As we start another term likely to be disrupted by the pandemic, what has been the impact of multiple lockdowns and other restrictions on education equality? As the pandemic exacerbates the already concerning issue of inequality, we look at what schools, education organisations and the Government can do to close the gap.

By Jane Dowden, Education Innovations Manager at the BSA


This time two years ago, we had no idea what we were facing. News reports had started to emerge about the virus, which was having a devastating impact in parts of China, but for most of us in the UK, life went on as normal. Fast forward to the present day, and it is astounding to think of the level of change we have all faced over the last 24 months.

There is no doubt that all of us have felt the impact of the pandemic, but one of the sectors that was most acutely affected, was the education sector. The level and longevity of the disruption that students, teachers, support staff and parents have had to deal with since the pandemic began is unprecedented. And unfortunately, the impact has been most severe on disadvantaged students, who even before the pandemic began, were almost two years behind their peers academically when leaving school, according to a report from the Fair Education Alliance (FEA).

The FEA is a coalition of 250 member organisations (including the British Science Association (BSA)) which seek to tackle inequality in education. In October 2021, the FEA published a vital report of collated research and evidence on the current state of education equality.

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the FEA report shows that the pandemic is likely to have widened the attainment gap for disadvantaged students even further. A combination of extended periods of home learning, changes to school examinations and assessments, as well as workplace closures, have had a huge impact on children, but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Young people of all ages have been affected, from those in early years settings, to those taking GCSEs, to school leavers hoping to start apprenticeships or university courses.

Worrying statistics 

The report paints a grim picture. It reveals that primary school children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be meeting age-related expectations than their peers in literacy and numeracy, post-lockdown. 43% of disadvantaged pupils had met age-related expectations for reading compared to 63% of non-disadvantaged groups. For writing it was 36% compared to 55%, and for maths, 41% compared to 61%. In some regions, particularly urban areas in the North and the Midlands where there is higher deprivation, the gap in attainment is even wider. The data shows that younger children have seen the biggest drops in age-related expectations of learning, with attainment dropping by 30% in maths for disadvantaged children in Year 1 as a result of the first lockdown.

There is also evidence of increases in inequality at secondary level. The report revealed that the gap in 2020 GCSE results between disadvantaged students and their peers had slightly narrowed compared to 2019. However, in 2021 the gap between the two groups increased again, with more advantaged students gaining a higher percentage of the top grades.

The report shows that it isn’t just academic attainment that has been impacted. Disadvantaged students have also been shown to have lower levels of scores against 'essential skills', something that can affect their future income and qualifications.

Disadvantaged students continue to be less likely to have a sustained destination (employment, further education or training) than their more affluent peers. They still gained fewer of the top grades compared to their peers on A-Level results day in 2021, and were negatively impacted by the decrease in apprenticeship starts in September 2020. While it is encouraging to find that in 2020 and 2021 more disadvantaged students gained places at university than ever before, they are still less likely to get a university place compared to their peers.

What can be done?

There’s no sugar coating these stats – the situation is bad. But it is not hopeless. There are solutions we can all contribute to, to reduce the impact for those who have already been affected by the pandemic, as well as tackle the inequity we know was already there beforehand. The report from the FEA also offers a number of policy recommendations to the Government to rectify the areas of inequality it discusses.

Schools are now far better prepared for home learning, and teachers have worked hard to mitigate the impact of the lockdowns since all children returned to school last spring. However, it is clear that disadvantaged children have fallen further behind and will take longer to reach the attainment level of their more affluent peers.

In response to external pressure, schools may feel they need to focus on helping children ‘catch up’ with lost academic learning, to the detriment of extra-curricular projects and activities, which means children may miss out on wider experiences. These often have a big impact on skill-development and boosting wellbeing.

In its recommendations, the FEA has called on schools and education organisations to take a more holistic approach to children’s education, one which develops the whole child including wellbeing, skills and attainment. It identifies the need for wraparound support for schools where enrichment activities are delivered to develop wellbeing and skills.

At the BSA, we are particularly concerned by the gap in equality in science attainment, and the lack of diversity in the STEM workforce. Working in the STEM enrichment sector, we know that extra-curricular activities, project work and work experience all help to build children’s essential skills alongside their academic learning. These activities have a big impact on wellbeing by allowing young people to make choices and pursue a passion or personal interest. Work experience, research placements and contact with professionals have been shown to be essential in improving access to employment. These activities help to raise student engagement and confidence, which has led to higher academic attainment.

And perhaps most importantly, there is evidence to suggest that the positive impact of extra-curricular activities, project work and work experience is even higher for disadvantaged young people. So, a focus on offering these types of opportunities to disadvantaged students first – ahead of their more affluent peers – may be one solution. To tackle the inequality gap in education, we have to acknowledge that we can’t treat all young people the same. Equity can only come about if we offer more to those who have less.

The importance of diversity and inclusion

The FEA report found that diversity and inclusion are key to the closing of the equality gap. This means keeping the curriculum relevant, supporting teachers with professional development and attracting a more diverse workforce into teaching.

This reflects the BSA’s mission. In education, we are working with teachers to break down barriers and old stereotypes about who does science, and ensure the science curriculum and the culture around science promoted in schools is inclusive of everyone.

In the 2020 report into inequity in STEM education for the APPG for diversity and inclusion in STEM, teacher retention was highlighted as one of the barriers to equity in the STEM education sector. The report called for more action to address teacher shortages in STEM subjects, and more support for teachers to access specialist skills and knowledge linked to improving equity. As well as valuing and supporting teachers, the FEA’s report also highlighted the importance of engaging parents and the wider community with schools and education, to improve equality.

Education inequalities run far deeper than those created by the pandemic and therefore we should look for solutions which solve the root causes rather than focus on helping children catch up on lost learning. This isn’t just a job for schools but involves businesses, industry and the wider education sector too.

As we look ahead to where we might be in another two years’ time, I hope that we will be able to reflect back on the wake-up call that the pandemic has offered the sector. We owe it to the next generation to tackle inequity, in all its guises, and we have the means to do so.

You can read the full report from the FEA here: FEA report card 2021