‘A decade of progress will be lost’: Concerns mount over learning deficit due to Covid school closures

Schoolchildren lost a third of a school year - and they still haven’t caught up. Can the gap be closed?

The Covid pandemic led to children missing about a third of the knowledge and skills they would develop during a typical school year, according to a significant new global analysis.

The study of 15 countries, published recently in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, indicates that school closures, the lost opportunities for socialisation and the stresses that affected families during the pandemic are having long-term impacts on young people.

While the study did not include any data from Ireland, schools here were closed for more than 140 days in 2020 and 2021, mostly over two periods of closure – longer than in many other countries.

Studies carried out in Ireland, by the Economic and Social Research Institute, academics at Trinity College Dublin and UCD, and others, have indicated that disruption to learning was likely to have long-term consequences, especially – but not exclusively – for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. In March 2022 the chief inspector’s report also highlighted the problems.


Research carried out by the Central Statistics Office, meanwhile, has shown that children were less engaged with their education in 2020 and that their learning and social development fell behind.

Although the Department of Education ran a well-received Covid Learning and Support Scheme (Class) in 2021, putting on additional hours to help mitigate the adverse impacts of Covid school closures on student learning, that scheme was discontinued in the current academic year.

Some observers have suggested that the €50 million invested in the Class scheme has instead been redirected to a free schoolbooks scheme and new counselling supports in primary schools to support children and young people, while the difficulties in finding teachers to actually deliver the hours may have been the final nail in its coffin.

John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, says there were significant disparities in engagement for children in lockdown.

“Some children did not have the opportunity for home learning or the appropriate technology to engage in remote learning to the same extent as their peers.

“The potentially adverse effect on children’s development is likely to be more acute for those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who, prior to the health emergency, were already experiencing barriers to education due a range of different factors,” he says.

So, what have we put in place to ensure more children don’t fall behind?

Michelle Murphy, research and policy analyst at Social Justice Ireland, says Ireland was making modest progress in closing the achievement gap before the pandemic struck, but that progress was now threatened.

“One particularly useful aspect of Class was how it funded research into what was and was not working to support children in catching up. It should have been expanded,” says Murphy.

There is a particular concern around reading loss, as this impacts on all academic subjects as well as a child’s social and emotional development

—  Dr Paul Downes of DCU

Liz Farrell, TUI president, says the Class scheme should have been extended, and that the failure to do so should be looked at in the context of general underinvestment in education.

At DCU, Dr Paul Downes is professor of psychology of education and director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at the university’s Institute of Education. He says we lack up-to-date data on the scale of learning loss and who was most affected.

“There were three main dimensions to this: first, children in poverty were impacted broadly; second, children’s mental health and development was impacted, as were concentration levels as a result of spending more time in front of screens,” he says. “Third, there is a particular concern around reading loss, as this impacts on all academic subjects as well as a child’s social and emotional development. There’s a real worry that, without proper solutions to this, a decade of progress will be lost.”

With the Class scheme gone, what could help to address this problem?

Murphy suggests that we need creative policies. For instance, some of the proposed Leaving Cert reforms could be brought forward to help address the learning gaps, while more research and testing could also help to identify the biggest issues, both locally and nationally.

“The space for additional hours is limited, so we also need, in conjunction with schools and principals, to look at the curriculum and how it could be adapted to address learning gaps.”

Downes, a member of a European expert group looking at the post-pandemic response in education, says teachers cannot solve all the issues facing young people in schools – including early school-leaving, which is at risk of rising due to how some children fell behind – and that we need multidisciplinary teams that include healthcare professionals and therapists.

“We should also avoid any hothousing approach [which would add intensive, additional learning to a child’s school day] but instead focus on an arts and social inclusion strategy, based around an after-school programme, two days a week, with a mix of abilities in the class and a focus on reading, writing and oral language skills – particularly targeting areas where poverty is higher,” he says. “It would be a lighter-touch way of engaging children and improving reading and concentration levels.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education says the effects of Covid-19 were being examined by a working group and that this would determine future supports, while an expanded summer education programme is to run again this year. In the meantime, its wellbeing policy is being rolled out to support teachers and schools to provide additional resources to all children.

Murphy says we need to step up our response. “When Covid hit, we made a decision to protect the health of the nation, and now we can make a decision to support young people and their learning,” she says.

‘We couldn’t just come back and pick up where we left off’: how schools have dealt with Covid fallout

“There were behavioural problems in some schools before the pandemic,” says Catherine, a primary schoolteacher working in a Deis (designated disadvantaged) school.

“The atmosphere changed when Covid hit, with a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about returning to school. And, while families did the best they could, children in some homes didn’t have the devices to learn, or there could be several children sharing a parent’s phone. Parents are not teachers and had so much to juggle.”

Catherine – who asked not to be identified – says Irish and the arts were completely left behind, because schools needed to prioritise literacy and numeracy. Infants and toddlers missed out on socialisation and early-years learning and so were at a disadvantage entering primary school, she says.

“And, with assessments for ADHD, dyslexia and autism pushed back [during the pandemic], and children still not having the support they need, more are falling behind.”

Frances Neary, principal at Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun, says that the school closures, and what followed, were challenging, although there was support from the Department of Education.

With not all children able to adequately learn from home, the biggest hit was for those with special educational needs, who struggled with being plunged into an unfamiliar world of online learning.

Both Neary and Catherine say that teachers are noticing more anxiety and self-esteem issues among their pupils, although Neary adds that they are coming forward – and getting – help.

With engagement and attendance levels taking a hit, Neary has sought to redirect some of their funding for the school completion programme, which they receive as a Deis school, to a larger target group.

“We couldn’t just come back and pick up where we left off. We had to reboot and start again, and put a new plan in place to engage students in all the different aspects of school life [including] being physically in the building, being engaged with their education and relating to their peers,” she says.

“The Class [Covid Learning and Support Scheme] hours brought new ways of thinking to schools, and we have used them to think up new ways of engaging [our students]: bringing back the school show or musical, creating lunchtime activities, and making sure they feel welcome and loved here.”