The Sutton Trust’s research into the impact of COVID-19 on the most disadvantaged young people

Yashna SmartCOVID-19, Inequalities, Schools

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to impact on practically every area of government policy for the foreseeable future. The Sutton Trust, a foundation which improves social mobility in the UK through evidence-based programmes, research and policy advocacy, has looked into the impact of COVID-19 on the most disadvantaged young people through their time in education and into the workplace, and has released a briefing paper covering the challenges associated with this.

The lockdown has brought attention to existing inequalities, for example, previous research has found that 34% of parents reported their child does not have access to their own computer, laptop or tablet that they can use to access the internet on at home. With the majority of learning being transferred online during closures, it is clear that this will impact those who do not have access to these resources the most. In addition, nearly half of parents in middle-class professions told The Sutton Trust that they feel confident homeschooling their children during closures, compared with just 37% of working-class parents. Research also found that parents from working-class families are more likely to have spent nothing on their child’s home learning amid the closures, compared with those in the middle-classes.

The paper covers the impacts on social mobility of the current crisis across the Trust’s priority areas and the impact on these sectors is summarised below.

Early Years

Despite the support currently being offered by the government to the early years and childcare sector, lost payments from parents will be greater than the entitlements provided. These payments, which many early education settings need to survive, are often filling gaps resulting from the low hourly rates of government funding. Additionally, some providers are more reliant on parental contributions than others.

There is a considerable risk that the crisis will further widen the early years’ attainment gap in both the short and the long term. In the short term, having providers temporarily closed is likely to have the biggest impact on the poorest children, who benefit most from structured provision and are less likely to have the suitable home learning environment needed. This could also have a long-term impact if providers do not receive enough support and are forced to close permanently, and provision is slow to recover once the health crisis passes. Although the number of settings that will be forced to close is not yet known, latest research has found that nearly one-sixth of the providers asked said they were likely to have permanently closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, while a third said they were unsure if they would be able to reopen. This could lead to a national decrease of 240,000 childcare places currently available to children under school age and will quickly accelerate the longer the lockdown lasts.

Making sure parents from all backgrounds have the right support during this time; support which is helpful but not prescriptive (given the challenges many families will be facing), could help to reduce the impact of differences in the home learning environment between children from different backgrounds.


The closure of schools is likely to have a considerable impact for all pupils, but the largest impact is likely to fall on those from the poorest families. For vulnerable children, schools provide not just vital structure but also square meals and places of safety. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are already twice as likely to leave formal education without GCSEs in English and maths compared to their better-off classmates. We already know that time away from school, for example during the summer holidays, widens this gap. Furthermore, due to the ongoing economic crisis caused by the pandemic, many more families will be facing other challenges which indirectly impact on attainment, such as increased poverty and food insecurity.

As previously mentioned, many children will not have access to appropriate technology through which to complete their home learning. These children will also need a suitable space in which to study, something likely to be difficult for many poor children who live in cramped housing conditions. Looking at ways to ensure all children can access online learning, including providing access to the required resources, will be important in the coming months to minimise the impact of this crisis on the attainment gap. Whilst the government are planning to provide laptops for disadvantaged Year 10 children, this offer should look to be extended, and businesses or charities could help to supply children with the necessary equipment. Moves from broadband providers to lift data caps and provide lower priced tariffs are welcome, but efforts may be needed to ensure all families are aware that this is available, and even very low tariff offers may still not be affordable for those facing significant financial difficulties.

With suggestions of schools opening before the end of summer term, it will be important to put in place interventions to help students to catch up when schools restart. This could for example include increasing the pupil premium to help schools provide additional support for disadvantaged students when they return to school, or catch up sessions for this group of students before other students return. The Sutton’s Trust paper suggests that this issue should be examined in detail over the coming months and include wider access to small group and one-to-one tuition, plus a focus on evidence-based interventions. It will also be important to look at handling transition between KS2 and KS3, and KS4 to KS5, as these pupils are likely to have missed out on vital transition periods between their educational settings. PAG will be looking further at the issues surrounding this in our next article.


