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How can we make up the learning losses from lockdown?

The weeks of missed schooling for the younger generation due to coronavirus would lead to lower growth and greater inequality if left unaddressed. An extensive but time-limited programme of small group tutoring could help to repair some of the educational damage.

Younger generations will pay a heavy price for the policy response to coronavirus: missed school means lost skills and reduced earnings potential. One way to repair some of the educational damage would be to use small group tutoring, a method with widely proven effectiveness (with four months of extra learning) at a modest cost (less than 1% of the current budget for schools) and on a rapid but feasible timescale (starting in October and finishing by Easter 2021).

The cumulative nature of skill formation – and skill loss – means that this needs to be tackled now. Many details would need to be decided, but the basic structure is here to make a start.

What are the costs of doing nothing?

The costs of doing nothing are huge (Burgess and Vignoles, 2020). At a personal level, this is manifested in lower earnings potential for the affected cohorts of young people (Portes, 2020). This is 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 (Burgess and Sievertsen, 2020).

As well as a fall in income, all the evidence to date points to a widening of inequality. A number of very recent studies suggest that the attainment gap between poor and non-poor students might widen by 36% (Education Endowment Foundation, EEF, 2020).

Related question: How might the crisis affect children from poorer backgrounds?

How should we choose a policy?

The policy intervention must come soon. We cannot wait and do this slowly over the next few years. Still less can we wait and ‘sort it out at GCSE’.

The process through which skills are formed is dynamic: knowledge builds on knowledge – or as economics Nobel laureate James Heckman and colleagues put it, ‘skills beget skills’. 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 the age of 16.

Over the period of lost schooling, from the end of March until the end of term in July for most students, a fantastic effort has been made by schools and teachers to get online resources to children to continue learning at home. This has put parents into the role of teachers, while many of them are also continuing as workers (and parents). There is already a good deal of evidence that this has not been very successful, with many families reporting that little learning has taken place (Andrew et al, 2020).

Related question: What is the likely impact of remote learning on educational outcomes?

So, despite the cost temptation to try simply to catch up lost skills at home, this will not do. If that had worked well for everyone, we would not be facing such a loss of skills. The policy intervention must be school-based not home-based.

The policy intervention also has to be something new, something extra and something temporary. This is different 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.

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 resources. It is clear, however, that the costs to individuals affected and to the country of doing nothing are dramatically higher.

Finally, we must use an intervention that already has substantial causal evidence supporting its effectiveness. This is by no means a trivial requirement. The work of the EEF in the UK and similar bodies elsewhere shows that in fact many much-hyped education policies have no effect.

Finding broad robust empirical support for an intervention is rare, but it is essential both to improve the futures of the affected cohorts and to justify the cost of the intervention.

The policy that seems to be the best fit with these criteria is small group tutoring, based in schools.

Related question: What will be the impact of lockdown on children's development?

What should we do?

The 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. The proposed use of small group tutoring was discussed earlier in this crisis: what follows are some details and cost estimates.

Support for a very similar idea is also building in the United States, 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, and we can build from there. While effectiveness declines the bigger the group, it seems that there are only marginal falls in impact from two in the group to six in the group, and steeper falls thereafter (EEF, 2018).

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 of progress in school. Of course, these are all averages, but the rough equivalence between a gain of an extra four months of progress from the intervention and a loss of three months of schooling from the lockdown seems appropriate.

A thorough and wide-ranging meta-analysis of effective educational interventions with robust evidence in the United States also concludes that interventions that ‘implement "high-dosage" tutoring tend to demonstrate large effects’, reporting very high pooled impacts (Fryer, 2016).

It is not possible here to set out how it would all work. But here are 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.

There are other ways of approaching this, including classes over the summer holidays, online tutoring and a volunteer-based tutoring service. These ideas, which also have merit, are discussed here.

What would it cost?

Most of the cost of the small group tutoring scheme is the time of the tutors. The extra tuition would take place in the pupils’ usual school, after school. While this would be likely to generate additional costs, these would be relatively minor. The EEF estimates a cost for small group tutoring: by adding up the time for the 'dose' noted above, and taking it relative to the annual workload of a regular teacher, the estimated cost is £700 per group.

Table 1 presents some rough estimates of what the overall cost might be. The key parameters to be chosen are:

  • First, the fraction of a cohort to be involved: the fraction chosen here is 40% since we know from the accumulating evidence that not many families and pupils have been able to make a success of home learning.
  • Second, group size obviously has a clear and straightforward impact on costs and a much vaguer effect on learning: five is chosen in the example.
  • Third, we need to decide which cohorts to include, within schooling up to year 11. Ideally, all cohorts would be helped, but this example chooses six: years 1, 2 and 3 in primary schools; and years 7, 10 and 11 in secondary schools. For the cost per group, the EEF figure of £700 per group per ‘dose’ is used.

The total is £222 million, less than 1% of the overall budget for schools. Involving all the cohorts up to year 11 would raise the cost to around £410 million.

Table 1: Indicative numbers and costs

Table laying out the costs of the proposed scheme.

Where can I find out more?

The COVID-19 crisis and educational inequality: Anna Vignoles and Simon Burgess.

Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning: Alison Andrew and colleagues at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Schools, skills, and learning: the impact of COVID-19 on education: Simon Burgess and Hans Sievertsen discuss what can be done to mitigate negative impacts of lockdown.

Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: rapid evidence assessment: Education Endowment Foundation report.

Social mobility and Covid-19: Sutton Trust Report.

The lasting scars of the Covid-19 crisis: channels and impacts: Jonathan Portes.

Who are experts on this question?

Author: Simon Burgess
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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