Overview of change

There has been a substantial amount of research on educational inequality in the UK, including access to high-quality teaching, expectations and attainment.1,2 Factors associated with inequality and attainment gaps include economic disadvantage, ethnicity, disability, gender, and whether a child has been in care or has special educational needs and disability (SEND).3,4 There is also regional variation in the average size of the disadvantage gap.5 Educational inequalities emerge in very early childhood and the effects continue throughout a person’s life, affecting entry into higher education, future employment and lifetime earnings.6,7 Some data suggest a rise in educational inequality over time in the UK, but it depends on the stage of education being assessed and the measure of inequality used.8,9 The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased attention on educational inequalities and attainment gaps in the short-, medium- and long-term.

Challenges and opportunities

Concerns have been expressed by stakeholders (including the former Children’s Commissioner for England, the Sutton Trust, the National Foundation for Educational Research, the Education Endowment Foundation, the Education Policy Institute, and the Royal Society) about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on inequalities in education and attainment gaps.10–16  Preliminary analyses of assessments taken by Year 2 pupils (aged 6–7 years and in their final year of Key Stage 1) in autumn term 2020 in England found that children in this age group have fallen behind in reading and maths (by approximately 2 months) and that disadvantage gaps have widened.17 In addition to impacts on learning, pandemic restrictions have adversely affected children’s and adolescent’s mental and physical health, due to social isolation, reduced social support, strained family relationships, academic stress and reduced access to services.16,18–22 Some children will have experienced bereavement due to COVID-19.23 The pandemic has also exacerbated the risks of poor nutrition, experiencing maltreatment, and being exposed to violence at home. 24

School closures and ongoing educational disruption may widen the disadvantage gap, undoing any progress made during the past decade. Experts note the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase educational inequalities and attainment gaps for multiple reasons.16,17 This includes the digital divide, differences in parental engagement in education, disparities in home circumstances (such as availability of quiet study space) and wide variation in the quantity and quality of remote schooling and home learning support between pupils and schools.16,25 Healthy social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence has also been shown to be positively associated with greater health and well-being and better academic attainment.26,27 Vulnerable children and young people may have faced particular hardship that may adversely affect their health and social and emotional development in the longer-term.24 Adverse impacts have affected some groups of children more than others. This includes children whose parents suffer from mental ill-health, young carers, children with SEND, children living in poverty, refugee and migrant children, children in care, children exposed to domestic abuse, and children at-risk or suffering harm from abuse or neglect.24,28–30 They may need a range of support mechanisms to meet their needs and enable them to catch up.31

Experts have also raised concerns about bias in approaches to assessment within and beyond the initial pandemic, which could compound attainment gaps and affect students’ entry into higher education, future employment and lifetime earnings. Without measures to close the attainment gap, young people are likely to experience greater disadvantage for the rest of their lives. Experts also predict that a widening attainment gap could result in fewer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university in the longer term.25

Key unknowns

There is increasing research on how socio-demographic characteristics, such as economic disadvantage, ethnicity, disability, gender, cared-for and SEND status, are related to educational inequality and attainment gaps, and the long-term implications for the individual and society.32–42 However, it is unclear how loss of learning and adverse mental health implications from COVID-19 will exacerbate inequalities in the medium- to long-term, and what policies and interventions are likely to be most effective at addressing gaps.

Key questions for Parliament

  • How successful has recent UK Government policy and funding been in decreasing educational inequalities and attainment gaps?
  • What are the impacts of school closures on children’s developmental milestones in the short- and long-term, including literacy, numeracy, social and emotional development, and speech and language?
  • What can schools and governments do to mitigate the loss of learning that students have experienced in the 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years? What more can be done to support children’s health and mental well-being?
  • Is the COVID-19 pandemic likely to increase existing inequalities in education or create new inequalities? Which groups are likely to be most disadvantaged?
  • What can schools and governments do to prevent existing inequalities in education widening or new ones from forming? What can governments do to reduce inequalities further? What interventions are required to provide support for the most vulnerable children?
  • How are schools, exam boards and universities preparing for a likely increase in people contesting their assigned grades in the medium-term? What is the likely impact of this year’s assigned grades on university admissions in the future?

Likelihood and impact

High impact and high likelihood with some impacts being felt now but others over a 5 to 10-year timescale.

Research for Parliament 2021

Experts have helped us identify 30 areas of change to help the UK Parliament prepare for the future.


