Two Years On: What Effect Did School Closures Have on Children?

Two years after the UK went into lockdown, IPPO held a day-long series of sessions on March 24, 2022 to examine what lessons we must learn for future policymaking. The video of our panel discussion on Schools is below, with further reflections from session chair Dr Rachel France.

Full list of speakers*

Rachel France

The session focused on two IPPO reviews.

One on mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on primary and lower secondary children during school closures, and the other on the move to emergency remote education.

Key Takeaways

  • Measuring the necessary levels of catch-up funding based on learning losses, using test scores alone, ignores the breadth and complexity of pupil needs
  • The literature on learning disruption during a natural disaster highlights the wider considerations needed to repair children’s education well and the value of local knowledge
  • Letting schools take the lead in recovery planning may be more effective than centrally prescribing interventions based on children falling behind under normal circumstances (Moss et al, 2022).
  • To help close attainment gaps, schools working with pupils living in poverty require more resourcing for basic pupil welfare. A more resilient education system requires more resilient communities.
  • We need structural solutions to address inequality and poverty and to deliver appropriate resources to overcome barriers to providing effective mental health provision for children and adolescents.
  • A significant focus of resources and activity through a comprehensive public health approach that builds capacity within and between sectors to promote young people’s mental health and provide both early help in school and community settings alongside targeted support.

Session Reflections

Learning loss due to school closures has not been as much of a problem as first thought as many children caught up quickly once schools reopened.

However, younger children found it harder to catch up, particularly in maths compared with literacy skills.

Although there was a modest widening of the disadvantage gap, recent research shows that disadvantaged children are recovering at the same rate as others.

However, the effect on mental health and wellbeing has been more marked, with teenagers being particularly badly affected. Recent research suggests that if the COVID-19 pandemic had not occurred, we would observe around 6% fewer adolescents with high depressive symptoms.

In addition, low income, LGBTQ+ and SEN/ND children needed more support on return to school than others. Pre-adolescent children, girls and those with pre-existing mental health difficulties were also disproportionately affected.

School leaders are more concerned about the impact on children’s social skills and wellbeing than on learning loss and that these issues should be addressed before ‘catching up’ will be effective.

Delegates questioned whether it was right to close schools in the first place. The panel pointed out that the difficulty for the government was that the prevalence of the disease was different in different communities. Schools are now open but many have been struggling with attendance because children and staff are ill. Planning for resilience might mean gearing up for better support for communities through schools and a greater recognition that this needs funding.

Other points made included the way that school closures highlighted the importance of schools in providing school meals and in child protection, and how relationships with teachers can make a huge difference to children’s lives.

The review of emergency remote education focused on studies in secondary schools during COVID-19. It found very few data on children with SEND, with one delegate pointing out that mainstream online education is not tailored for these pupils. The team found a mix of findings with some online education suiting children who found they could study more effectively while others felt isolated, confused or overwhelmed.

The success of online education was heavily dependent on teachers’ digital skills and ability to adapt quickly.

Not all families had enough devices for everyone in the household to study online and students often needed parental support, which was not always possible. A ‘digital divide’ became more obvious.

The experience of moving online has led to some reinvention of education with some online activity continuing. It has highlighted the need for additional teacher training, and that hybrid forms of education can be legitimised as well as the importance of establishing contingency plans for future unscheduled school closures.

Delegates raised the issue of whether exams would go ahead and that the curriculum should be adapted so that education can move online easily in case of emergency. One pointed out that trainee teachers have also had to catch up since they could not complete placements during school closures.

Speakers included: Gemma Moss, Professor of Literacy and Director of the International Literacy Centre at UCL Institute of Education, Dr Rosie Mansfield,  Research Fellow, UCL Social Research Institute, Dr Mel Bond, Lecturer (Digital Technology Education), Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning, University of South Australia, Dr Nina Bergdahl Lecturer, Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, DSV, Stockholm University and Dr Dylan Kneale Principal Research Fellow, UCL Institute of Education.

To read all four IPPO Rapid Evidence Reviews on the effects of closure of educational facilities, click here.