The impact of COVID-19 and educational attainment in NI

7 Aug 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Aug 2020

Pic: Unsplash

Sean McKay, former Director of Audit at the NI Audit Office argues that the status quo is not an option for our education system when schools return.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the UK economy has nearly ground to a halt. Tens of thousands of workers are now seeing their jobs and livelihoods disappear—in some cases, permanently. Many businesses will never reopen, especially those that have or had large debts to manage.


The UK government and the devolved administrations have responded by pouring millions of pounds into the economy to address the immediate costs. Whilst the health impact of COVID-19 on older people is more severe, however, there is another important dimension along which this current crisis will generate long-term costs—the education of young people and the training of the future workforce.


What are these costs, and how exactly will the COVID-19 crisis affect them?


Across the UK, many segments of the population will suffer education or training losses, causing them potentially great economic pain in the future. Firstly, we know that the earlier years of a child’s life are pivotal for their development, and investment during this time is particularly valuable, in terms of improving their cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Hence the negative impact from a lack of face to face school provision is likely to be particularly large for younger children.


Another group consists of workers permanently displaced from their current jobs who will need assistance with retraining or re-employment. Moreover, young adults finishing school/college/university, may face a weaker job market and lower returns on their education than expected. But the costs imposed on students from disadvantaged backgrounds by the COVID-19 crisis might be the greatest of all.


While we may tend to regard our school systems uniformly, actually schools can differ widely in their operations and impact on children, just as the students who attend them can also be very different from one another. Children come from very different backgrounds and have very different resources, opportunities, and support outside of school. As the COVID pandemic has led to their entire learning lives taking place outside school, those differences and disparities come into sharper focus.


With schools closed, access to the resources needed for online learning will be important for all children, but especially so for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. These young people are less likely to have access to additional activities and support at home, so are likely to rely more on any online provision provided by their schools. However, the most educated and wealthiest families will be better able to cope with the challenges posed by the crisis and sustain their children’s learning at home. They are more likely to have computer equipment and connectivity, a space to work, and books and other learning materials at home; they are more likely to have the knowledge necessary to support their children and teach them academic subjects themselves, as well as to provide emotional and motivational support; and in some systems, they will more likely hire virtual private tutors to keep the instruction going.


Research by the Sutton Trust (1) has found previously that just over a third (34%) of parents with children aged 5-16 reported their child does not have access to their own computer, laptop or tablet that they can use to access the internet on at home. These children will also need a suitable space in which to study, something likely to be difficult for many poor children who live in cramped housing conditions (2).


Children from low-income families who have been sent home from school because of the pandemic face additional obstacles. The abrupt change to their lives can mean that many will find themselves back in an environment where they have extra responsibilities - like helping younger siblings with their homework, taking care of aging grandparents in their home, running errands because they are the healthiest person in their family or even having to seek work to supplement the household income.


School closures will also exacerbate insecurity around the availability of food. For many students living in poverty, schools are not only a place for learning but also for eating healthily. Research shows that school lunch is associated with improvements in academic performance, whereas irregular or unhealthy diets are associated with low educational attainment and substantial risks to the physical health and mental wellbeing of children.


Additionally, research suggests that non-school factors can be a primary source of inequalities in educational outcomes. The gap in mathematical and literacy skills between children from lower and higher socioeconomic backgrounds often widens during school holiday periods (3).  Although the current school closures differ from summer holidays in that learning is expected to continue digitally, the closures are likely to widen the learning gap between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Children from low-income households live in conditions that make home schooling difficult. Online learning environments usually require computers and a reliable internet connection. In Europe, a substantial number of children live in homes in which they have no suitable place to do homework (5%) or have no access to the internet (6·9%). Furthermore, 10·2% of children live in homes that cannot be heated adequately, 7·2% have no access to outdoor leisure facilities, and 5% do not have access to books at the appropriate reading level.


The relative under-performance of school children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Northern Ireland (NI) was a cause of ongoing concern before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools here and upended the economy. While the headline figures for educational attainment in NI are very good, they also mask some significant ongoing challenges, for instance:


  • less than half of school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve at least five GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths, while Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of adults with no qualifications than England, Scotland or Wales; and


  • the increase in pupils in primary schools has not seen a consequent rise in funding, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies reporting this year that Northern Ireland has faced the highest school spending cuts per pupil in the UK over the past decade.


