas to provide intensive support to their pupils.

It’s a policy which has attracted international attention, with Johns Hopkins University’s Dr Robert Slavin suggesting that ‘the £350 million National Tutoring Programme could turn out to be the largest pragmatic education investment ever made anywhere designed to put proven programs into widespread use, and if all goes well, this aspect of the NTP could have important implications for evidence-based reform more broadly.’ That’s certainly our goal.

Evidence to support schools in the (unpredictable) year ahead

While tutoring has huge potential, it is of course only one in many necessary means of support for students in the coming year. Moreover, it will only be effective as a supplement to great teaching, which is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for their pupils. This was true before COVID-19 and it will continue to be vital. It is a point emphasised in our latest report, The EEF Guide to Supporting School Planning 2020-21, designed to aid teachers and senior leaders in navigating the unchartered waters of the coming academic year. Practical assistance will be on hand through the national network of Research Schools the EEF funds to help other schools in their area use evidence more effectively through training, resources and partnerships.

We know there are no quick fixes to addressing the impact of COVID-19 on children’s learning. But teachers, school leaders, parents and pupils have already displayed levels of dedication and resilience that inspire hope. We have an opportunity to ensure they have the social science research-informed support they need, targeted especially to the young people who need it most.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19

About the author

Professor Becky Francis is Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The EEF is an independent charity set up to break the link between family income and educational attainment. The EEF roots its response to this challenge in evidence of ‘what works’ to improve teaching and learning. The EEF commissions and synthesises research evidence on effective educational practices to narrow the attainment gap and to promote socially just outcomes.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article:

This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.