Report highlights challenges facing schools and pupils in September 2020

Press Release

Tuesday 1 September 2020

The significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the learning of children and young people, and the challenges schools face in reopening to all pupils this month, has been revealed in a new report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Jointly funded by Nuffield Foundation and NFER, the study is based on a weighted sample of almost 3,000 school leaders and teachers across over 2,200 mainstream primary and secondary schools in England [1]. The report focuses on new data collected towards the end of the last academic year (July), showing the changing nature of the pandemic’s impact on pupils, teachers, schools and communities, and schools’ plans and concerns ahead of reopening to all year groups this month.

Key findings from the 72-page report are outlined below:

Pupils’ learning and the need for catch up

  • Nearly all teachers estimate that their pupils are behind in their curriculum learning, with the average estimate being three months behind. Over half of teachers estimate that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened.
  • Teachers in the most deprived schools are over three times more likely to report that their pupils are four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived schools.
  • Reasons related to the provision of remote learning include: diminishing levels of pupil and parent engagement over time; and a continuing lack of interactive remote teaching approaches.
  • Reasons related to in-school provision for some pupils from June include: a skew of teaching resource to in-school provision to meet the demands of social distancing. This took teaching resources away from pupils based at home; a reduced quality of in-school teaching due to the restrictions of social distancing (almost three quarters of teachers did not feel able to teach to their usual standard); and low levels of pupil attendance, especially among Pupil Premium and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils. The main reasons for low attendance were parental safety concerns.
  • Although many schools were supplying IT equipment to their staff, over a third of teachers were providing their own laptop or computer, and three-fifths either supplied their own camera/video equipment or had no access to this at all. Over one quarter (28 per cent) of pupils had limited access to IT at home. This is a particular issue for schools serving the most deprived pupil populations.
  • Teachers estimate that 44 per cent of their pupils are in need of intensive catch-up support. These estimates are much higher in the most deprived schools and in schools serving the highest proportion of pupils from BAME backgrounds.
  • Senior leaders’ top priorities for September are to provide support for pupils’ emotional and mental health and well-being (81 per cent); to re-engage pupils with learning (64 per cent); and to settle them into school (63 per cent). Academic catch-up activities are most likely to take the form of small-group or one-to-one sessions.

Opening schools safely and supporting the workforce

  • While most senior leaders predict they will find it at least ‘somewhat manageable’ to open to all pupils in September while taking measures to minimise the risk of infection, many identify a need for additional staffing and resources for cleaning, protective equipment and IT.
  • The percentage of teachers and senior leaders intending to leave the profession has reduced by more than half compared to previous estimates. However, schools plan to reduce their initial teacher training (ITT) placements in 2020/21. This is of concern, given the large increase in the number of applications for ITT in 2020.

The report outlines a series of recommendations, which includes: the need for increased parental reassurance; support for schools in managing non-attendance; additional resources for costs associated with managing the demands of Covid-19; the need for Ofsted to modify expectations for schools in upcoming inspections; and schools needing more government support to prepare for remote learning in a local lockdown.

Speaking about the findings:

Dr Angela Donkin, Chief Social Scientist at NFER, said: “Whilst it is crucial that children catch-up, we should not assume that teachers will immediately be able to deliver the same quality of teaching, at the same speed, as before the pandemic”,

“There remains a range of barriers for teachers and schools, which means catch-up should be seen as part of the ongoing process of learning recovery, for most pupils, rather than as a quick-turnaround solution.

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at Nuffield Foundation, added: “From September, schools will be trying to close the disadvantage gap while also balancing social distancing measures and delivering the curriculum for all pupils.

“Rather than being a quick-fix, school catch-up schemes will need to be sustained if they are to be effective, and we would welcome additional government guidance and funding for schools as they develop new ways of working.

“This long-term approach is particularly important given the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on students' family circumstances, such as increased levels of job insecurity, poverty and relationship breakdowns, all of which could affect their learning and development and further widen the disadvantage gap.”


[1] Sample: 1,176 school leaders and 1,782 teachers in 1,305 primary schools (including middle deemed primary) and 898 secondary schools (including middle deemed secondary and all-through schools), representing 7.6 per cent of the 17,169 primary schools and 26.5 per cent of the 3384 secondary schools in England. The findings were collected between 8-15 July.
[2] There is a wide range of uncertainty around this estimate, and it is likely to be an underestimate, as differences between schools may have also contributed to changes in the disadvantaged learning gap.
[3] Based on the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (highest and lowest quartiles).
[4] In an open-response question, just under half (49 per cent) of 1034 teachers whose teaching was affected said that distancing requirements had negatively impacted their teaching practices.
[5] While following government guidance to minimise the risk of infection.
[6] Those who said it was ‘somewhat manageable’ or ‘completely unmanageable’.