Because of the prevalence of academic selection, Northern Ireland’s education system is publicly perceived as high performing. However, significant differences persist in the performance of sub-groups of children in external examinations at the end of Key Stage 4 and 5. Available research (4), provides several interesting insights in relation to access and performance inequalities: the intakes of Controlled (state) schools are less religiously homogenous than faith-based Catholic Maintained schools; performance inequalities between grammar and non- grammar schools persist in Controlled and Catholic Maintained schools but are less pronounced in the latter; and FSME children are underrepresented in both Catholic Maintained and Controlled grammar schools but access to grammar places is less likely for FSME Protestant children.


Historically, therefore, pupils from lower-income families and communities have confronted lifelong achievement and education gaps between themselves and their more affluent peers when circumstances have been more favourable. However, while schools and policymakers have made noteworthy efforts to bridge these gaps since at least the 1990’s, progress has been slow paced and fairly meagre. In particular, major initiatives like “Every School A Good School” (5) have achieved only modest gains in closing achievement gaps, and very large ones remain. These achievement gaps impact on comparative levels of further and higher education attendance and attainment between less and more advantaged students.  Moreover, in turn, this leads to gaps in lifetime earnings for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.


We can only guess, of course, the extent to which the pandemic will impact further on the attainment levels of pupils from economically challenged families compared with their more affluent peers, but it seems likely that many of the challenges faced by those living in under-resourced communities could become exponentially harder to address.


A bold and unwavering conviction, therefore, is required in going forward among leaders and partner bodies to prepare for the considerable challenges that await when the pandemic subsides and to create a “new normal”. The struggle should not be to simply restore the status quo because the status quo was not operating at an effective level, particularly in terms of serving all of our children fairly. There are things that can be learned in the confusion of adapting our way through this crisis which has revealed profound disparities in children’s access to support and opportunities. The question to be asked should be: how do we make our school, education, and child-development systems more individually responsive to the needs of our students? The system needs to be reconstructed in a way that seeks to meet children where they are and give them what they need inside and outside of school in order to be successful.  This means seeing this as an opportunity to end the “one size fits all” factory model of education.


While the education system has had to construct a backup to get through the COVID -19 crisis, going forward new and permanent systems are going to have to be redesigned to meet the needs which have been so glaringly exposed in this crisis. Communities and the school system are going to have to adapt to get students on a level playing field. Otherwise, many students will continue to be at a huge disadvantage. This can be seen playing out to some extent in schools with lower-income and more heterogeneous mixes of students that will have struggled when not everyone has been able to access online instruction. Some middle ground has to be found and that means the Education Authority and school sectors are going to have to act urgently and nimbly to fill in the gaps in technology and internet access.


One of the most striking observations that can be made as a result of COVID-19 is that because schools have been closed, parents and the general public have become more aware of the inequities in children’s lives outside school. Suddenly there has been front-page coverage about the increased use of food banks, inadequate access to health and mental health, problems with housing stability, and access to educational technology and internet. While many within the education system have known that these problems have existed for many years, the hope has to be that the newfound public awareness of pervasive inequities can create a sense of urgency in the public domain. The time for correcting these inequities has long past if education is to realise its ambitious goals.


A shift will also be required in the way in which education is perceived.  Schools alone cannot pick up the pieces of the COVID-19 crisis. As children’s well-being and success depend on more than their schooling, in order that they can come to school ready to learn, they need a wide array of essential supports and opportunities outside school.  To date, providing these has had only limited success. These education prerequisites go far beyond the purview of the school system, but rather are the responsibility of communities and society at large. In order to learn, children need equal access to health care, food, stable housing, and out-of-school enrichment opportunities, to name just a few preconditions. We have to reconceptualize the whole job of child development and education, and construct systems that meet children where they are and give them what they need, both inside and outside school, in order for all of them to have a genuine opportunity to be successful.


The challenge will be figuring out how to build a system that has the capacity to deliver on the long-standing promise of equity and excellence in education for all of our students:  one where all actually means all.  In a strange way the COVID – 19 virus has presented the opportunity to do so now.  Hopefully, all those who need to be involved do not fail to take advantage of it in a misguided rush to restore the status quo.


  1. C. Cullinane & R. Montacute (2018) Pay as you go? Sutton Trust. Available at: research/internships-pay-as-you-go/
  2. D. Garvie (2020) Self-isolation? Try it as a homeless family living in one room. Shelter. Available at:
  3.  Cooper, H., B. Nye, K. Charlton, J. Lindsay, and S. Greathouse. 1996. “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta- Analytic Review.” Review of Educational Research 66 (3): 227-268.)
  4. Borooah, V. & Knox, C., 2015. Segregation, inequality, and educational performance in Northern Ireland: Problems and solutions. International Journal of Educational Development, Volume 40, pp. 196-2
  5. Department of Education (NI), Every School a Good School:  a policy for school improvement, January 2008.

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