Attainment gap will widen between poorer pupils and their classmates, fear 72% of teachers

New Sutton Trust research identifies continuing pandemic-related disruption to students

New Sutton Trust research published today highlights concerns about the widening of the attainment gap. Of note:

  • More than 1 in 5 A level students missed 20+ days of school due to Covid-19 in run-up to exams this year
  • As pupils sit the first national exams since 2019, 72% of teachers think the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their classmates will widen at their school
  • Almost half of teachers thought the extra measures put in place for this year’s exams didn’t go far enough
  • Concerns about grades among university applicants have increased since 2021


Pandemic-related disruption continued to impact students in the run up to the first national exams since 2019, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust today. Over the past academic year, a third of A-level students who applied to university missed 11 or more days of school for Covid-related reasons, with over 1 in 5 missing more than 20 days.

The Trust is calling for universities to give additional consideration to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who have narrowly missed their offer grades

A Levels and University Access 2022 surveys university applicants and teachers to give a picture of this year’s exams and university admissions cycle.

While some mitigations were put in place for exams this year to reflect ongoing disruption – including giving advance information on topics to be covered in exams – today’s polling of 4,089 teachers finds that almost half thought the measures hadn’t gone far enough.

And only 52% of university applicants felt that arrangements for exams fairly took the impact of the pandemic into account.

Today’s research also looks at the types of catch-up activities that young people had been offered and took part in. The majority (74%) of the 434 applicants surveyed by Savanta said they were offered at least one type of catch-up activity listed over the last academic year.

Thirty-six percent reported being offered some form of tutoring – a key plank of the government’s education recovery strategy – and 19% reported they had taken part. While over half of university applicants (53%) reported being offered extra in-person classes before or after school or at lunchtime.

Teachers continue to feel concerned about the impact of the pandemic on education:

  • 72% think the attainment gap at their school will widen with the return of exams.
  • 29% of teachers in deprived schools thought that the increase would be substantial, almost twice as many as those in more affluent schools (16%).


Concerns are being felt among students, too, with 62% of applicants feeling they have fallen behind with their studies compared to where they would have been without the pandemic.

Applicants were also more worried about their grades this year than last year, with 64% of university applicants saying they were worried about their grades, compared to 58% saying the same in 2021. Applicants from working class backgrounds were more likely to be concerned than those from middle class backgrounds.

These concerns come amid warnings that more students than usual will be left without a place at their preferred university this year, as selective universities make fewer offers and the school-leaver population grows.

The Trust is calling for universities to give additional consideration to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who have narrowly missed their offer grades, to reflect the ongoing disruption to learning they will have faced.

Key recommendations

To address the challenges further facing young people, the Trust is also recommending that:

  • Schools and universities should provide as much support to students as possible around results day and during the clearing period this year.
  • There should be further investment in catch-up activities, with targeted funding for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, recognising that the pandemic will impact the system for years to come.
  • Pupil premium funding, targeted at disadvantaged pupils, should be extended to students in post-16 education.


James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said: “Today’s research highlights that the impacts of the pandemic on education are far from over – and the consequences are still being felt among young people and their teachers.

“As we approach results day and a more competitive university admissions cycle than ever, we must make sure that poorer youngsters have a fair chance to succeed. Universities should give additional consideration to disadvantaged students who have just missed out on their grades and make sure recent gains in widening access to higher education are not lost.

“As we recover from the pandemic, there still needs to be a laser-like focus on supporting pupils to catch up, through significant ongoing investment in education recovery.”


You might also like: New research reveals impact of pandemic on young children’s development

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?

Would you like to share this report with your friends and colleagues?

You may enter up to three email addresses below to share this report