Could it be that one of the most enduring legacies of the Covid-19 pandemic is not to do with infections or health conditions, but with educational scarring and damaged life prospects for poorer children? Billions of children across the world were forced to miss significant chunks of face-to-face schooling to curtail the spread of the virus. But those unprecedented school closures may have unwittingly harmed generations of pupils.
Our review considers Covid’s impact on social mobility. Social mobility tells us how likely we are to climb up (or fall down) the economic or social ladder of life, or indeed just how better-off we are compared with our parents’ generation. Low social mobility levels suggest some degree of inequality of opportunity in society, with adult outcomes too dependent on children’s backgrounds. Education is a key determinant of future mobility levels.
We estimate that UK pupils lost on average a third of schooling during the pandemic. The gap in missed education between richer and poorer children was exacerbated by stark home learning divides. We estimate even bigger losses for disadvantaged pupils.
Some educationalists have questioned the very concept of learning loss, worried that calculating this solely in terms of test scores narrows our view of what education encapsulates. It is true that children’s minds continued to develop in many ways during the pandemic and some bounce back quickly; others will suffer mental health impacts.
But we can’t now ignore the mounting global evidence confirming learning deficits encompassing delays in expected learning progress alongside loss of skills and knowledge already gained. Studies using actual test and exam scores have confirmed significant learning deficits and widening socio-economic education inequalities (driven by better-off children pulling further ahead as well as poorer children falling further behind).
What is worrying is that estimated learning losses in the UK appear to be high when compared with other nations – see this recent meta-analysis collating estimates from 34 studies across 12 countries.
In our research, we estimate lower and upper bounds for lower school attainment and university enrolment due to the learning loss observed in the UK. These allow us to consider different scenarios for a new post pandemic intergenerational income elasticity (IGE). The higher the IGE, the lower income mobility levels. According to our calculations the IGE is set to rise by somewhere between 4.8 percent and 11.9 percent due to the steep socioeconomic gradient in lost learning hours. This translates to an IGE of between 0.395 and 0.422 which would position the UK even lower in the international rankings.
Our review of studies reveals that traditional income or occupational social class measures can only provide a partial picture of social mobility. The new wave of social mobility research has significantly moved on from where it stood 25 years ago. Researchers have turned to different measures to show how characteristics are replicated across generations.
Social mobility researchers mostly look in the rear-view mirror when analysing trends across generations. We only know the adult outcomes for children who grew up in the distant past. But we can predict future trends by looking at children’s home environments that profoundly shape their life prospects. Greater fragmentation of family structure acts as a leading indicator for lower levels of social mobility.
The portents do not bode well for the UK. A widening family divide has emerged for children growing up in the early 21st century. Children with non-graduate parents are significantly less likely to grow up in two parent homes and family- owned homes than children with graduate parents. Children of the richest households meanwhile are twice as likely to have benefitted from private tutoring than children from the poorest households.
These alarming trends must also be set against a context of falling rates of absolute mobility whether measured in social class or income terms. To make the picture even gloomier, the pandemic is continuing to harm education prospects, with persistent school absences still being observed for pupils.
Our review concludes meanwhile that the education system as a whole has failed to function as the great social leveller. To improve prospects for future generations we need a more systematic, longer-term perspective. We should seek not only better targeted policies in schools towards poorer pupils, but also consider how we might improve children’s home learning environments. Admissions to highly selective universities remain tilted to the already advantaged, but we must also address the inequities suffered by the half of young people who do not attend university, for example by improving the supply of quality apprenticeships.
What is certain is that learning deficits for current generations are not tackled, there look to be bleak consequences for social mobility.
Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. Andrew Eyles is a research economist at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science.