Youngest primary school pupils’ reading development most affected by Covid shutdowns

Press Release

Wednesday 16 March 2022

A new report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shows the negative impacts on reading progress from Covid partial school closures was greatest among Key Stage 1 pupils, particularly those in Year 1.

The study, which analysed trends across several Covid education impact papers published between June 2020 and February 2022, also suggests that by summer 2021, maths attainment was most severely affected among Key Stage 2 pupils and maths learning recovery in this age group was much slower than reading for Key Stage 2.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Carole Willis, Chief Executive of the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) said:

“It is of real concern that the reading development of the youngest pupils in primary schools has been particularly affected during the pandemic. Early reading plays a key part in children’s later achievement. This is not only the skill of reading but also an engagement with literacy-related activities, such as writing and talking. It also emphasises the urgency of addressing this issue through focused input and adequate resourcing before these children become struggling or reluctant readers.

“It is encouraging to see some indications of recovery across both key stages and subjects. The evidence suggests that interventions and resources would be best targeted at developing the reading skills in Key Stage 1 and at identifying areas of the Key Stage 2 maths curriculum with which pupils are struggling. Additionally, there should be a renewed focus on reducing the disadvantage gap.”

The report, which reviews the key research on the impact of the pandemic on English primary schools, highlights that for primary-aged pupils, all year groups performed at a lower level than expected in autumn 2020, in both reading and maths. By spring 2021, there was a further drop in attainment, especially in the younger year groups, following the partial school closures in January-March 2021. By the summer of 2021, however, all years saw the gap narrow.

It also reveals there was a shift in the range of attainment as a result of the disruption caused by Covid-19. By summer 2021, in reading, more pupils and particularly those in the younger age groups, were scoring low marks on the assessments, whilst in maths fewer pupils achieved high scores in Key Stage 2.

The study also looks at the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged pupils. There is strong evidence that this disadvantage gap widened during the pandemic, with the impact of Covid-19 on the progress of disadvantaged children being greater than on the progress of non-disadvantaged pupils. This widening appears to have been greater in maths than in reading in most primary year groups.

Before the pandemic there was a large gap between the proportions of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils reaching the expected achievement standards in English primary schools. Whilst by summer 2021 there is some evidence that disadvantaged pupils are recovering at broadly the same pace as non-disadvantaged pupils, this report shows that the substantial achievement gap remains.

The scale of the disadvantage gap is a clear reminder that some pupils were more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. It also reinforces the need for policy-makers to renew their efforts to address this long-standing feature of the education system and underlines the importance of prioritising this group in the education recovery spending and activity.

Several data sources have been used as the basis for this report which collates evidence regarding the impact of Covid-19 on attainment in English schools. These sources have all been published since the first lockdown up until our cut off date of 16 February.



By age


By ability

By subject

Early learning goals
Nash et al. (2022)



GL Assessment (reading & mathematics)
Brzyska et al. (2021)




National Reference Test  (English & mathematics)
Burge et al. (2021)



NFER (reading & mathematics)
Rose et al. (2021)


Renaissance Learning  (reading & mathematics)
DfE (2021)


Rising Stars (reading & mathematics)
Blainey et al. (2021a; 2021b)
Weidmann et al. (2022)

Writing (comparative judgement)
Christodoulou (2021a; 2021b; 2022)