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Tortoise Covid Inquiry

What went wrong with education?

Tuesday 24 November 2020


Schools were shut down and exams cancelled – to be replaced by an ill-conceived algorithm. A lack of online teaching during lockdown meant the poorest children were disproportionately punished and the education gap grew. Then, in September, universities became Covid hotbeds and new students were imprisoned in their halls. And all the while the Secretary of State for education Gavin Williamson was nowhere to be seen… Where did it all go wrong?


Lost learning in lockdown

The UK ground to a halt in late March, entering its first lockdown and closing schools. Most offered at least some remote learning instead, but not everyone was able to adapt. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often have reduced access to technology, weren’t always able to attend online classes. Parents and carers in low-income families may not have had jobs that facilitated working from home, meaning children had reduced support during lockdown, too. 

Not all schools had an easy transition to online teaching, either. Private schools were far more likely to stream lessons and upload online lessons, while some state schools were left behind as they struggled for resources.

The attainment gap in the UK predates the pandemic; students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and special needs students are less likely to perform well at school. This gap has been steadily narrowing over the past decade, but many fear this progress will reverse as a result of Covid.

A study by the Education Endowment Foundation predicts that the attainment gap will grow by anywhere between 11 per cent to 75 per cent over the next year, suggesting that this is a crucial time for government to act. 

The current education stasis affects all children, not just society’s least advantaged. A September study found that 122,000 Year 7 students across 644 schools were an average of 22 months behind on their writing skills, compared with their projected results. Other factors may have contributed to the lag, including summer holidays and school transfers, but the drop suggests that Covid has had a significant impact. 

Some say the impact of this “lost learning” could be felt for decades; others that it’s not that dire. Daisy Christodoulou, an education expert, says pupils may be “rusty”, but – as long as appropriate remote teaching measures are established – they may even “be able to make more rapid progress than normal to make up the loss”. 

In September the government pledged to keep schools open and introduced three measures:

  • A £650 million increase in funding in 2020–2021 known as the catch-up premium
  • A £350 million national tutoring programme for disadvantaged pupils aged 5-16 in English state schools
  • Improved support for remote learning, with a promise of laptops for disadvantaged children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

But will it be enough?

“We will ensure this year’s students do not face a systematic disadvantage as a consequence of these extraordinary circumstances.” 

Gavin Williamson, education secretary, March 2020


The exams fiasco

  • In late March, as Covid spread across the UK, schools were closed down and A-level and GCSE exams cancelled – but the government still sought to award grades.
  • Via Ofqual, the exam regulator, it announced plans to simulate exam results with an algorithm.
  • On 13 August – results day – it became clear that Ofqual’s algorithm disadvantaged children across the country. In England, 39 per cent of pupils’ grades were downgraded. 
  • At first Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, insisted the algorithm was “robust”, but within days he was forced to admit there were “significant inconsistencies” in the grading system. In the end the government simply used teacher-awarded grades, which were broadly higher than those awarded by the algorithm. 

How did Ofqual’s algorithm work?

Ofqual asked teachers in England to provide predicted grades for each student, alongside a ranking of every other pupil at the school. These were then fed into an algorithm, which also ranked schools according to their overall performance in each subject over the previous three years. Ofqual argued that this approach would prevent teachers’ generosity leading to grade inflation. Similar algorithms were used in Scotland and Wales.


What went wrong with universities?

There has been turmoil in higher education too. This was a summer of uncertainty, as universities transitioned to online teaching while fearing income losses, and students weighed their options – none of them great. 


What happened?

  • Fears for tertiary education grew following a July report predicting losses ranging from £3 billion to £19 billion for universities due to fewer enrollments from overseas students as a result of Covid. 
  • In September, the government issued new guidance for universities: they were to reopen and host in-person teaching, switching to online only as a last resort. 
  • As thousands of students returned to their studies in late September, outbreaks began to spiral across universities. Scotland saw outbreaks in all 13 of its universities, representing 10 per cent of the all cases in the country.
  • Across the UK, local lockdowns saw students in over 50 universities fenced into their halls of residence, unable to attend in-person lectures or go out for exercise, with food being delivered to their doors.
  • Financially, universities have performed better than expected, but many still face risks because of high drop-out rates. Do students deserve their money back?

Further reading