COVID-19 – Learning loss in children

In episode 3 of the Generation Pandemic podcast we focus on the learning loss suffered by children as a result of the pandemic. Joining host, Catherine McDonald, are Adam Salisbury, Research Economist from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Dr Jennifer Symonds, Asosciate Professor of Education at University College Dublin’s School of Education, and Alice Brighty-Glover, Head of Humanities at Hall Mead School in Essex. The panel discuss how children’s learning loss evolved during the pandemic, raise concerns about the negativity around phrases such as ‘learning loss’ and look to the future employment prospects of Generation Pandemic. 


Catherine McDonald  0:04 

Hello, and welcome to Generation Pandemic, a podcast from the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network, looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children in the UK and Ireland. I’m Catherine McDonald today we’re focusing on the loss of learning experienced by children as a result of the pandemic. Joining me are Adam Salisbury research economist from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Dr. Jennifer Symond’s Associate Professor of Education at University College Dublin School of Education, and Alice Brighty-Glover, Head of Humanities at Hall Mead school in Essex. I began by asking Adam how the learning experiences of school children in England evolved during the pandemic.

Adam Salisbury  0:48 

So my colleagues and I at the IFS are interested in this question. And to answer it, we fielded two surveys of parents of English schoolchildren at two critical points in the pandemic. So the first was in March and April 2020. So during the first lockdown, and the first round of national school closures, and the second was in February and March 2021, and that was during the second round of national school closures. And we asked parents about the educational experiences of their kids, so how long they spent on various educational activities, and what resources they had available to them. And when we compared the answers two broad messages came out. The first is that learning experiences appear to have gotten better between the first period of closures and the second. So to give an example, primary school kids back in April and May 2020, spent around 22 hours per week on learning activities. By early 2021 that had increased to 26 hours per week. And we also found that they spend more of this time on interactive activities, such as online classes, which we probably think of as more valuable than more passive, based learning. So that’s kind of the positive message, the more concerning one is that even though things improved, they were still significantly below pre-pandemic benchmarks. We know from time use surveys before COVID, that primary school kids tend to spend around 35 hours per week on learning activities. Clearly, this is quite a lot higher than both the 22 hours and 26 hours per week, we recorded in our surveys. So obviously, this raises concerns about substantial and protracted learning loss throughout the pandemic.

Catherine McDonald  2:19 

And then of course, learning loss has continued, hasn’t it? So even when the children went back to school, there were periods of isolation, first if they came into contact with somebody who’d had COVID. And then obviously, if they got COVID themselves. So through that sort of detection and isolation process, learning loss continued, didn’t it?

Adam Salisbury  2:37 

Yeah, I think that’s right. So we didn’t collect any data after March 2021. But we could ask the parents about the autumn term of 2020. And this was a period when schools were open to all children. But learning was frequently disrupted because children caught COVID, or their classmates caught COVID. So they had to sort of frequently self-isolate at home. And I suppose this model of instruction, this that characterised most of 2021, as well. So we can think that the lessons that we learned in autumn 2020, are probably applicable, at least somewhat to 2021, as well. And what we found was that children lost out on average, eight days of face-to-face instruction. And when they were forced to self-isolate, they had less access to things like online classes than periods of national closure as well. So again, these periods were probably very disruptive for children.

Catherine McDonald  3:23 

So Jennifer, what would you say about the significance of the learning loss that’s been experienced by children across the pandemic?

