How we should deal with the lockdown learning loss in England’s schools
Around Europe, it seems that the immediate public health crisis is beginning to fade, although all are braced for a potential second wave of infection. The most intense policy attention needs to focus on mitigating the longer-run impacts of the pandemic. A central concern is to prevent this one-off event from permanently blighting the life chances of the millions of children who missed weeks of school due to the lockdown in the UK. Missed school means lost skills and reduced earnings potential.
Economic analysis suggests the cost of doing nothing is huge. At a personal level, this is manifested in lower earnings potential for the affected cohorts (Portes 2020, Jaime and Willén 2019). This will be reflected at the national level in lower skills: from the mid-2030s, and for the following 50 years, about a quarter of the labour force will have lower skills, implying a 50-year period of lower growth if we do nothing (Burgess and Sievertsen 2020, Hanushek and Woessman 2012). As well as a fall in income, all the evidence to date points to a widening of inequality. One among a number of very recent analyses, the EEF (2020) for example suggest that the attainment gap between poor and non-poor students might widen by 36%. The cumulating nature of skill formation (and skill loss) means that we need to tackle this now. In this column, I suggest a policy solution.
Criteria for choosing a policy
1. The policy intervention must come soon. The process through which skills are formed is dynamic – knowledge builds on knowledge, or as Heckman and colleagues put it, “skills beget skills”1. If we do not attempt to catch up the lost learning quickly, that loss will compound and essentially become untreatable. The skill complementarity over time means that if we invest in a 10 year-old today, it will cost less than if we invest when that child is 15 years old to get to the same outcome at age 16.
2. Over the period of lost schooling, schools have provided online resources to children to continue learning at home. There is already evidence (Andrew et al. 2020, Bol 2020) that this has not been very successful, with many families reporting little learning has taken place. So, despite the cost temptation to try to simply catch-up lost skills at home, this will not work. This implies the policy intervention must be school-based, not home-based.
3. It also has to be something new, something extra, and something temporary. This differs from the usual policy question of simply ‘making schools better’. The quest for those policies should go on, but the current situation requires something much more immediate, and immediately effective.
4. While of course it is not true to say that the cost does not matter, we must anticipate that a policy intervention at such scale will not be cheap. Skills have been lost that were to be taught over a 12-week period. Replacing that necessarily takes time, and resource. However, it is clear that the cost to individuals affected and to the UK of doing nothing is dramatically higher.
5. Finally, we must use an intervention that already has substantial causal evidence supporting its effectiveness. This is by no means a trivial requirement. For example, the hundred-plus randomised controlled trials funded by the Education Endowment Foundation show that, in fact, many much-hyped education policies have no effect.
My proposal is an extensive but time-limited use of small group tutoring in as many of the school years as possible, to remediate the learning loss suffered by the missed months of schooling.
I proposed the use of small group tutoring earlier in this crisis,3 and here I provide details and cost estimates. Support for a very similar idea is also building in the US, following an earlier proposal from Robert Slavin, Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, and support from leading education economist Susan Dynarski.
Small group tutoring is a flexible approach, with several parameters varying the ‘dose’: the number of pupils per group, the amount of time per session, and the number of sessions. It is fair to say that not all of these dimensions have been fully explored by suitably well-designed experiments. There is robust evidence showing that one-to-one tutoring works,4 and we can build from there. While effectiveness declines the bigger the group, it seems there are only marginal falls in impact from two in the group to six in the group, and steeper falls thereafter.
Taking a ‘dose’ of the intervention to be half an hour a day, for each weekday, for 12 weeks, there is good evidence that this has an impressive effect on learning. The EEF evidence toolkit estimates that such a ‘dose’ of small group tutoring typically yields an extra four months’ progress in school. Of course, these are all averages, but the rough equivalence between a gain of an extra four months’ progress from the intervention and a loss of three months’ schooling from the lockdown seems appropriate. A thorough and wide-ranging meta-analysis of effective educational interventions with robust evidence in the US (Fryer 2016) also concludes that interventions that “implement ‘high-dosage’ tutoring tend to demonstrate large effects” (p. 6), reporting very high pooled impacts from 0.78 to 1.58 standard deviations.
It is not possible here to set out how it would all work. But in Burgess (2020) I have provided some ideas on what some of the main features might look like, including who the tutors would be, the timeline, the selection of pupils, and so on.
Most of the cost of this scheme is the time of the tutor. The extra tuition would take place in the pupil’s usual school, after school, and while this would likely generate additional costs, these would be relatively minor. The EEF have estimated a cost for small group tutoring: for the dose noted above, they estimate a cost of £700 by adding up the time and taking it relative to the annual workload of a regular teacher. This is clearly subject to a number of uncertainties, not least how the different groups are bundled up into jobs, and the level of training of the tutor (discussed below).
Table 1 presents some rough estimates of what the overall cost might be.
Table 1 Indicative numbers and costs
They key parameters to be chosen are:
First, what fraction of a cohort would be involved? I have chosen here 40% since we know from the accumulating evidence that not many families and pupils made a success of home learning.
Second, group size obviously has a clear and straightforward impact on costs and a much vaguer effect on learning; I have chosen five in the example.
Third, we need to decide which cohorts to include, within schooling up to year 11.5 Ideally, all cohorts would be helped, but for this example I have chosen six: years 1, 2 and 3 in primary schools and years 7, 10 and 11 in secondary schools. For the cost per group, I have taken the EEF figure of £700 per group per ‘dose’.
The total is £222 million. This figure is very modest – less than 1% of the overall schools’ budget. It suggests that the possibility of involving all the cohorts should be considered, raising the cost to around £410 million.
There are other ways of approaching this, also with merit, but I believe that this proposal has the greatest likelihood of success; I briefly discuss those in Burgess (2020).
Younger generations will pay a heavy price for our response to this virus. In this column, I suggest a way to repair some of the educational damage using small group tutoring, a method with widely proven effectiveness (four months extra learning), at a modest cost (less than 1% of the schools budget), and on a rapid but feasible timescale (start in October, finish by Easter). Many details would need to be decided, but the bones are here to make a start.
Author’s note: Thanks for very helpful comments to Anna Vignoles, Hans Sievertsen, and Jack Worth.