• Disadvantaged pupils tend to have lower educational attainment compared with their peers; this is often called the disadvantage gap. 
  • School closures, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely to have widened the disadvantage gap. This is because disadvantaged pupils tend to have less access to technology, spend less time learning and have reduced support from parents/carers compared with their peers.
  • Attempts to moderate grades based on an algorithm were met with widespread criticism, as many claimed that disadvantaged students were disproportionately affected. The Government has since reversed this decision.
  • Proposed interventions to counter the effect of COVID-19 on the disadvantage gap include catch-up premiums, tutoring programmes and support for remote learning.
  • This is part of our rapid response content on COVID-19. The article will be updated as research progresses. You can view all our reporting on this topic under COVID-19.

The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted education for all students, as school closures have necessitated home-schooling and online distance learning. However, evidence indicates that disadvantaged students have had the greatest disruption to their education.

This disruption is likely to widen educational attainment gaps, which refer to differences in academic achievement between different groups of people. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is often called the disadvantage gap.

This effect continues throughout a person’s life, affecting entry into higher education, future employment and lifetime earnings. The disadvantage gap also impacts wider society, as underachievement by disadvantaged pupils costs national economies through the loss of future potential earnings. A Royal Society report highlights that 13 cohorts of students have been affected by school closures, so from the mid-2030s, workers in their 20s will have lower skills than they would otherwise have. For the next 50 years, this has the potential to affect a quarter of the entire workforce and disadvantaged students are particularly at risk of falling into poverty.

There is an association between disadvantaged background and lower quality teaching and less access to learning materials in the home. The most common ways of measuring economic disadvantage is if a pupil is either eligible for free school meals (FSM) and/or qualifies for the Pupil Premium (government funding allocated to schools to tackle the attainment gap). The Pupil Premium is given to schools for any pupil who has been eligible for free school meals in the past six years, is the child of a service family, or is being looked after by local authorities.

The Education Policy Institute 2020 report has indicated that the disadvantage gap has stopped closing for the first time in over a decade. Last year, the Education Policy Institute predicted it would take 560 years for the gap to close. However, this year’s data suggests that the gap is no longer closing at all. Strikingly, evidence shows that the narrowing of the gap was stalling prior to COVID-19 impacting the education system. Primary school data show that the disadvantage gap has increased for the first time since 2007.

By the time disadvantaged students leave primary school, they are around 9 months behind their peers. This gap increases as students get older; when disadvantaged students leave secondary school they are around 18 months behind their peers. An analysis by Teach First shows that, in 2019, 45% of disadvantaged pupils achieved a standard pass (Grade 4) in GCSE maths and English, compared with 72% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

The disadvantage gap varies by region. In areas such as Blackpool and Plymouth, disadvantaged pupils are over 2 years of education behind their peers by the time they complete their GCSEs. The disadvantage gap is much smaller in many areas of London, such as Ealing (4.6 months) and Westminster (0.5 months).

COVID-19, educational disruption and the disadvantage gap

The UK Government response to the COVID-19 outbreak included closing schools to all students (except for children of key-workers) in March. During the period of school closure, education provision for students varied, but included online teaching, assignments marked remotely by teachers, lessons delivered by parents/guardians, and other supplementary learning activities (such as online materials or textbooks).

Stakeholders (including the Children’s Commissioner, the Sutton Trust, the National Foundation for Educational Research, the Education Endowment Foundation, and the Education Policy Institute) have expressed concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the disadvantage gap. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has highlighted that data on the equality impacts of COVID-19 are limited, although information from pre-existing inequalities in education suggests the potential for negative impact. They recommend collecting comprehensive data to shape targeted interventions, and to maximise collaborative approaches across families, community and equality groups to best respond to barriers to education.

The deputy director of the Department for Education’s pupil premium and school food division has acknowledged that school closures and ongoing educational disruption may undo the progress that has been made in the past decade, and suggested that the disadvantage gap could widen as much as 75% as a result. The Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation has described it as “the test of a generation”.