The government has announced that furloughed apprentices should be paid at least the Apprentice Minimum Wage, even if it is more than 80% of their standard wage. However, this may put additional financial pressure on some employers, who will be required to make up the difference from the 80% supplied by government. Apprentices on the lowest wages are likely to struggle with any reduction in their pay and a large proportion of apprentices have reported facing financial difficulties, even before the current crisis.

The paper suggests any employers able to do so should be encouraged to top up the money they receive when furloughing apprentices, to ensure those on low levels of pay do not suffer financially. These issues are likely to impact apprentices from lower socio-economic backgrounds the most, who are more likely to be doing lower level apprenticeships, with correspondingly lower levels of pay. Apprentices from poorer backgrounds may also be less likely to receive financial support from their families, especially if their families are under increased financial strain themselves. With a combination of redundancies, furloughing and breaks in learning, many apprentices may be forced to leave their apprenticeships altogether, and supporting these vulnerable learners is crucial.

In the coming months, many employers are going to face difficult decisions when trying to maintain their businesses. The Sutton Trust paper references that apprenticeships have only started to rise again in popularity over the last few years and because of this, there is a danger that employers may not prioritise the long-term benefit of apprentices. For some employers, these roles may seem like the obvious choice to cut, and employers may also become less willing to invest in them in the immediate future. Existing issues, such as the lack of, and inequities in access to, higher and degree apprenticeships are also likely to be exacerbated by the crisis, given the negative impacts on both providers and young people. Making the case for both the economic returns and the social mobility benefits of apprenticeships will be vital in the coming months.

Higher Education

The Sutton Trust has this week released research into the impact of COVID-19 on university access. The findings from polls show that many pupils are worried about the impact of the pandemic on their progression and that 43% percent of pupils felt that the new assessment system, in which schools will issue grades to be moderated by exam boards, would negatively affect their A-level grades.

It also found a large divide between pupils depending on their socio-economic background, with pupils from working class backgrounds twice as likely to have insufficient access to internet access, devices for learning or a suitable place to study, compared to those from middle class homes and private schools twice as likely to be continuing to teach A-level content as state schools (57% compared with 30%). Working-class pupils were also found more likely to be worried about the impact of COVID-19 on their university applications than their peers from middle-class homes.

For students already attending university, some may struggle with the cost of living during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those from poorer backgrounds. While students from different socio-economic backgrounds all take on paid work, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to say they are working to cover their basic living costs, which are not covered by their student loan or contributions from their parents.

Many universities have made hardship funding available, but depending on the scale of this issue, the money available may not be sufficient to meet this need. More information is needed on how many students are facing financial hardship during this crisis, and systems need to be put in place to get money to the students who need it most. One potential way to get additional funds to them in the short term could be through the current student finance system.

Access to the Workplace

The pandemic will clearly have serious economic consequences for the country. With decreased opportunities, it is likely to be those from poorer backgrounds who suffer, as opportunities are kept close to those with resources, contacts and expertise. Recessions are also known to have considerable impacts on educational aspirations and opportunities, with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to have their educational decisions influenced by labour market conditions, while those from better-off backgrounds often stay in education even if the economic benefit is less certain. In the coming months and years, interventions to promote and protect social mobility in the job market will be vital. The Trust is encouraging all employers to keep this in mind, and use best practices in their recruitment practices, including contextual recruitment and paid fully advertised internships, wherever possible.

The Sutton Trust will be releasing detailed guidance on social mobility in the workplace later this year. In the short term, formal internships and work experience placements are likely to decline, as physical offices have closed. If possible, the Trust has advised that employers should look at moving these experiences online. It is also important for employers to ensure that advantaged young people are not gaining a competitive edge in this time through less formal opportunities gained through personal connections, which are not open to all young people.

As the crisis progresses, The Sutton Trust will be releasing research looking at these challenges in greater detail, as well as offering concrete policy recommendations on how best to lessen the impacts of the pandemic on social mobility.