Jennifer Symonds  3:30 

Well, I would say that it’s too early to tell whether the learning loss will be sustained into later ages for the individuals who experienced a learning loss during the pandemic, because we haven’t had the opportunity to follow up these cohorts over a longer period of time. But the concern I think, amongst the research community of learning losses is that if there is a difference in the standardised test scores. In particular the school leaving qualifications that can be observed for cohorts who are completing those who have experienced a learning loss due to the pandemic, compared to previous cohorts that did not. That this potential inequality between cohorts in school leaving qualifications will lead to losses and income between age cohorts across a much longer period of time and potential losses in opportunities for different types of employment that might be available with different levels of qualification. So that’s one of the significances that people are, I think, rightly concerned about. But as I say, I think it’s far too early to tell whether or not this will become a reality. I think something that’s important to be considered is how individual children, individual families and individual schools are managing the learning loss that would have occurred as a result of the pandemic and the school closures. Because when we consider how we prepare young people and children for standardised testing, including school leaving qualifications. Quite often we start the study periods at a particular point in time during the school year. Whereas I know from anecdotal evidence that some schools are now starting the studying period earlier. And I think it’s important also to consider the pace of learning during an ordinary school term, and during an ordinary school year, and how the curriculum is covered in class, and how schools and teachers and indeed, families and children can also in their own way impact on the rate of their learning. So whether that be through a teacher teaching the curriculum quicker, or through starting the study period earlier, or through individual families focusing with their children, and here, I’m referring to younger children, on the types of academic competencies that they would like their children to recover or to develop more quickly, and also the role of individual children and their agency in managing their own learning and classrooms.

Catherine McDonald  6:01 

And as you say, Jennifer, we’re talking about individual experiences, no two families are the same. It seems a good time to start talking about the socio-economic inequalities her. Adam, how did the socio-economic learning inequalities evolve during the pandemic.

Adam Salisbury  6:17 

Learning inequalities between children widened quite significantly in the first lockdown. So for example, children from the poorest 20% of households spent around 19 hours per week on learning activities, whereas children from the richest 20% of households spend 27 hours per week on learning activities. So really quite a substantial difference, and one that we didn’t see before the pandemic. So during the second national closures in February and March 2021, inequalities in learning time had largely returned to their pre-pandemic levels. So children spend about the same amount of time learning. There’s many reasons we can speculate for this, we find in our data that poorer kids are more likely to have gained access to laptops and tablets. And they were also more likely to gained access to things like online classes, which they were less likely to have access to during the first lockdown.

Catherine McDonald  7:02 

And so am I right in saying then that COVID has sort of doubled down if you like, on children, who might have already been finding it harder to learn for various reasons.

Adam Salisbury  7:13 

Yeah, I think that’s right. So even though sort of patterns of inequality had returned to the pre-pandemic levels in early 2021. I don’t think that necessarily means that inequalities after COVID, will be the same as they were before. They could indeed be worse. There’s two reasons for this I think. The first is that the inequalities that emerged during the early pandemic could have sort of long lasting consequences. And the second is that inequalities could also have widened outside these periods of nationwide school closures. And we have some evidence for this in our data. So we find that during the autumn term, so when kids were back in school, poorer kids lost out on more in person instruction compared to richer kids due to the need to self-isolate. Again, there’s reasons we can speculate for this one being that we know infection rates were higher in poorer communities. And also poorer kids tend to attend schools with larger pupil-classroom ratios. With more kids in the class, just the likelihood of catching COVID and having to isolate is higher.

Catherine McDonald  8:07 

Sure. Alice, I’m really keen to bring you in here. So you teach in a secondary school. What are you thinking, as you’re hearing Adam and Jennifer talk about the work that they’ve done?

Alice Brighty-Glover  8:18 

From everything that I’ve heard from Jennifer and Adam, so far, I completely and wholeheartedly agree. Talk of a digital divide between socio-economic groups has been really poignant. And although the pupil premium or disadvantaged gap has been very prominent in education. Over the pandemic, it has never been wider in terms of students accessing online materials and online teaching. And what I would say is that the journey that teachers have been on during the pandemic, in terms of what we’ve provided in lockdown one to where we are now, in terms of our capacity to deal with online teaching has been a real journey in itself. In my own school context, we started with an archaic dinosaur model whereby we had no real concept of what students were able to access. We were uploading work or tasks, because truly speaking as someone that was on the ground, we thought it was going to be such a short-term thing. We thought two to three weeks. And then as, I think we as well as the whole nation, I guess, the reality of the lockdown became very apparent, we had to really move in order to I guess account for what we now call as lost learning. We moved from just uploading material to loom videos where we would record ourselves over PowerPoints to doing zoom lessons. My first zoom lesson was with our whole cohort of year 11s. I think there were 127 students on zoom with me trying to teach them about climate change over the Quaternary Period. And now where we are right now is at a place whereby we use Microsoft Teams to enable students that might be isolating, we do live lessons, we upload all our materials. So we’ve really been on a journey ourselves as well as we try and equal the playing field that has come from this lost learning.

Catherine McDonald  10:11 

And how do you equal that playing field?

Alice Brighty-Glover  10:14 

I mean, there’s been a lot of discussion in education about adapted and reactive curriculums. We as subject leaders, I’m currently the Head of Geography here at my school have all done deep retrospective looks in our curriculum to see where can we adapt to the learning lost by children? Where can we seek opportunities for retrieval? Another big key term in education at the moment. For instance, for year nine, who have lost two years of learning, I would have expected them to be able to do very complex geographical skills. And whilst I can’t go and re-teach back year seven, and eight, within the course of a year, re-going through our curriculums and identifying areas where we can not only strengthen their knowledge, but also strengthen their skills. And it’s been a real challenge for people and educators and curriculum designers in order to meet the needs of this generation of lost learners.

Catherine McDonald  11:08 

And what would you say to any policymaker listening about what they need to prioritise when it comes to generating catch up policies.

Alice Brighty-Glover  11:16 

Now, I would say above all, that the learning loss is global, and it’s significant, and students have paid such a heavy price. However, talk of loss alone, is to adopt a deficit model, in my opinion. And if we continue this solo dialogue of learning loss, actually what we’ve we see in the classroom and I see with my very large cohort of geographers going through their GCSE is this heightened anxiety. This concept of loss is actually one we as a school have sought not to adopt, i.e. the language around loss. At the start of this academic year in September, we started our school year with a burning brighter lighting fires week, which was seeking to enhance what students already knew. So I would actually say to policymakers, whilst it’s important that we recognise that there has been learning loss, avoiding talk of learning loss, actually focusing on helping our pupils to readjust to school life, by re-establishing good habits and study skills should be our focus. And actually, I’m very keen on pedagogy. I spend quite a lot of my my time on various courses, looking at educational psychology. And quite a famous American psychologist said, along the lines of this the most important single factor that influencing learning is what the learner already knows. And that, for me is really key focus on retrieval, focus on catch-up, focus on what the student already knows, because this language of loss, has actually been seen in the classroom to be quite detrimental to student mental health.

Catherine McDonald  12:58  

That’s so interesting. And I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard it flipped around like that. Jennifer, how does that resonate with you?

Jennifer Symonds  13:07 

I’m actually really happy to hear Alice talk about flipping it around. Because I would come at the experience of the pandemic from looking at learning not just as what children are learning and young people are learning in terms of curriculum content, but also what they’re learning in terms of competencies. And that by competencies, I mean social and emotional competencies as well as academic competencies. And I think that when we define learning loss as standardised test scores, and the difference in standardised test scores between cohorts of children and young people, we define learning much, much too narrowly. So I would consider learning to be much broader than just learning curriculum content. And I think that actually, the experience of the pandemic has created many opportunities for learning that young people wouldn’t necessarily have had. And I think that these types of competencies that young people can develop through working independently, through learning how to work with digital technologies in the way they might not have done so before. In learning other things about themselves and about their lives and about the world. And especially the way that knowledge can be communicated and the role of beliefs. And I think that many people are engaged in these arguments and thinking about COVID and how it’s been portrayed, and that includes our young people. So I would think that learning more broadly defined should be really central to our conversation to balance this negativity around the concept of academic learning loss.

Catherine McDonald  14:42 

And Adam, do you have anything to add?

Adam Salisbury  14:43 

Yeah, I do. And I completely agree with everything that’s been said. And the final thing to add, as well as I think like a narrow focus on academic learning loss is kind of a too restrictive viewpoint to look at the consequences of the pandemic. We actually asked parents back in early 2021 about what they were most concerned about and what kind of remedial policies they would most support. And it was interesting that parents were concerned about sort of academic learning loss. But they were also as concerned about the loss in sort of socio-emotional skills and socialising opportunities for their children. And one of the catch-up policies they were most in favour of, was just giving children more time to sort of play and interact with their fellow classmates.

Catherine McDonald  15:20 

Absolutely. And as a parent myself, I totally echo that.