A student accessing a class through zoom. In the a laptop sits beside a tablet, a smart watch and a smart phone. Not all students will have access to the same technology nor will all schools be prepared to accommodate remote learning in the same way.
Disadvantaged students are less likely to have access to the technology they need for remote learning. At the same time middle class families might receive more support from schools such as video lessons,

Evidence gathered via surveys indicates that the quality and quantity of remote learning education has varied across groups of students in multiple areas:

  • Access to technology. Disadvantaged students are less likely to have devices and internet connections. A survey of over 7,000 teachers by the Sutton Trust found that 15% of teachers in the most deprived schools said that their students would not have adequate access to an electronic device for home learning and 12% felt their students would not have adequate internet access. Pupils from middle-class homes (30%) were more likely to take part in daily online activities compared with working-class pupils (16%).
  • Access to teacher guidance and materials. A YouGov survey of over 1,500 parents found that middle-class parents were more likely to have received support from their child’s school than working-class parents. This included receiving guidance for home-schooling, useful resources and homework activities. A poll by Teacher Tapp found that 69% of private school teachers felt prepared to conduct video lessons, compared with 40% in the state sector. In response to the need for online resources, the BBC has produced daily online lessons, and Eton College has given free access to its own online learning platform to all year 11 and 13 state school students.
  • Time spent learning. A survey of over 4,500 children and young people found that disadvantaged children were far less likely than their peers to be completing over 4 hours of schoolwork a day during lockdown. The Institute for Fiscal Studies conducted a survey of 4,000 parents that found children in the highest income families spend 5.8 hours a day on educational activities compared with 4.5 hours in lowest income families. This difference equates to 15 school days between March and September.
  • Support from parents/guardians. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that high-income parents were more likely to agree that supporting their child’s learning was ‘not at all difficult’ or ‘not very difficult’. According to The Sutton Trust, parents of children from richer homes were also more likely to make use of private tuition to reduce the impact of school closures compared with poorer households (34% vs. 20%).
  • Alternative assessment. Across the UK, examinations for school qualifications (such as A levels, BTECs, Scottish Highers and GCSEs) were cancelled. After attempts to moderate grades based on an algorithm were met with widespread criticism, all UK governments decided to give students their teacher-predicted grades (also known as centre assessment grades). There were concerns raised (for example, by the Commons Education Committee) that using a standardisation algorithm could create bias against disadvantaged students and lower their grades to a greater extent. However, use of centre assessment grades may also present some similar issues. Although teachers were given Ofqual guidance on how to ensure predicted grades were assigned as fairly as possible, it is not known to what extent unconscious biases against some groups may have influenced predictions. The Equality Act Review around assessments and grading during the COVID-19 outbreak indicates that the use of teacher predictions for grades may result in students from disadvantaged backgrounds receiving lower grades than they would have received in examinations. If this is the case, the disadvantage gap could appear to be even wider, especially at Key Stage 4 (when GCSE examinations are usually taken). However, some researchers suggest that centre assessment grades may be slightly higher at schools with higher levels of disadvantage than the grades typically achieved. If this holds true in the 2020 centre assessment grade, there could seem to be a narrowing of the disadvantage gap this year that will not be sustained in future year groups.
  • Attendance. As schools re-open, non-attendance may disproportionately affect those from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to the National Foundation for Educational Research, school leaders with the highest proportion of FSM pupils estimate that more families will keep them at home (50% on average) compared with an average estimate of 42% from leaders with the lowest proportion of FSM. This raises concerns that pupils in most need of access to education will be the least likely to receive it.

Government responses

Schools across the UK closed in March but have since reopened (in August for Scotland and in September for the rest of the UK). On 5 August, the Children’s Commissioner for England published a new briefing urging that schools should be the last place to close in the event of another local or national lockdown. The briefing asserts that children are at low risk but are more likely to suffer consequences through loss of social contact and education. For further details see the POST rapid analysis on COVID-19, children and schools.

The UK Government has responded to concerns around school attainment in three key ways: an increase in funding in 2020–2021 (catch-up premium), a tutoring programme, and improved support for remote learning. Some of these responses are aimed at reducing the attainment gap for all pupils and some include interventions directly focused on reducing the disadvantage gap.

Catch-up premium

The UK Government has announced a £650 million ‘catch-up premium’ to support children and young people. This is a one-off universal scheme for the 2020 to 2021 academic year to ensure that schools are supported to help all pupils make up for lost teaching time. Each mainstream school will receive £80 for each pupil in years reception through to 11, whilst special, alternative provision and hospital schools will be provided with £240 per pupil.

