Disadvantaged seven and eight year-old pupils were nine months behind their peers in reading skills and eight months behind in maths, according to new research into how the pandemic has affected the attainment gap.
The gap has widened since before the pandemic and has remained at a similar level since spring 2021, research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) said.
Their research followed 6,000 pupils who were in reception and year one – aged four to six – in March 2020 until the spring term of 2022.
On average, they found that pupils who were in year three in spring this year have caught up in both reading and maths compared with pupils before the pandemic.
Year two pupils – aged six and seven – have largely caught up in maths, but remain behind in reading by about three months, the study found.
But for the disadvantaged, the picture is more bleak.
Socio-economically disadvantaged pupils in year two in spring this year were around six months behind in reading, and around five months behind in maths, compared to their more advantaged peers.
The gap was wider still for year three pupils, at around nine months’ progress for reading and around eight months’ progress for maths, researchers said.
The findings have prompted those behind the study to call for pupil premium funding – which is targeted at poorer pupils – to be protected.
The EEF urged the Government to make sure that, as more pupils become eligible for such funding, the amount paid per pupil is protected and ideally increases in real terms.
The researchers said they also found an increase in the proportion of very low attaining pupils, particularly for reading.
They said that in a typical year two classroom, of six and seven year-olds, there are now three very low attaining pupils for reading, compared to one before the pandemic.
Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said: “The findings add to a heavy body of evidence telling us that socio-economic inequality in education – already entrenched before the pandemic – has grown.
“Schools are doing – and have done – a lot to mitigate against this, but it would be naive of us not to recognise that factors outside of the school gate – such as widening poverty – also play a significant part in the widening attainment gap.
“Tackling education inequality and the factors behind it is the biggest challenge our education system faces. But doing so must be a top priority for this Government. At the very least, pupil premium funding levels should be protected, ideally increasing in real terms for every eligible pupil.”
Dr Ben Styles, head of classroom practice and workforce at NFER, said: “The huge effort from teachers and school leaders appears to be leading to encouraging recovery amongst some of our youngest pupils, but the disadvantage attainment gap remains a real concern.
“Schools which already face huge challenges are now faced with a large number of very low attaining pupils, particularly in reading, who have suffered most at the hands of the pandemic. It is essential that the National Tutoring Programme is protected from Government cuts and that funds are distributed in a way which directly supports disadvantaged pupils.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said schools must get more funding to support pupils if the attainment gap is to be properly addressed.
He said: “The EEF confirms what school staff have been saying with increasing urgency since the start of the pandemic: the socio-economic attainment gap has not only widened, it shows no sign of reducing.
“Schools are doing all they can to address the aftermath of the pandemic, but education alone is not enough. The Government continues to ignore the role of poverty in limiting the horizons of children’s learning.
“Schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils have suffered the worst funding cuts since 2015. The EEF provides further evidence that the crisis is worsening. The Government must take substantial action to address it. Children need warmth, safe housing, and food.
“Schools need better funding to support their pupils’ learning, particularly for those who need extra help. These are essential preconditions for any serious and enduring attempt to close the attainment gap.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know the pandemic impacted children’s learning, which is why it is so important that we continue to roll out our education recovery programme, which is backed by nearly £5 billion.
“With over two million tutoring courses now started, as well as an additional £24 million investment to boost children’s literacy skills, we remain committed to our ambition for 90% of children to leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030.
“Alongside this, thanks to the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the core schools’ budget will be boosted by £2 billion in each of the next two years meaning school spending returns to at least 2010 levels in real terms – the highest spending year in history.”