Written evidence submitted by Professor Lee Elliot Major



Covid-19 and Education Inequality



Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin



May 2020




Submission to the House of Commons Education Committee









These include:










Governments are having to balance short- and long-term interests, and the trade-offs they generate, as they try to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Social distancing measures may limit the number of immediate deaths from the coronavirus, but an extended lockdown could cause lasting damage to livelihoods for years to come. The effects vary across age groups: while the coronavirus health shock has particularly affected the over-60s, the longer-term economic and social damage is likely to hit young people disproportionately, especially the under-25s. 


In terms of longer-run consequences, the Covid-19 crisis is generating significant worries about future social mobility. This is because it has drastically worsened both economic and educational inequality, the two key drivers of low social mobility. These inequalities are increasingly interdependent reinforcing each other to determine future social mobility levels (Elliot Major and Machin, 2018). To avoid a decline in social mobility, we will need to address both economic and educational divides, and develop coherent policies for both the classroom and the workplace.


Improving social mobility is associated with three overlapping aims:





Before the pandemic, younger generations were already facing declining absolute mobility: falling real wages, fewer opportunities, stagnant and even declining living standards, and the growing spectre of downward mobility (Elliot Major and Machin, 2018; Blanden et al, 2020). Britain suffers from particular low mobility at the top and bottom of society.  As many as 50% of leading people across a range of professions – from politics, media and law, to film, the arts, music and elite sports – attended private schools, despite comprising only 7% of the population. Meanwhile, every year, hundreds of thousands of people leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills (Elliot Major and Machin, 2018). The fear now is that Covid-19 could plunge young people into a dark age of declining social mobility. At the same time, the crisis offers an opportunity for renewed thinking.


This submission assesses the evidence for future social mobility trends and suggests several policies relating to education and training specifically. It draws on, and in places reproduces material from, a number of reviews of research and evidence including our recent briefing Covid-19 and Social Mobility and our forthcoming book What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility? to be published later this year. In our view Government will need to consider education reforms alongside a number of workplace and economic policies we also propose but are not covered here. These include the introduction of job guarantees for people who are facing long term unemployment and a one-off progressive wealth tax (Elliot Major and Machin, 2020).


Rising inequalities


Data from the Office of National Statistics confirm that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities defined by income, place, health and ethnicity (ONS, May 2020). The Covid-19 class divide is due to several factors: those facing greater disadvantage are more likely to live in cramped housing conditions and suffer from health problems that make them vulnerable to the virus. They are also more likely to work as essential workers, placing them at higher risk of exposure to Covid-19. Meanwhile, older, higher earners have been able to work from home and actually accumulate wealth via “forced saving” of unspent earnings.


There is a genuine concern that these inequalities could become entrenched for some time. Research has documented rising levels of income inequality across a range of countries in the wake of previous epidemics during (Furceri et al, 2020). Five years after a pandemic, the share of income going to the top two deciles compared to the bottom two deciles had increased. Employment rates of people with low educational attainment declined, in contrast with those of people with advanced degrees.


The worst hit employees in terms of job or earnings losses are the young and the low-paid (Adams-Prassl et al, 2020). Research in the United States has demonstrated that workers in low-income deciles are less able to work from home than those in higher deciles, and are disproportionately affected by extensive lockdowns (Avdiu and Nair 2020). It will be vital that among the one in four workers currently furloughed we avoid long-term unemployment the economic, psychological and social costs of which are substantial (Machin and Manning, 1999).


Learning loss


The Covid generation also faces significant learning losses. Given that school closures are likely to extend for 10-14 weeks, disadvantaged pupils could experience learning losses of between four and six months (Elliot Major and Machin, 2020). This would obliterate any marginal gains in narrowing the achievement gap during the previous decade (Department for Education, 2019).


Learning loss during the summer holidays has been widely documented, with poorer children lagging further behind when they return to school (Cooper et al, 1996). Low-income pupils are as much as three months behind their better-off peers in reading achievement after the long summer vacation in the United States. Learning losses are also observed for all pupils in mathematics. Reviewing research on the impact of teacher strikes in Canada and Belgium, Eyles et al (2020) report significant losses in educational achievement from school closures, particularly for disadvantaged pupils.


Eyles et al highlight stark differences in home learning. Analysis of the 2018 PISA survey revealed a significant digital divide: just over 40% of disadvantaged children had access to ‘online learning platforms’ compared with 70% of their more advantaged peers (OECD, 2020).


