The impact of Covid-19 on children’s learning

By Carole Willis, NFER Chief Executive

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Debate is rife around when schools should open to more pupils, with some accusing the government of putting the economy before the welfare of teachers, students and their families. Meanwhile, the government insists that getting children back to school - especially the youngest - is critical for their education [1].

Figures from the Department for Education [2] indicate that less than 2.5% of children are currently attending school, and it’s unlikely that schools will be able to deliver a normal school day for these children. So, what impact is the (partial) closure of schools likely to be having on children's learning?

There are various ways to try and answer this question. A recent paper from the Chartered College of Teaching [3] summarises the evidence from previous unplanned school closures and analysis based on the “learning loss" over the long summer break.

Whilst some dispute the size of the impact of the summer holidays on children’s learning [4] - particularly on those from disadvantaged backgrounds - academics from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) in the US [5] have produced initial estimates of the potential impact on children in the US if they don't return to school until September. They suggest children could lose as much as 30% of their “usual” progress in reading, and 50% or more in maths. Survey data commissioned by the Sutton Trust in England [6] also highlights differences in the extent to which children in different settings are taking part in remote lessons and returning the work they are set.

There are still many questions remaining: how are different schools providing learning remotely and in the classroom, which groups are falling furthest behind, how are staff being supported and what measures need to be in place to allow schools to open to more pupils? The National Foundation for Educational Research is currently addressing these issues through research across England’s state funded primary and secondary schools, supported by the Nuffield Foundation. Results of the first wave of the research should be out in early June and will help inform school practice and the government’s response.

Certain groups are likely to be affected more than others. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are those we should be particularly concerned about – despite the huge efforts of their teachers and parents. They are less likely to have access to the devices and internet access required to engage in on-line learning; they tend to live in more cramped accommodation, making it difficult to find somewhere quiet to study; and their parents are less confident about home schooling [7]. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has suggested that the progress in narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers over the last 10 years will be wiped out, or worse.

However, there is likely to be huge variation in the extent to which individual children and young people are affected, whatever their background. Ultimately, we won't know how much damage this has done to children's education until they return to school and can be properly assessed by their teachers. Despite initiatives such as the Oak National Academy and guidance and tools from the EEF and others, targeted catch up will be needed. The EEF Toolkit [8] suggests that one-to-one or small group tuition is likely to be more effective than summer schools, but all these approaches need to be reviewed in terms of their costs and benefits.

To end on a positive note, it's worth remembering that in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment [9], England has a higher proportion of "resilient" 15 year olds than the OECD average - those from lower socio-economic backgrounds who perform well against the odds. Whilst many children will need intensive support to address the education they have missed – and the emotional distress they may have suffered - some will bounce back quickly.


[1] Department for Education (2020). ‘Education Secretary’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19)’, 16 May [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[2] Department for Education (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Attendance in Education and Early Years Settings in England – Summary of Returns to 7 May 2020 [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[3] Müller, L. and Goldenburg, G. (2020). Education in Times of Crisis: the Potential Implications of School Closures for Teachers and Students [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[4] von Hippel, P.T. (2019). ‘How I lost faith on one of education research’s classic results’, Education Next, 19, 4 [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[5] Kuhfeld, M. and Tarasawa, B. (2020). The COVID-19 Slide: What Summer Learning Loss Can Tell Us About the Potential Impact of School Closures on Student Academic Achievement [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[6] Cullinane, C. and Montacute, R. (2020). COVID-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief #1: School Shutdown [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[7] University College London. (2020). Briefing Note: Inequalities in Resources in the Home Learning Environment [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[8] Education Endowment Fund (2020). Teaching and Learning Toolkit [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].

[9] Department for Education (2019). Achievement of 15-year-olds in England: PISA 2018 Results [online]. Available: [18 May, 2020].