Education Policy since 2020

education policy since 2020 has been dominated by school closures and catch-up initiatives.

Last Updated on April 28, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Education policy since 2020 has been dominated by the government’s response to the Coronavirus Pandemic – which consisted of shutting schools for several months which had significant negative impacts on students’ mental health and educational attainment (far worse for poorer students).

Following the easing of lockdowns the government then put in place various catch-up policies but these simply aren’t enough to make up for the harm done by the choice to shut schools in the first place.

In fairness to the government they have recently announced an increase in funding for education to 2025 which takes cash-terms spending on education back up to the previous peak of funding in 2010 (although not necessarily in real-terms once inflation is taken into account).

This post summarises the following aspects of education policy since 2020:

  • the lockdown measures
  • the impact of shutting down schools on students’ mental health and educational attainment
  • Cancelling GCSEs and A-levels for two years.
  • The government’s catch-up education policies
  • The planned increase in funding for schools to 2025.

Schools and Lockdown

On 20th of March 2020 the then Secretary of Education, Sir Gavin Williamson announced that all schools would close for an indefinite period of time.

Schools were shut to all pupils except for children of key workers and vulnerable students.

Primary schools began to reopen from the first of June and secondary schools from June 15th for years 10 and 12 although attendance was not compulsory and schools were instructed to keep face to face teaching to a minimum.

By the start of the 2020 academic year in September most schools and colleges were opened with appropriate safeguarding measures in place although attendance was still not compulsory.

On January 4th 2021 the government announced that all schools in England and Wales would again be shut and home-based learning should take place again.

Primary schools began to re-open in late February 2021 and secondary schools from 15 March 2021.

In summary therefor schools were shut to the vast majority of pupils for a total of four and a half months.

  • lockdown one lasted for three months from 20th March 2021 to 15th June 2021
  • lockdown two lasted for six weeks from 4th January to 15th March.

However, because of staggered opening times for different year groups many pupils had six months off of face to face lessons in school.

The above is a simplification of a more complex trend which you can see on this timeline of school lockdowns produced by the Institute for Government.

Cancellation of GCSE and A-Level Exams

The government cancelled all GCSE and A-level exams for two years in the spring-summer of 2020 and 2021, with teachers given their own assessed grades rather than students having to sit exams.

Maybe unsurprisingly the GCSE results were significantly higher in the two years when teachers awarded grades rather than students sitting exams, and in 2022 the results dipped slightly but were still better than in 2019, the last time GCSE exams were held.

This suggests that students who didn’t sit their exams during the lockdown years had something of an unfair advantage compared to students who had sat exams in 2019 and previous years, and those sitting exams in 2022 with the pre-release of papers which gave them some additional assistance.

The teacher-predicted grade increase for A-levels was VERY significant during the two non-exam years. In 2019 25% of A-levels sat were awarded an A grade and above, but by 2021 teachers awarded 45% of A-levels an A grade or above, with this sinking back to 35% in 2022.

The Impact of Lockdown on pupils

A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests that there is a covid-gap at all key stages following the two lockdowns.

More students performed below expectations following Lockdowns one and two compared to previous key stage test data in September 2019 prior to the lockdowns.

The Covid-gap in reading

The Covid-gap in maths

The report also notes that there is evidence showing that disadvantaged students have fallen behind relative to wealthier students, meaning there is now also a covid-disadvantage gap in educational attainment.

The Covid-Disadvantage Gap

There were significant differences in the experiences of learning during lockdown by social class. For example:

  • Students from the least deprived schools were doing 2.9 hours more schoolwork per week than students from the most deprived schools.
  • 71% of students from the least deprived schools reported having 3 or more online lessons per week compared to only 53% of students from the most deprived schools.
  • Only 6% of pupils from higher managerial backgrounds reported only having a mobile device (rather than a computer) to access learning compared to 14% of pupils from routine/ manual/ non-working backgrounds.  

Unsurprisingly there is also further evidence that this correlates with a covid-disadvantage gap – students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have fallen further behind relative to those from more affluent backgrounds.

This is certainly born out by what students tells us. According to The Sutton Trust’s October 2022 briefing on Education Recovery and Catch Up students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are much less confident than students from higher socio-economic backgrounds that they have caught up with lost learning caused by the Tory government’s chosen policy of locking down schools during the pandemic.

The fact that the government is giving extra funding to schools to help disadvantaged students catch up also demonstrates that the government itself recognises the existence of such a covid-disadvantaged attainment gap (see below!)

The Impact of Lockdowns on pupil mental health

Some secondary analysis of 72 high quality studies from 20 countries on the impact of lockdowns on pupil mental health found, unsurprisingly, that 53.3% of girls and 44% of boys reported above pre-covid baseline levels of anxiety during the lockdown period.

