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Closing the attainment gap: how disadvantaged pupils have been impacted by COVID-19

  • 4 February 2021
  • By Gwen Morris

This blog was kindly contributed by Gwen Morris, a qualified English teacher and ambassador for Teach First. She is currently studying an MA in Publishing at UCL. You can find Gwen on Twitter @MGwenMorris.

As a Teach First participant, most of my training focused on addressing the attainment gap that exists between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Despite this gap having gradually narrowed from 2011 to 2019, socio-economic background continues to be one of the most influential factors in predicting pupils’ academic attainment and future economic success. Even in 2019, mainstream state school pupils from the most advantaged areas were 2.4 times more likely to attend university than those from the most disadvantaged areas, while disadvantaged pupils were more likely to drop out during their first year.

The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent school closures have exacerbated these issues, disproportionately impacting poorer students and threatening to reverse the progress made to narrow the attainment gap since 2011. Internet access and stable home environments have become essential for pupils’ academic success, even more so than before. While wealthier pupils are more likely to have access to these provisions, they are also more likely to benefit from extra help such as private tutoring or additional classes. As a result, these pupils are expected to experience less ‘learning loss’ and to catch up at a faster rate than their disadvantaged peers.

School closures are predicted to have a negative impact on working-class boys in particular, who not only face the aforementioned challenges due to their socio-economic background, but are also less inclined to read on a regular basis than their female counterparts. Research undertaken by the Department for Education found that reading for pleasure is the single most influential factor in indicating pupils’ future success. This leaves boys at a significant disadvantage when it comes to academic attainment and, subsequently, in obtaining university offers. However, this is just one of the ways in which reading reluctance impacts male pupils. Studies show that reading is key for pupils’ personal fulfilment, contributing towards their social-emotional development and therefore equipping them with the necessary skills to manage their mental health. As a result, boys are statistically less likely to develop these skills through reading, which in turn may affect their wellbeing as a whole.

Though these findings are based on boys from different socio-economic backgrounds, research shows that working-class boys are strongly affected by this disparity. Not only are they are less likely to enjoy reading than female pupils, they are also less likely to have access to books in comparison to their wealthier peers. With schools closed and pupils unable to access school libraries, working-class boys are predicted to fall even further behind in their reading development.

It is more important than ever that boys receive the same level of encouragement as girls do with regard to reading, especially in light of recent studies which show that parents tend to read more frequently with their daughters. The National Literacy Trust’s reading scheme presents an excellent opportunity for schools to engage more students in reading through peer influence and recommends that schools run the scheme separately for boys and girls. However, for as long as school libraries remain closed, schemes like these remain dependent on pupils’ access to books at home. For this reason, I suggest that the UK government should provide book vouchers for pupils who are eligible for free school meals throughout school closures. This would enable teachers to run inclusive reading initiatives while addressing the attainment gap that exists between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

In addition to book ownership and encouragement, mentoring is also an essential component in young people’s engagement with reading. Role models enable children to understand the importance of reading and to develop positive reading habits. Though positive influences can come from home or school, I believe that university mentoring schemes are also necessary to provide these role models while introducing the concept of higher education to school pupils. This is especially important for ‘males from low-income families‘, who are the least likely to go to university. It is therefore critical that university mentoring schemes continue to take place online throughout the course of the pandemic. With the UK Government now providing internet access and devices for disadvantaged pupils to learn remotely, online mentoring initiatives can be put in place, providing disadvantaged pupils with the confidence and the support to continue in their academic development.

For more information on the issues in this post, please see the following articles:

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    If “reading for pleasure is the single most influential factor in indicating pupils’ future success” should we not focus on this and reallocate resources to both primary and secondary schools?

    By the time young people get to age 18 it is far too late to effectively and efficiently help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds reach their potential.

    If you want a fairer society you need a fairer distribution of wealth and very early intervention.

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