Written evidence submitted by COSMO

The COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study

The COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study is a major national youth cohort study which is examining the short-, medium-, and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational inequality, wellbeing, and social mobility.

The study is the largest of its kind into the effects of COVID-19 on the life chances of a generation of young people, recruiting a representative sample of over 13,000 young people aged 16 to 17 across England who were due to take their GCSEs in 2021, asking them about their experiences of the pandemic, as well as their future hopes and plans. The study will follow them through the rest of their education and into the workplace.

COSMO is a collaboration between the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the Sutton Trust, and the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, with fieldwork led by Kantar Public.

Five briefings from the study have been published so far: Lockdown Learning; Education Recovery and Catch-up; Future Plans and Aspirations; Mental Health and Wellbeing; and Health Impacts and Behaviours.


The COVID-19 pandemic and the public health restrictions that followed dramatically changed the structure and experiences of education in England. Although there have been no further national school closures since pupils returned to the classroom in March 2021, there has been continuing disruption impacting school attendance. This has included outbreaks of COVID leading to individual classes being sent home, and staffing shortages resulting in individual school closures.

By the first term of the 2021/2022 academic year, existing data on persistent absence rates showed that school attendance had not yet returned to the pre-pandemic average. In the first term of the 2021/2022 academic year, 25% of primary school pupils and 35% of post-primary pupils had missed at least 10% of in-person sessions, whilst 7% of primary and 12% of post-primary pupils had missed at least 20% of sessions.[1] More specifically for the COSMO cohort, 50% of disadvantaged pupils in Years 10 and 11 had missed at least 10% of in-person sessions, compared to 35% of non-disadvantaged pupils.[2]

Government data on absences has shown an increase in the attendance gap, with the absence rate rising for free school meal (FSM) students from 7.6% pre-pandemic, up to 9.7% in the 2021/22 Autumn term, increasing the gap between this group and other students from 3.3 to 3.7 percentage points.



The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils

Absence rates

While most students returned to schools once they re-opened, this has not been universal, with some children staying at home, in some cases for reasons related to the pandemic. For example, it may be because they or a family member were shielding, or perhaps due to social anxiety on a potential return to the classroom.

3.1% of COSMO participants did not attend school in Year 11 and were instead home-schooled.[3] This proportion was higher for female (3.5%) than male students (2.5%). It was also higher in the most deprived schools, as measured by eligibility for free school meals, at 4.8%, compared to 2.2% in the least deprived.

Figure 1: Non-attendance in Year 11 by gender and FSM % in school


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For students attending school during Year 11 (in the 2020/21 academic year), many missed several days over the course of the year, with 18% missing more than 20 days, 24% between 11 and 20 days, and 31% between 6 and 10 days. [4]This varied by schools’ and pupils’ characteristics: 20% of those at schools with the most deprived intakes (looking at state comprehensive schools only, by FSM eligibility) missed more than 20 days, which is considerably higher than for schools with the least disadvantaged intakes (at 14%); 21% of those with parents in working class occupations missed the same amount, compared to 17% of those with parents with higher managerial/ professional occupations.

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Description automatically generatedFigure 2: Number of days missed over year 11


February 2023



[1] Thomson, D. (2021). Exploring persistent absence. FFT Education Datalab.

[2] Montacute, R., Holt-White, E., Anders, J., Cullinane, C., De Gennaro, A., Early, E., Shao, X., & Yarde, J. (2022). Wave 1 Initial Findings – Education Recovery and Catch Up. COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO) Briefing No. 2. London: UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities & Sutton Trust. Available at:

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid