What do we want to know?
COVID-19 led to national lockdowns of differing lengths in the four nations of the UK. During lockdowns only vulnerable and key worker children were able to access the physical school site. Other children stayed at home. This created a novel set of conditions with potential impacts on children’s wider wellbeing and welfare as well as learning. Against this background we undertook a rapid review to ascertain the current research evidence on:
RQ1: the harms created by school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic on primary school and lower secondary children;
RQ2: any mitigation strategies that had been: (a) successfully used during the current pandemic or (b) used successfully elsewhere to address harms arising from similar periods of educational disruption and with potential to be transferable.
Who wants to know?
The UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE) commissioned this work following a recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The review will be useful to a range of communities including policy makers, educational practitioners, employers, and school students and their families.
What did we find?
The review found evidence for COVID-related impacts from school closures in the UK in the following areas:
- on children’s learning
- on children’s mental health
- from children’s increased exposure to risk factors at home
- on children’s physical health and nutrition
Effects on children living in poverty were most pronounced, partly as a result of the important role schools play in keeping children fed and looking after their basic welfare needs. Children living in poverty were also least likely to have good digital access, sufficient room to study at home, or access to outside space.
Some studies recorded gains as well as losses. The available evidence was not clear on the depth of harms in the different areas, or how swiftly they might repair as schools reopened.
Previous research on education recovery following prolonged learning disruption in similar circumstances shows that:
- school recovery plans are most successful when they privilege local knowledge, and that school leaders are in the best position to identify and respond to local needs quickly.
- Education recovery benefits from relaxing the pace of curriculum delivery to allow time for children to reflect on their experience and reconnect with opportunities to socialise in school as well as learn.
- equipping schools with the appropriate tools to diagnose needs across the spectrum of harms will help to distinguish longer lasting harms from those that will more easily repair and enable schools to plan accordingly
- safeguarding should be prominent in recovery plans to support and monitor children going forward
What are the implications?
The mitigation strategies schools themselves have already put in place in response to local needs, both during the pandemic and since re-opening, are likely to be a crucial element in successful recovery. School teachers and leaders have developed the most in-depth view of the harms to children’s wellbeing and to their learning. Their insights should be respected and harnessed.
Without harnessing local insights, centralized prescriptions for recovery based on interventions designed for small groups falling behind under normal circumstances may have limited value.
To increase the resilience of the school sector to future disruption:
- the wider social value of schools within their communities needs to be better measured and recognised.
- Stronger links between local services could be forged through harnessing the important role schools play as community hubs and as a focal point for different services to interact in support for parents and vulnerable families
- greater investment in the digital infrastructure that keeps schools in contact with parents and pupils during periods of disruption could repay dividends
How did we get these results?
This review is called a ‘rapid review’ to reflect the constraints in delivering a systematic review in a short space of time. The review synthesises 65 studies on the harms relating to the closure of UK primary and secondary schools (Reception to Year 11) during the COVID-19 pandemic and eight systematic reviews of mitigation strategies (including one by two of the review authors which considers existing data on recovery from unscheduled school closures following disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes).
This report should be cited as: Moss G, Bradbury A, Harmey S, Mansfield R, Candy B, France R, Vigurs C (2021) Mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on primary and lower secondary children during school closures: a rapid evidence review. London: EPPI Centre, UCL Social Research Institute, University College London.