Jennifer Symonds  15:23 

We’ve done a study in Ireland as part of our professional doctorate in educational psychology programme, where we studied children’s social and emotional competencies, the start of spring 2020, and then went back and looked at the change in their social and emotional competencies in September 2020. And during that period, we had one of the world’s longest periods of school closures. And this was a very interesting study that was done with primary school aged children. And what we found was that social and emotional competencies in general did decline over the summer period. We looked at the role of children’s socialising experiences during the school closures. So we looked at whether children were spending quality time with their parents, whether they got to play outdoors with their friends, whether they talked to their friends using digital technologies, whether they had a sibling to play with, whether they attended when the lockdown finally ended, any kind of extracurricular activity or camp. And what we found was that digital technology to talk to friends during the school closures didn’t have an impact on the development of their social and emotional competencies. But what we did find was that spending quality time with parents, and playing outdoors with friends for this primary school aged sample of children were really significant predictors that were protective factors against the decline in social and emotional competencies across the period of school closure due to the pandemic. So I think this is really interesting as well, and tallies with what Adam and Alice are saying about the social and emotional competencies and the importance of working with children to help children develop these because and I just really want to make this point, going back to something I said earlier in our conversation about the life course perspective, and the long term impact of potential learning loss. These are the things that employers really value. So we’ve done research into employability. And when you talk to employers, and you ask them, what’s important for them, in the recent graduates from university, they don’t straightaway say high grades, or excellent academic outcomes, unless you’re looking at very specific jobs that need very, very high levels of hard skills. But what employers really are very interested in is his key soft skills. So the ability to make decisions and to work independently in collaboration with others, is very important. The ability to show leadership skills, the ability to problem solve, the ability to manage conflict well and to work in a diverse environment of others in your, in your workplace. So these are the kinds of competencies which are very, very important for employability, and for transferable competencies that can actually see young people through this other crisis that we’re currently having, which is in young adulthood, with the employment crisis for young adults because of the pandemic. So these kinds of competencies are really important to develop. So I just wanted to take that life course perspective on this idea of social and emotional competency development, throughout the school closures because of the pandemic.

Catherine McDonald  18:36 

Can you envisage a time sort of further on, say, 10 years time where you’ve got a group of people going for a job, and the employer has the CVs in front of them. And their sort of instinctive reaction would be, oh, that’s a COVID generation CV there, we have to account for this, or we have to account for that because they were in year eight, or nine or 10, when the pandemic hit. Do you think it will still be in our consciousness that much in the future?

Jennifer Symonds  19:04 

Unfortunately, without a crystal ball, I can’t say. But I do think that there needs to be flexibility around school leaving qualifications, if we notice that these are significantly impacted for the COVID generation. And whether that flexibility will be in the perception of employers, or whether we might develop some type of value added scheme that policymakers would have to lead on to account for any difference in grades between cohorts. I don’t really know, I think that there does need to be flexibility in the consideration of young people from this generation. However, I do think we’re also going to see remarkable things from this generation of young people. And if you look at other circumstances where societies have been, for example, plunged into recession. So if you look at the great recession in the United States, for example, the historical life course work on that finds that there was this absolute blossoming of entrepreneurs during that time period. And so I think, even though we’re talking about academic learning loss in today’s podcast, I think that there are other things that are going to come out of this experience of the school closures, of the lockdowns, of this so called COVID generation of young people, which are going to surprise and amaze us, when it does come time for them to graduate from school.

Catherine McDonald  20:32 

And Alice, what would you say? So as a teacher, what would you say about sort of my fictional question about this job interview scenario?

Alice Brighty-Glover  20:39 

I mean, it’ll be interesting, I can’t remember if I’ve just imagined this, or whether I have seen in news, the term Gen C, the term Gen C, like popping up in media reports to kind of describe, I think it was in the early pandemic, this concept of what will this generation look like? I would say about this Gen C, or this generation pandemic, that they are incredibly resilient. I think that everyone, especially in education, and yes, I’m speaking from an education point of view, have been through a level of trauma in the sense that all communities regarding education have experienced this level of trauma. But the resilience, but the desire to improve, engage, the skills that they have learned. This generation will be the most digitally aware, then I think the generations that have come before them. And yes, there’ll be those GCSEs and we’ll look back on where they got their GCSEs and 2020, 2021, COVID generation. But I think the skills and the resilience that they’ve gained from this period of time, and the work that’s been done in and outside of education, I don’t think this will be a scarred generation. I only think they’ll have, I liked Jennifer’s concept of entrepreneurial. I think that they will surprise us in years to come.

