School closures and inequality: what do the numbers say?


By Elsa Ohlen

LONDON: A furor in Britain over an algorithm that downgraded exam results of students whose tests were cancelled by COVID-19 is highlighting how school closures impact inequality.

The government on Tuesday bowed to pressure and ditched the predictive mathematical model that had lowered grades for almost 40% of students.

A key concern was that relying on algorithms to determine results can reproduce – or even exacerbate – existing inequality for low-income and minority students, according to education researchers.

From home-schooling to the impact on working mothers, here’s what the data says about school closures and inequality in Britain:


British students have already lost up to 105 days of schooling out of an annual minimum of 190 days due to the coronavirus pandemic and if a second wave hits in autumn, learning could be disrupted further.

The crisis could widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots in society and leave a challenging legacy of inequality. Why?

Children from better-off families tend to spend more time on education: they have access to resources like online tutoring or chats with teachers and more space at home for learning.

Inequality can lessen economic prosperity, increase health and social issues as well as breed crime.


The standardisation algorithm intended to make British exam grading fairer ended up downgrading poorer pupils to a larger extent than better-off students.

The proportion of pupils from the lowest socio-economic background who achieved a pass grade or higher dropped by more than 10 percentage points when the algorithm was used. Among wealthier pupils the number fell by around 8 percentage points.


Around six out of ten primary school students from the country’s least well-off families do not have access to a study space compared to only 35% in the most well-off families.

Children who qualify for free school meals from the government are almost three times as likely to lack access to a computer at home as ineligible children.


8% of working-class families, 19% of middle-class homes, and 33% from households earning over £100,000 per year have spent at least £100 on home learning such as books, subscriptions, and electronic devices during the first week of lockdown.

Working-class children are 10% less likely to receive home schooling from their parents than middle-class children, and only 37% of working-class parents said they felt confident to teach their children, compared to the national average of 42%.


For most parents, school and childcare closures meant that children are at home requiring care an extra six hours a day of care.

In two-parent opposite-gender families, mothers are doing two hours less of paid work per day than fathers.

Mothers who step back from paid work during the pandemic by picking up more domestic chores and responsibilities, “could face a long-run hit to their earnings prospects”, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.


One in eight families reported they had cut back on food and other essentials because of uniform costs.

For low-income families the impact is even greater, with more than one in five saying they had to cut back. 

Sources: Institute for Fiscal Studies, The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), University of London (UCL), Sutton Trust, VoxEU & CEPR, The Lancet, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)


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