  1. Department for Education (2019). Giving all children the opportunity to achieve great outcomes – Education in the media.
  2. Hutchinson, J. et al (2019). Education in England: Annual Report 2019. Education Policy Institute
  3. Education Endowment Foundation (2018). Closing the Attainment Gap.
  4. Crenna-Jennings, W. (2018). Key drivers of the disadvantage gap: literature review.   Education Policy Institute.
  5. Education Policy Institute (2019). Geographical Analysis Pack.
  6. Pillas, D. et al. (2014). Social inequalities in early childhood health and development: a European-wide systematic review. Pediatr Res, Vol 76, 418–424.
  7. OECD (2018). Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility. 
  8. Blanden, J. et al. (2003). Changes in Educational Inequality. Centre for Economic Performance.
  9. Garcia, E. et al. (2017). Education inequalities at the school starting gate: Gaps, trends, and strategies to address them. Education Policy Institute.
  10. Children’s Commissioner for England (2020). Tackling the disadvantage gap during the Covid-19 crisis.
  11. Montacute, R. (2020). Social Mobility and COVID-19.  Sutton Trust.
  12. Sharp, C., Sims, D. & Rutt, S. (2020). Return of pupils to school: Schools’ responses to Covid-19. National Foundation for Educational Research.
  13. Education Endowment Foundation (2021). Best evidence on impact of Covid-19 on pupil attainment.
  14. Education Policy Institute (2020). Preventing the disadvantage gap from increasing during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
  15. Whittaker, F. et al. (2020). Attainment gap could widen by 75%, warns DfE official. Schools Week.
  16. The DELVE Initiative (2020). Balancing the Risks of Pupils Returning to Schools. The Royal Society.
  17. Rose, S. et al. (2021). Impact of school closures and subsequent support strategies on attainment and socio-emotional wellbeing in Key Stage 1: Interim Paper 1. Education Endowment Foundation.
  18. POST (2020). Child and adolescent mental health during COVID-19.
  19. Viner, R. M. et al. (2021). Reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic: governments must balance the uncertainty and risks of reopening schools against the clear harms associated with prolonged closure. Archives of Disease in Childhood, Vol 106, 111–113.
  20. Newlove-Delgado, T. et al. (2021). Child mental health in England before and during the COVID-19 lockdown. The Lancet Psychiatry, Vol 0,
  21. Pierce, M. et al. (2020). Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population. The Lancet Psychiatry, Vol 7, 883–892.
  22. Ofsted (2020). COVID-19 series: briefing on schools, October 2020.
  23. Scottish Government (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19): impact on children, young people and families – evidence summary October 2020.
  24. OECD (2020). Combatting COVID-19’s effect on children.
  25. POST (2020). Life beyond COVID-19: What are experts concerned about?
  26. White, J. (2017). Evidence summary: Reducing the attainment gap – the role of health and wellbeing interventions in schools. NHS Health Scotland.
  27. Public Health England (2014). The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment.
  28. Children’s Commissioner for England (2020). We’re all in this together?
  29. Scottish Government (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19): supporting vulnerable children and young people – data intelligence report.
  30. United Nations (2020). Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on children.
  31. Sibieta, L. et al. (2021). Education reopening and catch-up support across the UK. Education Policy Institute.
  32. Ellefson, M. R., et al (2020). Do executive functions mediate the link between socioeconomic status and numeracy skills? A cross-site comparison of Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Vol 194, 104734.
  33. Kassai, R. et al. (2019). A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence on the near- and far-transfer effects among children’s executive function skills. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 145, 165–188.
  34. Enser (2019). How useful is cognitive load theory for teachers? Tes.
  35. Chen, O. et al. (2018). Extending Cognitive Load Theory to Incorporate Working Memory Resource Depletion: Evidence from the Spacing Effect. Educ Psychol Rev, Vol 30, 483–501.
  36. Teravainen-Goff, A., Hackett, S. & Clark, C. (2020). Aspirations, literacy and gender. National Literacy Trust.
  37. Lu, K. et al. (2019). Cognition at age 70: Life course predictors and associations with brain pathologies. Neurology, Vol 93, 2144–2156.
  38. Sizmur, J. et al. (2019). Achievement of 15- year-olds in England: PISA 2018 results. Department for Education.
  39. Morrisroe, J. (2014). Literacy Changes Lives 2014: A new perspective on health, employment and crime. National Literacy Trust.
  40. TASO (2020). Access agenda remains vital as equality gaps persist.
  41. Henderson, M., Shure, N. & Adamecz-Völgyi (2020). Moving on up: ‘first in family’ university graduates in England. Oxford Review of Education, Vol 46, 734-751.
  42. Explore Education Statistics (2020). Widening participation in higher education, Academic Year 2018/19. GOV.UK.

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

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