Catherine McDonald  21:56 

That’s fantastic to hear. Adam, do you have anything to add there? Would you say the same?

Adam Salisbury  22:00 

Yeah, I would, I guess one more sort of positive bit I can add is some other research we did, which was on the labour market transitions of young people that had recently left full-time education. And one of the ways in which we can imagine in your hypothetical scenario that the COVID generation could be sort of hard done by as if if COVID really messes up their first job after school or university that could have a sort of like ratchet effect, whether that then affects their trajectory. And the job afterwards, and the job after that, and after that. But what we found in 2021, is that the young people that left school and university, the percentage of whom had found jobs within six months of leaving was no lower than it was before the pandemic. That wasn’t the case in 2020. But it was the case in 2021. So I think this is quite encouraging, because it looks as though at least for that cohort, their initial labour market transition wasn’t significantly impacted.

Catherine McDonald  22:46 

Sure, you know, what’s coming out loud and clear here is that almost whatever stage you’re at whether you, you know, you’ve you’ve just entering the employment market, whether your primary school, secondary school, you’re going to have been affected in some way and you won’t be alone in that. If we could now just sort of look at the difference between primary and secondary. So Alice, I know you’re a secondary school teacher, but from your sort of teaching networks, would you say the experiences that you’ve had have been echoed in primary schools? Or are there significant differences?

Alice Brighty-Glover  23:14 

I’m currently undertaking a leadership course whereby I’m actually paired in a trio with two fantastic primary school colleagues, from the local borough. And our shared experiences of catch-up, adaptive learning, most specifically, some of the things I spoke about the anxiety, mental health, school routines associated with the COVID pandemic, are shared. What I would say is the transition from primary to secondary school is a major life event for any 11 year old child in the UK. But what I would say, following the outbreak of COVID-19, we had students in year eight who didn’t have that transition. And I would say, with the children that have perhaps faced the biggest gap or biggest change are those in our year seven and eight cohorts who have had that transition in an era of great uncertainty. So speaking for my primary colleagues, in short, Catherine – Yes, the issues we face in terms of curriculum, in terms of catch-up, in terms of the school routines and behaviours are mirrored, but I would even zoom in further into that transitional zone from primary to secondary school.

Catherine McDonald  24:21 

I feel so much more positive in having this conversation than I expected to feel. And I think a turning point was when it was flipped to sort of look at what this generation might have gained in, in their skill set as opposed to loss. Also, I guess another major advantage is, I mean, I know that the schools that my children are at are now up and running with Google Classroom and so we’re able to just pitch in and carry on the learning at home. That’s a huge advantage, isn’t it, Jennifer? That we didn’t have before?

Jennifer Symonds  24:48 

Yes, absolutely and with my colleagues at University College Dublin, we run the children’s school lives nationally representative longitudinal study of children in primary schools in Ireland. And during the first school closure in Ireland in 2020, we did a survey of our sample of parents and children and school principals. And we looked at the difference across schools in the amount that schools were using digital technologies for learning. And we found that in our primary school age sample, that only about 20% of children actually had video lessons, and that the majority of children when workbooks and worksheets to go home with at the start of the school closures. And that some schools, the children didn’t have any contact with their classroom teachers in others they did. And when you look at the difference between that period and now. So we’ve recently done another wave of data collection, in fact, we’ve done two since that period of time. The percentage of children who use video technologies is much greater. And I think that, as you say, Catherine, it’s about being resilient to further shocks. Because the issue with the first lockdown was that it was unexpected. And we found in our survey, also that school principals were experiencing the highest levels of stress compared to parents and teachers, and indeed, compared to children, because of course, they were faced with this completely unexpected organisational change. It was this complete disruption in the system of their schools that they had to pick up and keep running in a completely different way, with absolutely no break and no warning. But now we’ve got these systems in place. So presuming that we do have these continued threats to public health, I’m hoping that we won’t. But if we do, and even if there are other issues that may make for future school closures, we are going to be so much more prepared. So I think that the resilience is within us as communities, it’s within schools. And it’s definitely within us as a society to be able to pick ourselves back up and to be more resilient to future school closures should they happen.

