Jenny Griffiths
Jenny Griffiths
Education Research Specialist at Teach First

Teach First Research Roundup: January 2022

Two years into the pandemic, we reflect on its impact on pupil learning and wellbeing following the latest research.

Welcome to the January 2022 Research Roundup from Teach First. It may be cold outside (and possibly inside as well whilst we continue to maximise ventilation), but hopefully you will find an opportunity to read a summary of some the research and evidence we’ve collected whilst enjoying a hot drink and short break.

This half-term we are looking at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (so far). We reflect on what a range of research has said about the impact on student’s learning, as well as the sector more widely. There are also insights from the Academic Mentoring Programme, and the experiences of trainees and leaders on our programmes.

One of the areas we’re particularly focused on is trying to understand the experience of pupils at school. A lot of the narrative in the press has focused on ‘learning loss’ and ‘catch up’, but it is important to hear the voices of pupils and their social and emotional wellbeing.


1. Teaching learning and leading through a pandemic (8 mins)

2. Selected research on the impact of COVID-19 (2 mins)

3. Further research news (5 mins)


Teaching, learning and leading through a pandemic

Sir Kevan Collins, in the Education Policy Institute (EPI) annual lecture (30 November 2021) said: "It’s the whole child and the whole learning experience that matters. The recovery is the recovery of childhood, not just education."

What has happened to student learning?

In 2020 we had Centre Assessed Grades and a disputed algorithm, in 2021 it was Teacher Assessed Grades at GCSE and A Level, with KS2 SATs cancelled. For 2022, in response to the persistent disruption to education over the last two years, we have seen support in the form of formula sheets and some narrowing of the specification – though final guidance is still to follow. But what do we know about the impact of the pandemic on student learning?

Initial studies after the first lockdown and closure of mainstream schools to all but a small minority of children found a mixed picture. An EEF study on the impact of COVID-19 disruptions in primary schools from May 2021 found that there was little change in reading, but in maths the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers had widened by between 10% and 24% from Autumn 2019 to Autumn 2020.

A report by the Education Policy Institute and Renaissance Learning in October 2021, suggests that pupils are still making progress in their learning, but at a slower rate than would be expected in a normal year. They refer to the difference in expected attainment as ‘learning loss’. The pattern is characterised as a series of disruptions that entail loss, catch-up, further losses, and further catch-up. For primary the conclusion was an estimate of learning loss in maths of around 2.8 months, and for reading about 0.9 months by the summer term 2021. Analysis for secondary aged pupils was more limited, but they estimated learning loss of 1.8 months in reading by the summer term 2021. For primary pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, the report found an average of 0.5 months more learning loss in reading and 0.7 months more in mathematics. For secondary pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, the loss was 2 months more in reading.

The EPI released a further report on Education recovery and resilience in England in October 2021 to estimate the impact of lost learning on future earnings and economic growth. They calculate a 1% learning loss to result in between £78-154bn in lost lifetime earnings, whilst also acknowledging the true extent will affect health outcomes, engagement with civic society and wellbeing. They call for a more ambitious recovery package from the government that is progressive in order to tackle the disadvantage gap and regional disparities.

FFT education datalab responded to this report and questioned the differences in lost learning, suggesting that in fact they are 'vanishingly small'. Whilst there is a drop overall, the socio-economic achievement gap doesn’t seem to have notably increased. This suggests that potentially the picture is more optimistic than often portrayed. No More Marking have compared year 5 writing assessments across 2019, 2020 and 2021 and whilst the 2020 cohort performed well below expectations, the 2021 cohort performed almost exactly as the 2019 cohort. They found little change in the gap between high and low attainers.

It is difficult to calculate learning loss, and schools will know best how their students have been affected, but we know that on average pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to achieve less well at school than their non-disadvantaged peers. FFT education datalab data shows there is evidence of increased absence from school as a result of illness and isolation  - 25% of primary age pupils, and 35% of secondary age pupils in the autumn term missed at least 10% of sessions, double the rate of 2019. And disadvantaged students continue to be more likely to be classed as persistent absentees (equating to missing 10% or more of possible education sessions).

Whilst we've heard lots about the impact of COVID on learning, one report from CfEY highlights the importance of addressing the loss of non-formal learning activities and opportunities, both in and out of school. Lack of access to extra-curricular activities is particularly acute for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These activities are positively correlated with outcomes from employment to mental health.

ImpactED reported a statistically significant association between wellbeing and learning based on evidence from May-November 2020. The disruption to education and periods of lockdown have not affected pupils equally, but pupils did not report a desire for dedicated time to wellbeing on return to school, but the reduction in pressure to ‘catch-up’, and prioritising time with friends. Uncertainty around assessment has inevitably contributed to levels of anxiety.

Mental health and wellbeing concerns have dominated much of the conversation. It is clear that many pupils were experiencing mental health issues before COVID-19, so the impact of the pandemic varies, as reported by pupils themselves. Some benefitted from reduced anxiety and stress at home, but others found the isolation from friends and concerns about learning made them feel worse. Physical links to emotional wellbeing were made - lack of sleep, lack of exercise and 'feeling drained'. They also challenged the negative narrative around 'catchup' dominating the media. Whilst pupils were overwhelmingly pleased to be back at school, certainly some teachers are reporting the effect on behaviour of prolonged absences. This data suggests that age is key rather than school year.

What about the impact on teachers and leaders?

Remote teaching and frequent changes to guidance have inevitably had an impact on the wellbeing of staff in schools. Many have been ill, others isolating causing strain as headteachers do everything they can to keep schools running and provide the best possible learning environments for their pupils. A Teacher Tapp survey on 7th January found that 29% of those working in schools with high numbers of pupils from deprived backgrounds said that at least 10% of colleagues were off or isolating with COVID.

The challenges of the last two years have been significant and have had an impact on both recruitment and retention.

Recruitment levels to initial teacher training increased during 2020 and 2021. However this was a shortlived boost, and recruitment to ITT now seems to be on a par with pre-COVID levels.  


Graph courtesy of Jack Worth, NFER

This pattern of recruitment is perhaps unsurprising - teaching is often seen as an attractive career option during an economic downturn - however, there are worrying indications that more headteachers are seeking to retire earlier than originally planned, or stepping away from headship as a result of the additional stress of the last two years. The picture is less clear for senior and middle leaders and classroom teachers, but there is no doubt that the recruitment and retention crisis in teaching generally has not abated. The Leading in Lockdown study surveyed leaders’ career intentions and reported that 40% of leaders said they plan to leave the profession within the next five years (for reasons other than full retirement).

8 insights from our research to date: 
  1. The disruption of the pandemic saw huge changes rapidly made to enable our programmes to continue to deliver our training. Despite this, there were no major effects on ratings of satisfaction, programme quality or wellbeing. Support from development leads was particularly highly rated and due to a reduction in presence in school, there was more sense of partnership between mentors and development leads which was welcomed.
  2. Programme members were generally positive about the quality of online resources and how they supported their learning and development. Online webinars were seen as more supportive of learning and development than online self-directed learning.
  3. There were clear challenges for programme members, both in terms of engagement. For example, some members reported difficulties in attending virtual training days from schools rather than home as this meant they were more likely to be interrupted or called away. Some programems saw an increase in deferrals and withdrawals and we are continuously improving our understanding of the challenges programme members face and how we can best support their participation in our programmes.
  4. Whilst we saw an increase in applicants to our training programme in 2020 and 2021, matching trainees with employment schools was challenging due to reduced school turnover and uncertainty across the sector. Despite this challenge, all those who deferred were matched for the 2021/22 year or were able to train via other routes.
  5. The Academic Mentoring Programme (AMP) was delivered as part of the National Tutoring Programme. It was designed to support pupils in schools who had been disadvantaged by the disruption to education caused by the pandemic. Target pupils were determined by schools, but 40% of those receiving mentoring were in receipt of free school meals (double the national proportion) and 23% were also identified by mentors as having SEND.
  6. Feedback from both teachers and pupils on the AMP was generally positive about impact. The opportunity to provide ‘catch-up’ support to those that had fallen behind was welcomed. 62% of school staff agreed that pupils receiving mentoring had made faster academic progress as a result.
  7. Pupils who received mentoring from mentors on the AMP reported improved self-confidence and academic progress as a result. This was particularly the case when they felt that the interventions were tailored to their particular gaps in learning, or needs. 53% of school staff also reported improved personal and emotional skills amongst pupils. 
  8. The AMP offered an opportunity to gain school experience for both recent graduates considering teaching as a career (30% were accepted on to initial teacher training programmes), and qualified teachers who had been unable to secure a teaching position previously (38% of mentors had QTS when they started the programme). 78% of academic mentors thought it was likely that they would be working in a school in 12 months’ time, with 69% believing it likely that they would be working specifically in a school serving disadvantaged communities.  
What does this mean for Teach First?

Whilst the move to almost entirely online delivery was a forced one, and there is a definite desire for a return to some face-to-face engagement, the opportunity for more flexibility in accessing training opportunities was also welcomed. As a result we have reviewed our training offer to increase flexibility wherever possible with the aim of increasing accessibility for busy teachers and leaders. We will continue to evaluate this blended approach to ensure we are meeting the needs of programme members as far as possible.

Another way we have responded to the challenges highlighted through the pandemic, and the issues raised by our partner schools and programme members, is the publication of our Manifesto: a fighting chance for every child. In it we call on the government to significantly increase the funding that will be allocated to schools. In particular we are asking that the pupil premium be increased so that extra funding is directed to those that need it most.

What does this mean for schools?

Schools have done an amazing job over the last few years, with staff and community coming together to do the best they possibly can for their pupils. Keep going!


Selected research on the impact of COVID-19

  • The evaluation of the Academic Mentoring Programme gives an overview of the process and findings of the programme. There are also recommendations for future delivery of academic mentoring in terms of optimal models; support, training, and guidance for mentors; and facilitating a pathway for academic mentors to undertake initial teacher training.
  • The Big Ask: the Big Answer, September 2021, was commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner to hear the voices of children in England. Over half of 9-17 year olds said having a good education was one of their top future priorities. This was even higher among children from the most deprived areas. Whilst 84% of 9-17 year olds were happy or okay with life at school or college, children living in more deprived areas or attending schools rated as inadequate were more likely to be unhappy with life at school compared to other children.
  • The Chartered College have published a report on Education in time of crisis: Effective approaches to distance learning, November 2021. This includes key findings around the importance of digital literacy, teachers’ workload, engagement and social contact. The link takes you to the full as well as the summary report. This piece of research is based on survey responses from nearly 400 teachers in the UK and abroad as well as focus groups with over 50 participants.
  • The Leading in Lockdown report from the Universities of Nottingham and Oxford, with the NAHTand ASCL, explores the experiences of school leaders and the impact on workload, wellbeing and health. It also considers sources of support and the impact on career intentions, and the implications across 4 key areas: 1. Trust; local models of support; 3. Recognition and value for community leadership; 4. Rethink leadership.
  • The teacher wellbeing index for 2021 from Education Support shows an increasing number of staff who describe themselves as ‘stressed’ at 72% in 2021 compared with 66% in 2017. More than half are aware that their workplace has a health and wellbeing policy but less than half feel well supported by their organisation when facing mental health or wellbeing problems.


Further research news

School improvement
  • As Ofsted inspections are set to continue despite the challenges schools face during the pandemic, a former HMI reviewed Section 5 inspection reports from primary schools judged mainly as RI 22-26 November 2021. In the RI schools, the most common criticisms were linked to perceived weaknesses in teachers' specialist subject knowledge. This appeared to be often blamed on school leaders for failing to provide adequate training, but with no recognition of the context of COVID disruption.
  • Headteacher Matthew Evans explores the value of dissent, looking at the tension between consensus and dissent in the context of school improvement. He points out the importance of a culture that allows discord to bringing about change when formerly held beliefs are challenged as we develop our understanding. He also considers the difference between ‘mapping and weighing’ when you want to learn about your school.
  • Jonathan Mountstevens tackles the issue of quality assurance and the pitfalls of self-evaluation. He questions the focus on the work lower down and suggests that it is the policies implemented by leaders and the incentives offered that have a huge impact on what teachers do. Quality assuring leadership practices might therefore leverage greater improvement. Often we are looking at the wrong thing.
  • Daniel Muijs’s blog develops this thinking by reminding us that not all evidence is good evidence. He warns that the growing popularity of evidence-based education risks leading to a bandwagon-effect. He reminds us of the importance of attending to the quality and breadth of the research we use.
  • Kat Howard’s blog follows on from Education Support’s and considers the importance of perceptions around workload. She highlights the personal nature of wellbeing and how the contributing factors affect teachers differently, and vary across time.
SEND review and Inclusion
  • The DfE's long promised and long delayed SEND review has come under criticism from the Commons Education Select Committee. Now due to be published in the first quarter of 2022, a 'huge overhaul' of the system is promised, with a 3-month consultation following publication of a Green Paper. £2.6bn has been promised in the spending review - part of which will be used to build more special schools.
  • FFT Education datalab argue that the review needs to find out why so many young people are in local authority commissioned alternative provision. They suggest that increasing numbers of pupils in local authority commissioned alternative provision is due to an increase in pupils with ECH plans, without sufficient capacity in the state-funded sector to accommodate them.
  • The RSA have published a toolkit designed to support leaders and teams in ensuring inclusive and nurturing schools. It shares exercises designed to identify opportunities for change, learning from others, adapting approaches to work in your own context, as well as signposting to other relevant resources.
  • SchoolDash have launched the Schools Guide as a tool for families and prospective staff assessing their school options. This provides information about both primary and secondary schools, about subject range, demographic mix, post-school destinations and provision for special educational needs. They make an important point that correlations between indicators are weak, so almost all schools have both strengths and weaknesses and any concept of 'good' depends in part on personal priorities.
Social mobility
  • The IFS, supported by the Sutton Trust and the DfE, released a report on which university degrees are best for intergenerational mobility. Higher Education is often seen as crucial to improving social mobility – this report considers both access and success. Low-income students are less likely to attend the top universities but there is considerable variation around average mobility rates. The highest-mobility institutions are often less selective and based in big cities, especially London. Law, computing and pharmacology are the best-performing subject areas.
  • Dr James Mannion of UCL Institute of Education talks about how to close the disadvantage gap (30mins). He questions some of the narratives around the disadvantage gap and then looks at what he considers 3 ‘reasons to be cheerful’: the learning skills curriculum; implementation science; and rethinking education.
  • Joe Kirby curates a treasure map of free and accessible professional development.
  • A thread by Solomon Kingsnorth focuses on the importance of mastery approaches to support children's learning. This is because working memory is pretty fixed and it is an extremely accurate measure of learning potential. But our curriculum works against those with weaker working memories having the opportunity to grasp foundational knowledge, due to the multiple objectives and speed at which we progress through it. With links to Dr Tracy Alloway's work.


We’d love to hear any feedback on our research series moving forward. To get in touch, please email

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