Research has shown that higher-educated parents are spending more time with their children on educational activities. One survey reports that during the Covid-19 lockdown, children from better-off families are spending 30% more time on home learning than are those from poorer families (IFS, May 2020). Children in better-off homes benefit from more access to study space, computers and internet connectivity. Children living in low-income, often overcrowded, homes are more likely to experience stress that interferes with emotional health and learning. Tutoring firms have reported a surge in business during the Covid-19 lockdown. Children from better-off households are more than twice as likely to have had more than £100 spent on their education (Sutton Trust, 2020).


Catch-up challenges


When schools return, they face a huge catch-up challenge, which is likely to last for several years. A review of literacy catch-up projects for 11-year-olds in primary and secondary schools concludes that any single approach was insufficient to close reading gaps, and that the challenge was greater than most schools realised (Higgins et al, 2014).


School closures for many pupils are likely to last for 10-14 weeks (a third of the school year). Based on calculations by Lavy (2015) on the impact of additional instruction, Eyles et al estimate that more than two additional hours of teaching per week might be needed over a year to compensate for each school week lost to Covid-19. This suggests that several years of extra tutoring will be required to bring children back up to speed. Much will depend on the quality of teaching that pupils receive. The longer we leave the school return for our most vulnerable children, the bigger will be the challenge in getting them back up to speed.


Educational scarring


The danger for many disadvantaged pupils is that they suffer permanent ‘educational scarring’ – long-lasting negative impacts on life prospects. This can occur at key education transition points, where selection into different pathways creates a step-change in outcomes.


For example, failing to get standard passes in GCSEs at age 16 incurs a big earnings penalty – even by a single mark below the pass threshold (Machin et al, 2020). With high rates of unemployment, employers are likely to place even more emphasis on the minimum grades required in English and mathematics in GCSEs. Other evidence shows that young people become increasingly deskilled if they leave school without qualifications.


A major danger zone is sixth-form selection. One dropped grade at GCSE for pupils could curtail further study at A-level. Admissions at age 16 lack the consistency and scrutiny that applies to admissions at ages 11 and 18. Selection criteria at one sixth form or college can be different to a neighbouring sixth form.


Meanwhile, sixth-formers from poorer backgrounds may be less likely to secure a place at highly selective universities. With exams cancelled in 2020, pupils will be graded according to teacher assessments. At the very highest A-level grades, they can suffer from being under-predicted in their A-levels (Murphy and Wyness, 2020). Research in the United States shows that even with high standardised test scores, black and disadvantaged children are systematically under-referred to gifted and talented programmes for high achievers (Card and Giuliano, 2015).


A review of  A-level predictions for students entering universities between 2013 and 2015 found that predicted grades are wrong most of the time (Murphy and Wyness, 2020). The study found that 84 per cent of applicants didn’t achieve their predicted grades in their best three A-levels. Three quarters of applicants were over-predicted: their grades were predicted to be higher than they actually achieved. Eight per cent of applicants were under-predicted. Predictions by student and school background among higher academic achievers – those applicants achieving at least two As and a B in their three A-levels. High achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be under-predicted (by around half a grade) than their more privileged high achieving counterparts. Meanwhile high achieving students from state schools are more likely to be underpredicted than high achievers from private schools.


Caps on student numbers introduced for universities may not help. They can limit efforts to widen access (Elliot Major and Banerjee, 2019). Meanwhile, those applying for universities in 2021 will not have benefitted from face-to-face outreach programmes at universities.


Finally, disadvantaged students may fall further behind during university. Almost a third of students (30%) report that they are less able to afford study because of the pandemic (Sutton Trust, 2020). A survey of staff working on widening participation at universities reveals greater concerns over the safety and wellbeing of students than their attainment (Mountford-Zimdars and Moore, 2020). Performing less well at university risks long-term damage to their career prospects.


Tackling educational inequality


We will need to consider temporary measures for schools to help with catch-up for disadvantaged pupils, perhaps shortening the summer holidays (and extending holidays at Easter or Christmas), so pupils return to school earlier in the autumn, or providing extra tutoring support during the summer. We will also need to monitor the outcomes of teacher assessed grades in 2020, and consider the exam arrangements for 2021. But the Covid-19 crisis also allows us to consider a number of major long-term reforms.


Training and reskilling


For those who are likely to be re-employed in other firms or sectors in the post-furlough world, skills need to be considered. We need better information on skills supply and demand at the local level to inform individual choices, and education/training provision and employer choices. Retraining will become even more important as people seek new jobs in the post Covid-19 world.


