Rapid Evidence Review: The impact of lockdowns and school closures on parents and carers in the UK

This review was commissioned by the UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE) following a recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). It was managed by the EPPI-Centre at UCL. Click here for the full review

Summary of findings

IPPO’s rapid evidence review on parents and carers of UK children synthesises the research evidence from 32 studies on harms relating to the impact of lockdown and school closures. In the absence of evidence on mitigations from existing systematic reviews that were sufficiently relevant to the harms identified, we drew on advice from academic experts.

School closures meant that many parents and carers of school-aged children took on responsibilities as educators in addition to their work and other caring responsibilities. Our review shows that this had especially pronounced impacts on mothers, single parents and those on lower income, and parents and carers of children with special educational needs and/or neurodevelopmental disorders. There is evidence for COVID-related impacts on higher education in the following areas:

The mental health impacts of school closures on parents and carers

There is evidence that COVID-related lockdowns and school closures had a particularly negative impact on parents and carers. Evidence from around the UK includes:

  • Compared with pre-lockdown levels, parents reported a much larger decline in their general mental health, on average, than people without children (1.45 point increase in GHQ-12 scores for parents, but only a 0.33 point increase for people without children).
  • Levels of parental stress, depression and anxiety all rose during periods of lockdown, particularly among people with children younger than 10 years old.
  • Poor mental health was associated with lower levels of physical exercise in lockdown.
  • In the first UK lockdown, 43% of 614 mothers with babies up to 12 weeks old scored above the clinical cut-off for depression; 61% exceeded the clinical cut-off for anxiety.

There is pre-existing evidence that maternal depression can negatively impact children’s language development and intelligence, behaviour, social and emotional competence, and physical health including on sleep, as well as affecting the parent-child relationship. Therefore, the effects on parental mental health and wellbeing of the pandemic are important.

The economic impacts of school closures on parents and carers

  • According to Save The Children, by the second week of lockdown 10% of 1,002 parents of children aged 6-18 years had resigned from their jobs, while 29% reduced their working hours or took unpaid leave due to increased childcare responsibilities.
  • In a different study, 33% of 2,144 parents in Bradford (95% of whom were mothers) found their financial status worsened during the first UK lockdown, with 37% of those with a Pakistani heritage reporting this compared with 26% of white British respondents.

The impacts on particular grouping of parents and carers

Our review finds widespread evidence that mothers were more affected than fathers by the pandemic:

  • They spent two-thirds more time on childcare than fathers.
  • They were more likely to reduce their working hours or initiate furlough compared with men or childless women (in comparison, there were no gender differences regarding initiating furlough among people without children).

Single parents and those on lower income reported poorer mental health, were more likely to have financial problems, and to have spent less quality time with their children since the start of lockdown than others.

  • Those with a child with a pre-existing medical condition experienced difficulties in coping with the uncertainty of the situation and a lack of control but received limited support.

Parents and carers of children with special educational needs and/or neurodevelopmental disorders (SEN/ND) reported feeling unprepared, inadequate and concerned that they were letting their child down and of ‘feeling forgotten’ or ‘left behind’ in terms of additional support being provided by services or schools.

  • Of the first 5,000 parents/carers in one large study, 51.5% of the 871 parents with children with SEN/ND felt stressed about their child’s behaviour, compared with only 4% of parents who did not have a child with SEN/ND.

The impact of lockdowns on levels of domestic abuse

There is evidence that witnessing domestic violence in the home can negatively affect children’s psychological, emotional and social development, increasing children’s externalising behaviours (including disruptive behaviour), and causing difficulties for their own learning environment at school, which may have subsequent impacts in later life.

While a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to all 43 police forces in England and Wales produced no clear picture of changes in incidence rates of domestic violence during lockdown, other findings from our review highlighted a number of issues:

  • While fewer domestic violence-related incidents were reported to police during lockdown, there was a sharp rise in demand for support services. One helpline in Wales reported a 41% increase in calls.
  • There was also an indication of increased child and adolescent violence towards parents (C/APV). The evidence suggests this was predominantly a son-mother occurrence.

Mitigation strategies

  • The evidence suggests that those parents and carers who were already financially vulnerable became more vulnerable during the pandemic. Providing parents on lower incomes with financial support through Universal Credit and the Pupil Premium, and reinvesting in schemes such as the Sure Start Local Programmes, may help mitigate these effects.
  • There is emerging evidence suggesting that providing parenting support for parents with anxiety disorders can also help children’s anxiety problems.
  • Raising awareness among parents and children of the support available for those at risk of domestic violence and abuse would help to mitigate the multi-faceted, potentially long-lasting impacts of the increased levels seen during the pandemic.

Other considerations for policymakers

Our review raises questions for education policymakers working on how best to apply learnings from the pandemic to increase the resilience of the school sector to future disruption. For example:

  • What might be done to prepare for future unscheduled school closures to provide effective support for parents and vulnerable families, for example, in supporting home learning?
  • How can schools be supported to help identify parents/carers who are struggling in the context of future unscheduled school closures and to facilitate access to effective support including mental health support?

APPENDIX

Topic specialist review authors*

Dr Hope Christie (Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Edinburgh), Dr Lucy V Hiscox (Department of Psychology, University of Bath), Professor Cathy Creswell (Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford), Professor Sarah L Halligan (Department of Psychology, University of Bath).

These authors were supported by review specialists Carol Vigurs and Dr Bridget Candy (EPPI-Centre).

Notes about this review

The UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE) funded this work following a recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

The work was undertaken under the umbrella of the ESRC-funded International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) and managed by the EPPI Centre, a specialist centre in the UCL Social Research Institute which develops methods (i) for the systematic reviewing and synthesis of research evidence; and (ii) for the study of the use of this research.

This is one of four education-focused Rapid Evidence Reviews that IPPO is publishing today. The full list of reviews is as follows: