The proportion of very low attainers in the year group has risen from 2.6 per cent before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2017 to 9.1 per cent in spring 2022.
The finding has been revealed today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), following research that tracked the longer-term impact of the pandemic on younger pupils’ reading and maths skills.
It is based on a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), which followed 6,000 pupils who were in Reception and Year 1 in March 2020 until the spring term of 2022.
For maths, the proportion of very low attainment in Year 2 more than doubled – from 2.6 per cent before the pandemic to 5.5 per cent in spring 2022.
And the proportion of low attainers in reading in Year 3 also more than doubled – from 2.5 per cent to 6.5 per cent between 2017 and 2022.
Low attainers were defined as those who scored below the lowest standardised score in the spring 2022 assessments.
Meanwhile, the report found that the socioeconomic attainment gap was wider in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels and research ”provides no evidence for it decreasing or increasing since spring 2021”.
For Year 2 pupils, the disadvantage gap in spring 2022 was around six months of progress for reading and around five months of progress for maths.
And for those Year 3 pupils, the gap was even wider, at around nine months of progress for reading and around eight months of progress for maths.
The research found that pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) in Years 2 and 3 scored significantly higher in reading and maths than in spring 2021, however, the change in the scores has happened at the same rate as for pupils ineligible for FSM.
The attainment outcomes of pupils in Year 2 and Year 3 in spring 2022 were compared with attainment outcomes for a representative sample of pupils assessed in 2019 and 2017 for Year 2 and Year 3 (respectively) before the pandemic.
The research included a total of 6,029 pupils in Year 2 and Year 3 in 81 schools compared with attainment outcomes for a representative sample of pupils assessed in 2019 and 2017 for Year 2 and Year 3.
Pupil wellbeing affected
The research also investigated the effects of the pandemic on pupils’ social skills and wellbeing.
The findings noted that FSM pupils and boys “were assessed as having significantly lower social skills than non-FSM pupils and girls”.
The EEF also surveyed 67 headteachers, which revealed that 13 per cent of schools reported disruption in the 2021 to 2022 academic year due to challenges with pupil behaviour and wellbeing, with over half (58 per cent) of schools “struggling to get the external support they needed for pupils”.
EEF chief executive, Professor Becky Francis, said that the research had provided ”clear evidence that the efforts of schools and teachers across the country in supporting their pupils’ learning are paying off”.
She said: “However, the findings add to a heavy body of evidence telling us that socioeconomic 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.”
Professor Francis added that “tackling education equality” was the “biggest challenge” the education system was facing.
”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,” she said.
Reacting to the findings, Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said: “Well before the pandemic hit, the gap in attainment between children from wealthy and poor families had stopped closing.
“Nearly 18 months of progress already separated pupils from the poorest communities from their more affluent peers. As this research highlights, an already bad situation will have been made all the worse by the impact of Covid, with the attainment gap now wider than before the pandemic and showing no sign of reducing.
“This report is further evidence of the continued need to invest in education and childhood recovery in the long term.”
Tiffnie Harris, primary and data specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The findings of this report reflect the severe impact that the pandemic has had on many young children during a crucial stage of both their learning and emotional development.
“Reduced time in class has been particularly damaging to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, with parents having fewer resources and less time to support them.
“Teachers are putting a huge amount of work into helping pupils catch up on learning but, as the report recognises, face a number of challenges. Primary school budgets will continue to be stretched, even after the extra money announced in the Autumn Statement.”
Last month, government figures revealed that the proportion of children meeting the expected standard in the phonics screening check in Year 1 had fallen to its lowest since 2014, with just three-quarters achieving the level.
And earlier this year, statistics revealed that the proportion of pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, writing, maths and science by the end of key stage 1 had plummeted, reflecting fears that this cohort has been the worst hit by the impact of Covid on learning.