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Learning loss and the attainment gap - where are we now?

Published: Nov 29, 2021 6 min read

Wayne Jarvis

Senior Network Educational Lead

National STEM Learning Centre

The progress of students is a core focus of teachers and schools at any time, but following the closure of schools due to the pandemic there is even more of a focus on lost learning and how this is being addressed.

In October 2021, the Department of Education published the report 'Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year'. This included research on student progress in reading and mathematics to the end of the summer term 2021.

The report summarises the extent of learning loss and recovery from the first national lockdown in March 2020. The data presented in the report is most secure at primary but there are data presented from secondary contexts too. Broadly summarised, the table below shows the learning loss and recovery since the start of the pandemic:

 

Months of learning loss (average per student)

End of Autumn Term 2020

End of Spring Term 2021

End of Summer Term 2021

Primary

Reading

1.2

2.2

0.9

 

Mathematics

2.6

3.4

2.2

Secondary*

Reading

1.5

n/a

1.2

*Much smaller numbers were sampled and only learning loss for secondary reading could be robustly estimated.

Source: Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year (DfE, October 2021)

So what do the figures broadly mean? Well, it’s clear that students’ learning loss increased significantly from what historically has been reported as a result of school closures. These learning losses continued to increase into the spring term 2021, probably as a result of students missing out on in-person learning in late 2020/early 2021. By the time we reached the end of the summer term, there is evidence that there was notable catch-up.

As you might expect, the effect of economic disadvantage on learning loss is even greater. Disadvantaged pupils (defined in the report as primarily those eligible for free school means at some point in the last six years) had greater learning loss. Summer term 2021 data showed that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in primary reading was at around 0.4 months with the gap in secondary reading at around 1.6 months. The gap in primary mathematics between disadvantaged pupils and their peers was 0.5 months.

In terms of regions of the country, there is much clearer recovery in some areas compared with others. The greatest learning loss at the start of the national lockdown was in North East and Yorkshire and Humber. The greatest recovery by the summer term 2021 was seen in the Yorkshire and Humber region - full regional details are available within the report. With a particular concern around lost learning with relation to literacy, especially at primary, the EEF have produced an updated version of their Improving literacy in key stage 2 guidance report which provides some visual models and exemplifications to maximise the impact of literacy provision in schools. There are also versions for Key Stage 1 and Secondary contexts). They have also recently published a blog on Key stage 2 literacy and the disadvantage gap which links to the updated report publication.

So having provided a general overview of the current state of play in reading and mathematics, both of which play a significant part in accessing the curriculum in other subject areas, how can we support recovery in STEM subject areas?

Firstly, as has been stated repeatedly since the pandemic hit, there is no substitute for high quality teaching in ensuring that all students maximise their progress. Ensuring that teachers have the knowledge and skills to provide a high quality of education is at the core of minimising loss of learning and narrowing the attainment gap. This can be addressed through accessing subject-specific professional development or utilising resources to support teaching and reduce workload. Our education recovery webpage(s) are a great starting point to identify areas that can support your teaching. Whilst there is an appreciation of the reluctance for schools to release teachers from classrooms as they focus on lost learning, the negative impact of a day out of the classroom in order to access high quality CPD will be far outweighed by the positive long-term impact that will be seen through improvement in the quality of teaching.

As a teacher or subject leader, using diagnostics to determine where there are gaps is an important element of ensuring that support is provided in the right places. Tools such as the BEST Evidence Science Teaching resources are a really valuable way of identifying gaps and misconceptions within topic areas. An important consideration in science is that the curriculum requires students not just to understand subject content but also their application of this understanding to unfamiliar contexts, including those practical & working scientifically skills and apparatus and techniques that are detailed in exam board specifications. As a teacher or a subject leader, identifying whether there are specific gaps in subject knowledge, application of knowledge, practical skills, literacy or numeracy is essential in supporting the recovery process.

Some likely areas of focus and resources to support you are highlighted on our education recovery webpage(s). Once the areas of focus have been established, having a plan to address the areas highlighted is key. Thinking creatively, such as rearranging teaching groups with students that have gaps in specific areas, and focussing lessons with these skills in mind, may be an option.

For the most disadvantaged, we have a webpage with links to support school leaders and teachers through resources and professional development that focus on narrowing the STEM attainment gap.

Whatever your approach, understanding student needs, finding the gaps and adapting the curriculum to get students up to speed quickly in the areas that are most important is critical. Amanda Spielman (Ofsted’s Chief Inspector) spoke at the Schools and Academies Show about how Ofsted intent to visit all schools by summer 2025, partly to help government to understand how the recovery effort is going. So by having your approach in place and thereby demonstrating that you have high quality teaching and an ambitious curriculum at the heart of your school you will be supporting your students to make rapid progress and be making that inevitable visit just that little bit easier.

Join the discussion in the Primary STEM group and the Teaching 11-19 Science STEM Community groups.