The author is Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute think tank. He was the UK Minister for Schools from 2012 to 2015.
Inflation. Small boats. Economic growth. Government debt. the NHS. The prime minister has clearly set out his five priorities for the year remaining until the general election.
Notably missing from this list is education, an issue that political leaders often claim puts center stage. It is true that Rishi Sunak has repeatedly floated the idea of teaching mathematics beyond GCSE level, but even here his government seems to lack a clear implementation plan.
In fairness to the prime minister, the low priority of education seems to reflect the public’s own views. Perhaps the entire country has been lulled into a false sense of security by inflated test scores from two years of pandemic-related disruption. In 2020 and 2021, “record” ratings masked significant learning losses.
Understanding the true impact of the disruption of Covid-19 in the last three years should lead us to place a much higher priority on education. During this period, our researchers have worked with experts from the assessment provider Renaissance to measure “real” results in reading and math. We tracked the assessments the children took during this period and compared them to the results of similar groups of children before the pandemic. The beauty of this is that the results are not distorted by the “teacher assessed” grades that inflated results on GCSEs, A-levels and other England national exams.
Early in the pandemic, the Department of Education commissioned us to carry out this analysis: over a two-year period, it became the best measure of learning loss available from the government. The analysis highlighted significant problems in reading and mathematics, with learning losses being greatest in the most deprived schools and (typically) in the North of England and the Midlands.
This week we publish our latest findings, using data from the end of 2022. They show that, despite the prime minister’s aspiration to improve mathematics, the country has seen “real” performance deteriorate. Our analysis suggests that, on average, in mathematics, elementary school children are about 1.5 months behind what they would have been in the pre-pandemic cohorts. This number appears to have held fairly steady over the past year, suggesting that we cannot assume that reopening schools automatically means catching up.
Our research highlights another area of concern: that the poorest children have fared worse during the pandemic, and that this effect persists.
Before the pandemic, we found that children in the most disadvantaged admissions schools were about 11.7 months behind in reading compared to those in the most affluent at the end of primary school. This increased to 13 months at the start of the pandemic, and even now stands at 12.3 months. So this measure of the “disadvantage gap” has increased since the pandemic, confirming a worrying trend broader: 2022 departmental self-examination data shows progress in closing the disadvantage gap over the last decade has been removed.
There are some encouraging features of our analysis: At a national average level, we now appear to have recaptured learning losses in elementary school reading. But perhaps reading was always going to be easier to maintain during home learning, in contrast to math, writing, and some other subjects.
And there is no room for complacency. Educational outcomes for the bottom third of children in England were already very poor before the pandemic. Since then, we have regressed in key subjects crucial to life chances, including mathematics. The educational gaps between the poorest students and the rest, who already reach a year and a half of learning at the age of 16, have widened even more. And, based on our earlier analysis, some of the biggest learning losses have been experienced in precisely the “leveling” areas that ministers say they want to prioritise.
The prime minister should be concerned that math results are getting worse rather than better, and much further down the school system than his sixth grade promise acknowledges. As for his priority of growing the economy and creating “higher paying jobs”, he should pay much more attention to education as a driver of productivity.
The government cannot turn a blind eye to the adverse impacts of Covid. With an election on the horizon, it must be tempting for Sunak and his team to focus on high-profile short-term prospects. But politicians must convince a skeptical electorate that they are also focused on the big, long-term problems facing our country. Our findings should serve as a reminder that the UK’s educational performance is one of the major challenges that needs to be addressed, and without which our economic growth and social harmony will rest on shaky foundations.