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Study to explore impacts of COVID on educational inequality and social mobility

A national study of 12,000 young people in year 11 across England has been launched to explore the short, medium and long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational inequality and social mobility.

The COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities Study (COSMO) will ask the 16-year-olds in the study about their experiences of the pandemic, as well as their future hopes and plans, and then follow them through the rest of their education and into the workplace.

Dr Jake Anders, from the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, who is leading the study, said: “COVID-19 and its aftermath are a generation-defining challenge – the disruption to education will have long-lasting effects on young people’s life chances, with the most disadvantaged children facing the largest effects. The COSMO Study will provide vital new evidence on these unfair consequences, allowing us to plan how best to respond to this challenge.”

The COSMO study will be led by researchers from the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities and the Sutton Trust. The research is being funded with £4.6m provided by UK Research and Innovation and the Economic and Social Research Council for the first two years. Fieldwork will be led by Kantar Public.

A representative cohort of young people who are in year 11 in the academic year 2020-21 will be recruited. The Sutton Trust has commissioned an additional sample of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who showed academic potential before the pandemic, to look in more depth at the impact on their chances for social mobility. This work will be funded by XTX Markets.

There will be two annual waves of data collection conducted from a sample of 12,000 young people in Year 11 (15 and 16 year olds) in the academic year 2020-21 across England for the first phase of the study. This group is at a crucial stage in their education, making significant choices this summer on their future pathways, after two school years of unprecedented disruption and cancelled GCSE exams.

In autumn 2021, fieldwork will begin surveying these young people, along with their parents and schools.

Topics covered in the first year include:

- Disruption to schooling and home learning

- Financial impacts of the pandemic

- Family health and mental wellbeing

- Cancelled exams and teacher assessed grades

- Transitions to sixth form, further education and apprenticeships

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said: “Over the last year, our research has highlighted the immediate and wide-ranging impact of the pandemic on children and young people particularly those from low- and moderate-income backgrounds. This major study should give us a clear picture of the long-term effects of the pandemic on this generation’s life chances.”

The team will look into how young people’s outcomes have been affected by disruption to their schooling, particularly how students from less well-off backgrounds have been more likely to experience difficulties with home learning, such as lack of access to computers and internet for online learning, gaps in confidence, and less parental support.

Young people and their families will be invited to take part by letter in September 2021. They will be asked to complete questionnaires and interviews about their experiences and attitudes towards home-schooling and cancelled exams, attitudes to the pandemic, health and wellbeing impacts in the home, and future educational and career hopes. The young person’s school will also be contacted to find out about the school’s experience of the pandemic and lockdowns, including the challenges faced and the services they were able to offer.

Professor Alison Park, Interim Executive Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UKRI, which funded the study, said: “This study gives us a unique opportunity to understand how the pandemic has affected students during a particularly critical year of their schooling. It will provide key insights about how disruptions including home learning have affected students’ work, confidence and attainment. Crucially, it will allow researchers to look in detail at the experience of those who have been hardest hit, such as students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This large and representative survey will follow students over time, producing the high-quality robust data needed to inform policy decisions and school practice.”

The study is funded to follow up the young people over at least two years, with aims to continue collecting data from the participants into their adult lives. From September 2022, the young people will be re-contacted to track their progress through apprenticeships, employment, Further Education and A Levels.

The first findings from the study will be published in early 2022, with data from the study made available as a resource for researchers in the UK and worldwide.

The COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities Study

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