Coronavirus crisis will widen the attainment gap

Written by: Susannah Hardyman | Published:

It seems inevitable that the coronavirus national crisis will further widen the attainment gap between rich and poor, says Susannah Hardyman

The coronavirus crisis has caused a seismic shift in education, with schools nationwide closing their doors to all but the children of key workers and our most vulnerable pupils, while grappling to implement online solutions in a bid to give some semblance of effective teaching and learning for pupils.

The shift has also prompted unprecedented demand from affluent parents for private tutoring – an industry with an annual income of more than £2 billion. With online support, these parents are keen to shield their children from spring and summer learning loss.

But what about the around 28 per cent of pupils in state education deemed as disadvantaged – those eligible for the Pupil Premium. Many of these will be pupils who may not have access to high bandwidth broadband to facilitate remote learning, or space to work easily in cramped accommodation?

Disadvantaged pupils are less likely to meet expected standards in reading, writing and maths at primary school – 47 per cent versus 68 per cent (DfE, 2019).

And every year, around 75,000 disadvantaged children leave school without basic qualifications in English and maths (Children’s Commissioner, 2019). Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are not less academically able, but a lack of access to tools and resources means that currently only 24.7 per cent of this group gain a Grade 5 to 9 in both English and maths GCSEs, compared to 49.9 per cent of all other pupils (DfE, 2020).

Motivation is also set to prove a challenge. We all know that it is far easier to engage with a pupil in person than it is to motivate them to work online, especially if their parents are not available to support and encourage them or if that child is struggling academically.

Attendance of online sessions will, I believe, be very difficult to enforce or even encourage.

Sadly, it seems inevitable that the current national crisis will further widen the attainment gap between rich and poor.

While many schools are doing all they can now to mitigate this, and are proving themselves in so many ways as the fourth emergency service, disadvantaged children are going to need more support than ever before to catch up in the months to come – and in the next academic year when we hope things will have returned to normal.

That support will no doubt need to take many forms, but one-to-one tutoring can be an effective intervention that can play a big role in raising attainment (EEF, 2018).

As a key provider of school-based intervention programmes incorporating tutoring solutions provided free to disadvantaged pupils, charity Action Tutoring is calling on the government to provide catch-up funding in addition to the Pupil Premium funding for disadvantaged pupils once schools re-open.

This would enable schools to provide extra support such as additional tuition for disadvantaged pupils – who already face being 18 months behind their more affluent counterparts by the end of secondary school (Hutchinson et al, 2019) – and to help prevent them from falling even further behind.

In the short term, Action Tutoring is hoping that the Department for Education (DfE) will provide laptops and broadband access to those in need to facilitate home learning more easily.

While exams may have been scrapped for this year, learning is for life and not just for exams. Good standards in English and maths in particular are crucial to progressing well in further education, employment or training.

Schools will be and are doing all they can to alleviate the immediate impact of the current crisis on their pupils. This crisis has sparked an incredible outpouring of community spirit, whether through food banks or local groups setting up to look out for their neighbours.

But the coronavirus is going to have a long-lasting impact on society.

Volunteers and charities will be needed more than ever before, backed by the government, to help schools pick up the pieces and enable their pupils, whatever their background, to flourish in every way.

The immediate volunteer and charity efforts are hugely encouraging but this is going to be a marathon not a sprint and these efforts are going to be needed for a long time to come.

  • Susannah Hardyman is CEO of education charity Action Tutoring, a not-for-profit which works with schools to deliver tutoring programmes to bridge the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in the UK. Eighty-seven per cent of Action Tutoring’s student cohort is eligible for Pupil Premium funding. Visit

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