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Younger pupils fall behind in maths and reading


A recent piece of research by the Education Endowment Foundation has assessed the impact of disruptions to learning on younger pupils’ reading and maths skills.


The study, by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), looks at data from reading and maths assessments taken by more than 10,000 Key Stage 1 pupils (five to seven-year-olds) from 168 representative schools in the autumn term of 2020 and the spring and summer terms of 2021.


Their attainment was compared with that of a representative sample of Year 1 and 2 children prior to the pandemic to give estimates of the “Covid gap”. It is the final report in the research project and follows two sets of interim findings from this study.


The study finds little progress for Year 1 pupils in reading — attainment in reading was, on average, three months lower in both spring and summer 2021 than pre-Covid levels.


However, while Year 1 pupils were about three months behind previous cohorts in maths in spring 2021, the Covid gap was estimated to be just one month in summer 2021, suggesting that so far, efforts to support education recovery have been effective in maths.


For Year 2 pupils, the Covid gap in reading and maths was three and two months respectively in spring 2021. In summer 2021, Year 2 children were still two months behind in reading but had recovered to above expected standards in maths.


The research also looks at the impact of disruptions to learning on the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates. The analysis shows that in both reading and maths, in both year groups, there was a substantial gap in attainment between disadvantaged children and their peers. This was equivalent to around seven months’ progress in the spring of 2021, and is wider than pre-pandemic levels.


For Year 2 pupils, the disadvantage gap increased in mathematics and remained stable in reading between autumn 2020 and spring 2021. However, the disadvantage gap in maths and reading closed slightly for Year 1 pupils between the spring and summer terms 2021.


The report provides some promising evidence that recovery for younger learners is already underway and, through suitably funded long-term support, learning recovery is possible. It also confirms that disadvantaged pupils have been the worst affected by school closures, suggesting that support should be targeted at this group.


It also suggests that supporting reading development in younger pupils may require significant efforts. The EEF has a suite of resources to support literacy development in Key Stage 1 pupils. These include a specialised guidance report, complete with eight evidence-informed recommendations to help teachers maximise the impact of their literacy teaching. Relevant strands of the recently updated Teaching and Learning Toolkit also provide information around approaches to teaching early reading.


To further support schools in their recovery efforts, the report also includes a detailed breakdown of the curriculum areas where pupils excelled or struggled.


This builds on previous diagnostic guides for Year 1 and Year 2, produced for schools by NFER as part of this research. The analysis suggests that, broadly, the areas that children in both year groups found difficult were the same as those that previous cohorts struggled with pre-pandemic, such as making inferences from complex texts and multiplication and division questions.


Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“Whilst these findings are encouraging, it is clear that continued efforts are needed to support recovery. Each new piece of research can help us to better understand the scale of the challenge facing our teachers.


“Important work is already being done in schools to ensure that children’s progress is brought back on track and their wellbeing is restored in the wake of the pandemic. There are signs that this is already paying off, particularly in maths.


“However, schools need ongoing access to resources and capacity which will allow them to perform at their best, and to ensure that pupils surpass “recovery” and achieve the full extent of their potential.”

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