Continued support needed for the very lowest attainers and disadvantaged pupils

By Pippa Lord, NFER Trials Director

Friday 6 October 2023

Pippa Lord, NFER Trials Director

This blog post was first published in tes on Thursday 5 October 2023.

At NFER, we have been in the privileged position of following a group of young school-aged children during and since the Covid-19 pandemic to understand the long-term impact of disruption to schools on pupils’ attainment and social skills. Three years on from the pandemic, as part of a research project commissioned and funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, we have observed some encouraging signs of recovery but our results highlight the continued impact on the very lowest attainers and on disadvantaged pupils.

The disruption to schools between spring 2020 and summer 2021 was unprecedented, with periods of partial school closures and online learning. Once schools re-opened, they worked hard to put in place support for learning recovery, focusing on small group tuition and amended curriculums. Schools faced high levels of pupil and staff absence as the effects of the pandemic continued into 2021/22; and in 2022/23 schools told us they were particularly focusing their support on their lowest attainers and disadvantaged pupils.

Indeed, our results suggest these pupils need that focused support the most. We have found a much larger proportion of very low attainers in reading than might be expected (comparing to reading levels before the pandemic), particularly among the youngest year group we are following. These pupils (in Year 3 in 2022/23) were in Reception during the initial period of school closures, and it seems they have been particularly affected by missed learning during their youngest years at school. The proportion of very low attainers in reading from this cohort is nearly twice as high as that in the pre-pandemic sample our study compares to. This represents a substantial challenge for teachers and support staff in their day-to-day classrooms, and particularly in schools in disadvantaged areas, which are more likely to have higher proportions of lower performing pupils (Julius and Ghosh, 2022).

Like other researchers (Blainey and Hannay, 2021; Andrews, 2023; Kennedy and Strietholt, 2023), we have also found that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers remains persistently wide: both our Year 3 and Year 4 pupils eligible for free school meals were estimated to be around seven months behind their more well-off peers for reading in spring 2023, and around six months behind their peers in maths. The disadvantage gap in reading has remained stubbornly wide over the three years of our study, and moreover it remains wider than similar gaps reported before the pandemic. For maths, the disadvantage gap has reduced slightly as our pupils have moved from Years 1 and 2, to 3 and 4, suggesting some promising improvement. However, it is still wider than gaps reported before the pandemic. The vast majority of schools indicated they had provided additional maths support for both disadvantaged pupils and low attainers, including one-to-one catch-up; and this may be impacting positively on the recovery we are seeing in the pupils’ maths results. Schools also reported implementing additional support in reading. However, this was to a lesser extent than in maths, and this may be reflected in the extent of recovery that we see in reading, with very low attainers still struggling.

Government policy aims to address the disadvantage gap through programmes such as the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) and through schools’ Pupil Premium (PP) funding. Nearly half of schools in our spring 2023 survey reported that they were providing tutoring for reading and maths recovery specifically through the NTP. However, schools have many and competing spending needs. In another NFER national survey earlier this year, exploring wider aspects of tutoring, only two-fifths of senior leaders felt that providing tutoring for disadvantaged pupils was their top priority for their PP spending (Moore and Lord, 2023). Meanwhile, the Sutton Trust (2023) highlighted hiring teaching assistants as primary schools’ top PP-priority.

The evidence on learning recovery across subjects or year groups is not yet conclusive (Andrews, 2023; Kennedy and Strietholt, 2023), or about how best to achieve this. For example, many school leaders (around two-fifths in our wider tutoring survey) believe that other forms of support help disadvantaged pupils more so than small-group/one-to-one tuition (Moore and Lord, 2023). However, the level of funding to support pupils’ missed learning (through tutoring or otherwise) was a key concern in our spring survey. Continuing to track the disadvantage gap and the approaches used by schools is important, to inform schools where best to focus their efforts and resources.  

Given early signs of recovery overall, contrasted with the picture for very low attainers and disadvantaged pupils, are we now at a point where schools should focus specifically on addressing the disadvantage gap? If so, schools need to be supported with sustainable PP funding and evidence-based guidance on how to spend it.


Published and funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), our research has followed over 6,000 pupils who were in Reception and Year 1 in March 2020, with the most recent assessments taking place in spring 2023 when the pupils were in Years 3 and 4. Our study tracks the estimated Covid-19 gap* and disadvantage gap** over time to gain an understanding of pupils’ attainment relative to where they might expect to be had the pandemic not occurred. To read more about our findings and the series of published reports, please click here.

*Covid-19 gap: The difference between the mean scores of pupils in the 2022/23 academic year and those of pre-pandemic samples.

**Disadvantage gap: The difference between the mean scores of pupils eligible for free school meals and those of their peers not eligible for free school meals.

*** Very low attaining pupils: Pupils who score fewer raw marks than that required to be awarded a standardised score.