A major weakness in Britain for a long time has been the education-work interface, especially on the vocational side of education, and opportunities for retraining throughout people’s careers (Elliot Major and Machin, 2020). The poorest adults with the lowest qualifications are the least likely to access training, despite being the group who would benefit most from them. Britain has one of the lowest levels of on-the-job training for workers among developed nations (Social Mobility Commission, 2019). Surveys suggest half of adults from the lowest socioeconomic groups have received no training since leaving school.


Serious thought needs to be given to policy options in this area. For example, there could be incentives for reskilling and training in the tax system, in the form of human capital tax credits (LSE Growth Commission, 2017). Skills and knowledge of workers are just as important as physical assets in the production process. Investing in human capital would help boost the economy, addressing a chronic shortage of intermediate skills, stagnating productivity and falling real wages.


Meanwhile, the apprenticeship levy could be broadened. Recasting it as a lifelong learning levy to train and retrain people at all ages and stages of their career is one option. This would provide equal support for the half of the population pursuing a different path to university.


This could offer a way of repurposing current support for workers through furloughing. We need to make sure long-term unemployment, and the huge costs it brings, does not return. Job guarantees should be introduced for people who are, or in danger of becoming, long term unemployed. These jobs could be productive for the country in other ways, creating a more sustainable environment, or giving back through tutoring, for example. Parental unemployment is not only hugely damaging to individual life prospects, but also has negative impacts on the future educational outcomes for children.


National tutoring service


A national tutoring service would help to ‘level-up the playing field. Undergraduates and graduates could be signed up to tutor school pupils. This is one way of helping already over-worked teachers to bring pupils up to speed during the next school year. Undergraduates would benefit from the experience and be rewarded for it.


One-to-one tuition is one of the most reliable ways we know of helping learners to catch up. Delivered well, it can lead to an extra five months learning gain for pupils during one academic year (Elliot Major and Higgins, 2019). Randomised trials in England have demonstrated the effectiveness of undergraduate tutoring: pupils made an extra three months’ progress during the school year. Any efforts would need to ensure minimum standards of safeguarding and tuition. Pupil premium funding could help to pay for extra tutoring, with extra grants allocated to areas of the country that need it the most.


External evaluations to assess the effectiveness of different models of tutoring will be needed. Volunteering for the service will appeal to students’ sense of civic duty and giving back to others. Students could be rewarded for their service in many other ways, for example receiving academic credits or reduced fees. This will help universities meet their civic duties and commitment to social mobility, in addition to helping to establish a culture of volunteering on their campuses.


Vocational stream


In the longer term, we need a credible vocational stream in schools. For too many children, the academic approach in education is not working. We need to establish with employers a dual approach to upper secondary schools, with a credible vocational stream alongside current academic routes. As the pandemic has showed, some of the most essential jobs in society do not require years of academic study. We need to reframe the goal of education not solely as a quest to identify the best academic minds, but as the enabler of all talents.


The attributes of the world’s most effective technical education systems are well documented. They offer pupils academic and vocational options from age 14 alongside a solid foundation of core skills. In vocational streams students combine learning in school with hands-on learning in the workplace. Students earn while they learn and at the end of the apprenticeship they receive a nationally recognized and portable qualification. There are many opportunities to transfer between academic and vocational streams.


Children should be assessed against a basic threshold of key skills required to get on in life in a school leaving certificate. Maths and English language GCSEs could each be split into two separate qualifications: a compulsory test examining basic numeracy and literacy skills, and a separate exam for pupils to study the subject in more depth. These core tests could be part of a school diploma that all children would take.




To promote a more equitable education system, in cases where educational institutions (or employers) are over-subscribed there should be random allocation for admissions, where candidates have met a threshold of selection criteria. The most sought-after university courses have resorted to hyper selectivity – ever more refined, but increasingly unreliable, ways of selecting the very best students. The most equitable way to allocate places to equally deserving candidates at oversubscribed institutions is to pick them randomly.


Lottery schemes have been deployed in several countries to ease oversubscription in universities and schools.

Universities could develop a ballot system that suited their needs. Dutch medical schools, for example, select the very highest academic performers on academic grades, and then enter lower achievers into a lottery. Losers could be compensated – for example, they could be guaranteed a place at another university.


Final words


Government actions so far have rightly focused on immediate needs to minimise deaths from the coronavirus while making a series of major interventions to safeguard the economy. But we must now develop policies to mitigate the potential longer-term scarring effects on the Covid generation. These reforms could create a fairer society for all, particularly younger generations.


Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and an Associate of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.


Stephen Machin is Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.





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May 2020