Catherine McDonald  27:06 

And Adam, do you see a level of positivity coming through in terms of resilience and sort of agility to maneuver and cope with shocks in the future?

Adam Salisbury  27:15 

Yeah, I think definitely. I was actually speaking with a teacher a few weeks ago, and she said that snow days won’t be a thing anymore. And it kind of just surprised me, because obviously snow days were something that in the UK, we’d have maybe once or twice a year. But now that this sort of apparatus is set up for distance learning, then they will no longer be necessary. This is perhaps a kind of trivial example. But I think it reflects the broader point that both Alice and Jennifer have mentioned that if there is any shock of education, like a period of illness, etc, then the systems in place to support that child is so much stronger now than they were before.

Catherine McDonald  27:46 

Absolutely. Alice, if I could kind of you know, start to wrap it up now by coming to you and just saying. How worried are you for your year 11s, who are about to take their exams, having lost the time at school in the classroom that they have?

 Alice Brighty-Glover  28:02 

Are they as well prepared as years before? No, they’re better. And that is because the pandemic has, I think made this current generation of students be really emotionally aware of learning. And coming from someone that gave up part of their Easter holiday to hold a revision session. Because they wanted it, they needed it. They were so grateful for this learning experience. And that has been the major shift. So am I worried? No. But maybe come back to me when I get my exam results back in August. Catherine, I might retract that.

Catherine McDonald  28:40 

I think one last thing to sort of touch on is is there a possibility that there’s a swathe of children that might fall between two stools here, with extra help being provided for those who maybe come from more disadvantage, and sort of lower socioeconomic backgrounds? And then more children who come from more affluent backgrounds could obviously you know, they can pay for the extra help? What about the children in the middle, are the children in the middle at risk of falling through the gaps?

Adam Salisbury  29:07 

So when we interviewed parents in early 2021, we asked whether their child had been provided with any catch-up provisions. And we actually found a pattern exactly like the one you’re describing. So children in the poorest 20% of households, and children in the richest 20% of households were the most likely to have been offered some kind of catch-up tuition, with children and the sort of middle 60% being the least likely, which kind of chimes with the sort of forgotten middle story that you were describing. I want to caveat this by saying two things. The first kind of obviously, is that this was the pattern in early 2021. And we don’t have the data to say whether this has continued throughout the pandemic. But the second thing is that even though the poorest 20% of kids were more likely to have been offered these catch up resources, they were actually less likely to have voluntarily taken them up. So when we look at the children who are actually accessing these services, we no longer see this U shaped relationship anymore. So in this case, we just see that the richest kids – sort of kids in the richest 20% of households – were the most likely to have access to catch-up tuition. And those in the bottom 20% and middle 60% were about equally likely to have access to them.

Catherine McDonald  30:11 

Sure, sure. So I think, Alice, I’d like to give you the final word here. What would you say to any parent listening to this fretting about the amount of learning their child may have lost as a result of this pandemic? What would be your message to them?

Alice Brighty-Glover  30:28 

I think I would have two messages. I think one the most important thing to have come from this pandemic is the shift from obsessing over academic performance to focusing on the emotional and social experience of children has been key. And I’ve noted that in my role, not just as a teacher of geography, but as a form tutor. The focus really on child wellbeing, I think, has been key. But secondly, what I would say to parents is we as a teaching profession, have looked deep into our curriculums, look deep into our teaching methods, look deep and reflected on what we are providing your children in order to stop the negative language, the negative dialogue about loss, and we are in front of your children everyday, helping to remind them what they know, and helping to prepare them for the future.

Catherine McDonald  31:21

My thanks to Adam Salisbury, Dr. Jennifer Symonds and Alice Brighty-Glover. You can find out more about the work of the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network via their website and Twitter @ICWBN. The work of the network is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council and the Irish Research Council under the ESRC-IRC UK Ireland networking grants. This was a Research Podcast production. Thank-you for listening and remember to subscribe to receive all future episodes. 


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