The Institute for Fiscal Studies has analysed school spending in England and concluded that spending per pupil fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20, the largest cut in over 40 years, and while an extra £7.1 billion for schools in England to 2022-23 will increase spending per pupil by over 8%, it will still be 1-2% lower in real terms than in 2009-10. It also found that deprived schools have seen larger cuts (14% in real terms for the most deprived secondary schools from 2009-10 to 2019-20, compared to 9% for the least deprived secondary schools), a pattern that is continued by the National Funding Formula and runs counter to the government's goal of levelling up poor areas. Meanwhile, to date the government has only provided £3bn of £15bn recommended by the Education Recovery Commissioner for catching up on missed face-to-face schooling during the pandemic.
These figures were corroborated by a report by the National Audit Office, which found that average per-pupil funding in the most deprived fifth of schools fell in real terms by 1.2% between 2017-18 and 2020-21, while it increased by 2.9% in the least deprived fifth.
Some government reforms are exacerbating educational inequality. For example, research by the Observer suggests that schools in the poorest parts of England are set to be hit hardest by a controversial change in how the government allocates pupil premium funding, which from this year will be based on the number of children eligible for free school meals in October 2020 rather than January 2021, as would normally be the case, meaning that schools will miss out on pupil premium funding for children eligible for free school meals who enrolled between those months.
The COVID pandemic has exacerbated educational inequalities, just as it has worsened inequality more broadly. The lack of face-to-face teaching in spring 2020 and in early 2021 massively disrupted the education of all children, but it had a particularly negative impact on children from poorer families, with long-term effects on their educational progression and labour market performance. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argues that during the first lockdown, 74% of private school pupils had full school days of virtual tuition, compared to 38% of state school pupils, while 25% of all pupils had no formal schooling or tutoring during lockdown. It also cites evidence that during the first lockdown children from higher income households were more likely to have online classes provided by their schools, spend much more time on home learning, and have access to resources such as their own study space at home, while children whose parents were out of work were much less likely to have additional resources such as computers, apps, and tutors.
Estimates of lost learning in autumn 2020 found that primary school children were two to three months behind previous cohorts in reading and maths, and that the learning loss was greater among more disadvantaged pupils; for example, disadvantaged year 6 pupils were seven months behind their peers in autumn 2020, compared to five months in previous years. After the second lockdown, 55% of teachers at the least affluent state schools reported a lower-than-normal standard of work returned by pupils since the shutdown, compared to 41% at the most affluent state schools and 30% at private schools. We know from other literature that the loss of instructional time is likely to have significant adverse effects on pupils’ educational outcomes, not to mention the adverse impacts of the pandemic on children’s wellbeing and mental health.
COVID has also had a disastrous impact on early years providers. The Social Mobility Commission estimates that seven out of ten early years settings had to close during the pandemic due to financial pressures, with disadvantaged areas being hardest hit, and childcare workers either losing their jobs or put on furlough. A survey conducted by the Early Years Alliance in May 2020 found that one in four nurseries feared they would not reopen (although it is not clear that this was borne out in reality).
The number of people starting apprenticeships has also been severely affected by the pandemic. Research from the Sutton Trust shows that, on average, only 40% of apprenticeships continued as normal, with the rest facing learning disruptions or being furloughed or made redundant.