The UK Government has not announced extra undirected funding to target the disadvantage gap (although extra funding has been made available for tutoring, as discussed below). However, the Scottish Government launched the Attainment Scotland Fund, an additional £43 million to the nine local councils with the highest concentrations of deprivation in Scotland. This is in addition to the £250 million Pupil Equity Funding package announced in May.


The UK Government has announced a £350 million National Tutoring Programme to provide additional, targeted support for disadvantaged and vulnerable children who need the most help.

The National Tutoring Programme will make high-quality tuition available to disadvantaged pupils aged 5–16 years in English state-funded schools from the second half of autumn term 2020. Schools in the most disadvantaged areas will be supported to employ in-house academic mentors to provide small group tuition to their pupils. It will also fund small group tutoring for disadvantaged 16–19 year olds in further education, such as sixth forms and colleges.

A secondary student having a one-on-one session with a private tutor.
Tutoring and other such interventions can boost progress by up to 5 months.

Prior to the funding being announced, the Education Endowment Foundation launched an online tutoring pilot scheme, an initiative that provides high quality tutoring to over 1,600 disadvantaged children. The pilot scheme is using different approaches, including online tuition in core subjects using structured workbooks and interactive one-to-one tuition from undergraduate tutors. There is evidence that such interventions can boost progress by up to 5 months.

Support for remote learning

In England, the Department for Education is providing laptops and 4G wireless routers for disadvantaged children. Those eligible include care leavers, pupils with a social worker and disadvantaged Year 10 pupils. The Children’s Commissioner for England has called for the scheme to be expanded so that more disadvantaged pupils can access education from home.

Similarly, the Scottish Government has invested £9 million to provide 25,000 laptops to assist pupils learning at home. The Welsh Government has identified ‘digitally excluded learners’ through local authorities and pledged £3 million to provide pupils with the support required. Northern Ireland’s Department of Education is also providing laptops, with priority groups including students that receive free school meals, refugees/asylum seekers and children in care.

Evidence-based interventions

Stakeholders have suggested how potential increases in funding could be used for a variety of different interventions to tackle the disadvantage gap. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation has published a support guide for schools with evidence-based approaches to catch up for all students. This includes methods for targeted support, such as one-to-one tuition with a catch-up tutor. However, whichever interventions are chosen by schools, there are some evidence-based principles that underpin likely effectiveness.

  • Specific aims. Interventions with a specific aim are likely to be more effective. For example, evidence indicates that interventions that meet a specific need (such as oral language skills) are likely to be the most effective.
  • Parent involvement. The most successful interventions consider the needs and concerns of parents. For example, there is evidence that extending the school day can positively impact learning, as well as attendance and behaviour. However, to be successful, any increases in school time should be supported by both parents and staff. This is especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as families are likely to have greater pressures, for example from financial or caring responsibilities. Academics have commented that it is often not as simple as instructing parents on how to continue existing interventions as parents are often vulnerable themselves. They suggest that key priorities should be to support parents and assign specific time to build on re-adjustments once schools re-open.
  • School leadership. A 2016 briefing for the Scottish Parliament identified strong school leadership and effective assessment as key factors for successful intervention. However, it also stressed that there is not necessarily one cause or solution for the gap. Whilst schools play an important role, closing the disadvantage gap requires structured efforts within the home and across the community.
  • Whole school approach. In order to change outcomes in the long-term for disadvantaged pupils, a one-off intervention is unlikely to be effective. Guidance from the Department for Education on reducing the disadvantage gap advocates for a whole-school approach, where pupils are supported to achieve through all aspects of school life (including school ethos, curricula and policies). Changes in other aspects of the school environment may create a better learning environment and learning outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. For example, in 2017, NHS Health Scotland conducted an evidence summary on the role of health and well-being interventions in reducing the attainment gap. Whilst the evidence base was limited, there was some evidence that providing nutritional lunches and emotional learning programmes led to positive outcomes.

You can find more content from POST on COVID-19 here.

You can find more content on COVID-19 from the Commons and Lords Libraries here.

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