Reading progress of youngest pupils worst hit by school closures, report finds

A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research has found that negative impacts on reading progress from school closures was “greatest among Key Stage 1 pupils, particularly those in Year 1”.

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The reading progress of younger pupils has been worst affected by school closures during the pandemic, new analysis has revealed.

A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research has found that negative impacts on reading progress from school closures was “greatest among Key Stage 1 pupils, particularly those in Year 1”.

The study analysed trends across several studies published between June 2020 and February 2022. It suggested 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.

The report also notes that recovery funding is having less of an impact on the catch-up rate of disadvantaged pupils than might be expected.

It says that since school closures, there has been no evidence that the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their peers has widened, “suggesting that disadvantaged pupils are recovering at around the

same rate as non-disadvantaged pupils”.

“This is despite the targeting of recovery funds and initiatives on disadvantaged pupils which might have been expected to enable them to recover at a faster rate,” it adds.

The report finds that primary-aged pupils in every year group performed at lower than expected levels in autumn 2020 for reading and maths.

By spring 2021, there was a further drop in performance, especially for younger pupils because of school closures between January and March. However, by summer 2021, all year groups saw their attainment improve.

The study also found that the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils had widened more for maths than for 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,” the NFER said.

“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.”

Carole Willis, chief executive of the 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.”

She added that the signs of recovery across key stages and subjects was “encouraging” and that evidence suggested that more resources and intervention would be best targeted at developing reading skills in Key Stage 1 and at identifying areas of the Key Stage 2 maths curriculum where pupils are struggling.

“Additionally, there should be a renewed focus on reducing the disadvantage gap,” she added.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that it was “perhaps not surprising” that the reading progress of Year 1 pupils had been most negatively affected by school lockdowns.

“Schools worked very hard to teach them remotely but this is obviously particularly challenging with young pupils, and the ability of many parents to support them will have been constrained by having to juggle other responsibilities,” he said.

“It is a worry because confidence in reading is such a vital building block to learning.”

“However, the improvement made for all year groups in reading and maths by last summer, when children had been back in school, is encouraging, and shows how good schools have been at addressing learning gaps. This is even more remarkable given that the recovery support they have had from the government has been both confused and inadequate.”

He said that the widened gap between poorer pupils and their peers was also not surprising given disadvantaged pupils “often did not have access to a laptop or tablet, and may not have had a suitable space in which to work, as well as facing the many other challenges that come with disadvantage”.

“This is what we need to urgently address as a society, and this can only really be achieved with a national strategy in which the government works with the education sector to bring about really significant change and improve the life chances of these young people.”