The long term effects of this harm to mental health remain to be researched!

Source: Impacts of school closures on physical and mental health of children and young people: a systematic review.

The Catch up Premium

In 2021 the government announced an additional £1 billion in funding for schools to help support students catch up with lessons they had missed due to the government’s imposed lockdowns of schools during the previous year.

The catch up premium primarily consisted of:

  • £650 million being payed directly to schools – equivalent to £80 per pupil.
  • A £350 million National Tutoring Programme to target those most in need of help and consisted of (1) a schools programme for 5-16 year olds, (2) additional funding for 16-19s and (3) language support for reception aged children.

A typical primary school of 200 pupils would receive £16000 in additional catch-up funding while a typical secondary school of 1000 pupils would receive £80 000 in additional funding in two payments during 2021.

Schools were required to publish details of how they were using their funding to help students catch up and OFSTED were also supposed to be monitoring this, but given that the support was only in place for a year only a tiny proportion of schools would have been inspected on this criteria.

The main funding for the Catch Up Premium has now ended, but the government is continuing the National Tutoring Programme into the 2022 to 2023 year.

The National Tutoring Programme

For the 2022 to 2023 year the National Tutoring Programme (NEP) awards schools an additional £163 per student eligible for the pupil premium. The money is paid directly to schools and they are required to spend the money on ‘targeted academic support’ for pupils delivered by trained and experienced teachers.

The government’s aim is to embed tutoring as a regular feature within schools going forwards and the guidance states that:

Specially there are three ways schools can provide this support:

  • academic mentors – people employed specifically to give students extra tuition.
  • tuition partners – private tutors who work with students from the school
  • regular school personnel – teachers or support staff already employed who give extra tuition on top of their regular teaching commitments.
  • The extra tutoring should focus on pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium, so those on Free School Meals or the poorest 15% of pupils.
  • Maximum class sizes of six, recommended 1-3.
  • Tuition course length of 12-15 hours
  • Core subjects only – english, maths and science in primary school, plus humanities and modern foreign languages in secondary schools.

The total budget for the 2022 to 2023 year is £350 million, it is for year 1 to 11 only and schools can only claim up to 60% of the tutoring costs, they have to find the other 40% of funding themselves.

Funding Increases for Education to 2025

The 2021 spending review suggested that school funding should increase by just over 7% per pupil between 2021–22 and 2024–25.

This means that by 2024-25 the government should be spending an extra £4.4 billion on schools in real-cash terms compared to what it spent in 2021-22. 

So in cash-terms, the government is committed to increasing spending on education by approximately an additional £1 billion a year over the next four years until 2024-25. 

These increases in funding will reverse the real-terms funding cuts to education which took place under the Tories between 2009-10 and 2010-29 and education is projected to be 1% higher by 2024-25 compared to what it was at its peak in 2009-10 at the end of New Labour’s last term in office. 

However because of government commitments to increase teacher wages by 3% a year over the next five years combined with the current rate of inflation which is causing a cost of living crisis, this cash-terms funding increase may not be sufficient for schools to be able to meet the increasing costs of running the schools.

Schools are going to be paying more on wages, energy, food, stationary, maintenance over the next few years than ever before! 

So in real terms prices (which take into account the rising cost of living) this ‘significant’ increase in funding may not actually be an increase at all, it may end up being just about enough for schools to tread water!

(Source: The Institute for Fiscal Studies, accessed November 2022.)

Education policy since 2020: Conclusions

Education policy has been dominated by the response to Pandemic. The decision to shut down schools is maybe understandable given the considerable uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 throughout 2020 and 2021 but the drastic measures to shut schools did enormous harm to pupils.

Teacher awarded grades seem to have ‘saved’ the two years of students who missed exams in the lockdown years, and the 2022 results seem to be OK as well, with students being assisted by pre-release papers.

But there are still several years of students lower down the school years who have missed out on learning and it seems that the funds the government has earmarked for especially the more deprived students to catch up are no sufficient to close to lock down induced attainment gap!

Having said that at least the government has found money for education going forwards to 2025, but in the context of rapid inflation that is merely going to mean maintaining funding in real terms!

Finally, it is also worth keeping in mind the effects on other policies that lockdown had – before Covid the government had wanted all schools to become academies by 2022, but that got axed so schools could focus on reopening safely and to allow them to focus more on the catch-up agenda.

Signposting and Related Posts

This material will hopefully be a useful update for anyone studying the education module as part of A-level sociology.

How did Coronavirus affect education?

Covid Catch Up Policies: Are they Sufficient?

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