Almost half of students ‘less motivated’ to learn post-pandemic

A major study on the effects of the pandemic on school students found that independent sector pupils felt significantly less impacted than state school peers

The effects of the pandemic on school students are significant and ongoing, according to a major new study published today (13 October).

Well over three-quarters (80%) of young people believe that their academic progress has suffered because of the pandemic, while half report a fall in motivation to study and learn.

The largest study of its kind into the impacts of the pandemic on students’ life chances, the Covid social mobility and opportunities (Cosmo) study was jointly led by University College London (UCL) and the Sutton Trust.

One notable aspect of the report is the extent to which pupils at state schools feel harder hit by the pandemic than peers in the independent sector.

Thirty-seven percent of young people in the state sector say they have fallen behind their classmates, more than double the figure for independent school students (15%).

While a little over a quarter (27%) of pupils in the independent sector believe they have not been able to catch up with learning, at state schools the proportion is almost half (46%).

Despite extra tutoring being a core element of the government’s catch-up strategy, independent school students (52%) are more likely to have been offered this than those at comprehensive schools (41%), and are likelier to have participated in additional online classes.

Researchers note that support offered for catch-up across all school years in England is three times lower per person than funding provided for the US rescue plan for schools.

Almost half of the young people surveyed have accessed no catch-up learning at all and a large majority have not had extra tutoring. The most available option – extra online classes – was offered to just half of the study’s participants and taken up by less than a third.

The education recovery plan must be much more ambitious, or we will blight the life chances of a whole generation – Sir Peter Lampl, Sutton Trust

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – part of UK Research and Innovation’s response to coronavirus – the study is drawn from a representative sample of more than 13,000 young people across England who were in year 11 in 2021.

The majority of the cohort have just started year 13 and are due to take A-levels next year, with others undertaking other qualifications, training and work.

“Cosmo is providing vital new evidence on the effects of the pandemic on the lives of young people, with strong signs that it has severely widened existing inequalities – this has not been fully addressed by our policy response,” said Dr Jake Anders, an associate professor at UCL and the study’s principal investigator.

“These short-term effects are just the start. We aim to continue following the lives of this cohort over the coming years. Whether or not we think of the pandemic as over, its effects will continue to cast a long shadow, and Cosmo will help us to understand this in the years to come.”

Read more: Pupils significantly more likely to show signs of depression post-pandemic

Some of the longer-term effects are already beginning to take shape. Of those who had previously made plans for the future, almost two thirds (64%) of survey respondents say their education plans have changed because of the pandemic and 60% have changed their future career plans.

Girls, young people from disadvantaged family backgrounds, and those attending state comprehensive schools were the most likely to have reconsidered their options. Young people who had ‘long Covid’ or ill health, who were asked to shield or who experienced economic hardships, were also much more likely to have changed their plans.

Examples shared by the Sutton Trust’s Cosmo youth panel (as opposed to the main Cosmo study) include struggling to enter careers in sectors where work experience was unavailable during lockdowns, and reconsidering career aspirations to protect long-term mental health.

“These findings show that far more needs to be done for young people. While all young people have been affected by the pandemic, there is clear evidence that students from less well-off households have been impacted most,” said Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust.

“The government’s education recovery plan must be much more ambitious, or we will blight the life chances of a whole generation.”

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