A new study by researchers at the Joint Research Centre and Lisbon’s Instituto Superior de Educação e Ciências has looked into how much European children fell behind on learning goals during school closures, using an innovative, outside-the-box methodology.
The study identified Bulgaria, Germany, Slovakia, and Spain as the likely hardest hit by the lack of in-classroom teaching. In these countries, many children, especially those from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds, are likely to have lost out considerably. In fact, it seems some children might not have progressed at all during school closure, as also concluded in a recent Dutch study. Other countries, like Norway, Denmark, Austria, and Latvia were, in contrast, less severely affected.
The study also showed that learning inequalities across Europe are likely to have increased considerably, since learning losses are more pronounced in those countries that already fared worse before pandemic-induced school closures.
This means that early fears, formulated in a 2020 JRC study, were confirmed. That study anticipated that learning achievements were going to suffer a setback, with socio-economically disadvantaged pupils suffering disproportionately. It also foresaw poorer socio-emotional skills, which, together with the cognitive learning losses, would persist in the long term.
A room of its own, full of books: factors in successful home education
Measuring academic achievement among children is a long and arduous process, and exact data on learning losses can take years to come by. Recognising the urgency of the need to know what toll the COVID-shock had on children’s education, the authors of the new study therefore came up with an innovative way to estimate the damage to educational ability and find which countries were most affected.
First, they took data from the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a large-scale student examination, which, among others, measures the maths ability of 4th-graders cross-nationally, covering 22 European countries. They then checked a number of home schooling-related factors for how they correlated with TIMSS scores.
Out of these factors, the absence of books or a reading device at home proved to be the most powerful negative factor overall. On average across all European countries, absence of these tended to set maths achievement back by 40 TIMSS points, i.e. more than the average TIMSS maths point increase generally associated with one year of schooling, which lies about 35.
Significantly lower achievement was also associated with neither parent having a university degree; no internet at home; going hungry in the morning; and parents unable to help with teaching. Cumulatively, if all these were missing, children on average scored 157 TIMSS points lower in a test where average scores were around 500 TIMSS scores.
The authors then compared countries in terms of both children’s lack of home learning resources and the importance of those for learning progression, identifying thereby which countries were most likely to encounter lockdown-related learning setbacks. They argue that children are most vulnerable in a country where home resources are very important for learning and where the lack of those resources is very high compared to other European countries.
Although extensive data is available for the Netherlands, it is impossible yet to quantify the exact impact of the pandemic on learning loss. In December 2022 however, the first cross-national educational achievement data, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) will be made available to compare education outcomes before and after the pandemic. The JRC will use these data for further in-depth research on the impact of physical school closures on learning loss as well as successful remedies for closing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children in Europe.
In terms of new EU policy actions, since 2021, general schools too are eligible for Erasmus+ grants for a stay abroad. Additionally to this, around €60 billion will be given to investments in education and skills through the Recovery and Resilience Facility.
To tackle the deepening inequalities, the Council adopted a recommendation on blended learning approaches for high-quality and inclusive education. Blending learning environments and tools in primary and secondary education will also help education systems to be better prepared and more resilient in future crises. Furthermore, the European Commission proposed the Pathways to school success proposal, which includes policy guidance, the promotion of peer learning, the exchange of best practices, and financial incentives. At the same time, the Commission is examining pathways to increase children’s mental well-being, which is closely linked to academic performance.
To harness the full potential of EU-wide cooperation, eTwinning, which links 200 000 schools, and the School Education Gateway, an online space on education policy and practices, have been integrated in the new European School Education Platform.
These actions are steps towards ensuring that no one is left behind, even in a time of crisis.
- Publication date
- 24 October 2022
- Joint Research Centre