COVID-19 reveals the need to recruit for potential, not just exam results

Post author image. Rachael Saunders

Rachael Saunders, Education Director at Business in the Community on the widening gap between pupils from poorer and better-off households caused by the COVID-19 pandemic

In among all the noisy debate about schools opening for more pupils, it is important not to lose sight of what has already happened for children and young people at this time, and the impact it will have on their futures.   

Department for Education officials have been quoted as predicting that the disadvantage gap – the gap between disadvantaged young people and their peers – is likely to increase by 75%1.  

Early evidence paints a bleak picture
There are reasons for this, from digital exclusion, the confidence and capacity of parents to home school, and the impact felt by families who rely on free school meals.   

While the full picture of the damage to pupils’ learning is not yet known, the early evidence coming in paints a bleak picture. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that children from better-off families are spending 30% more time on home learning than those from poorer families2.  The Sutton Trust found that only 22% of children at state secondary schools attended online lessons every day at the beginning of lockdown, compared to 57% at private schools3. This will have a long-term impact on young people’s futures. Before lockdown, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were half as likely as their better-off peers to get the good GCSEs that are crucial for progression4. There is a real risk that this gap widens.   

“The impact of lockdown will be long lasting and it is important to remember that inequalities will be exacerbated for a whole cohort, not just those in exam years”

BITC is working with Impetus to feed into the methodology for decision making on grades for those young people that cannot take their exams this year.  The attainment gap is consistent year on year, and any significant increase should be recognised as being due to bias and addressed.  There are real concerns about bias in decision making for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) young people as well, with evidence showing that “teachers’ expectations of black students and their working-class peers tend to be systematically lower than warranted by their performance in class”5.  

Early years are the most important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds – great nurseries and primary schools can make a huge difference. The impact of lockdown will be long lasting and it is important to remember that inequalities will be exacerbated for a whole cohort, not just those in exam years.   

Many institutions are still working through how further and higher education will be delivered over the next year, and this is likely to be particularly challenging where industry placements are really important, such as in T levels and apprenticeships, as well as other vocational qualifications where engagement with business enriches the qualification hugely.   

Drawing on resilience and resourcefulness
Businesses are currently playing a significant role in supporting schools with basic needs like food and access to technology, as well as continuing to provide careers inspiration and context for learning.  Find out more about how BITC members have led the way on this issue in our factsheet, How businesses can support education during COVID-19.

As the UK recovers from this pandemic, it will be important to reflect on how we value what young people have learned during this time in terms of the resilience and resourcefulness they have had to draw on. Businesses must ensure they recruit for talent and potential, not just exam results, when access to education and opportunity has been even more unequal than ever.  


  1. Coronavirus: attainment gap could widen by 75%, DfE official warns (2020); Freddie Whittaker and Samantha Booth; Schoolsweek; available at
  2. Learning during lockdown: real-time data on children’s learning experiences during home learning (2020); Alison Andrew et al; Institute for Fiscal Studies; available at
  3. Independent school pupils twice as likely to get online lessons every day (2020); Carl Cullinane and Rebecca Montacute; Sutton Trust; available at
  4. Poorer pupils twice as likely to fail key GCSEs (2020); Sally Weale; The Guardian; available at
  5. Predicted grades and BME students (2020); Runnymede Trust; available at