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The consequences of the pandemic have been vast and felt across society, but some groups – such as young people – have been more affected than others. The COVID-19 impact inquiry, drawing on work from our young people’s future health inquiry, has been gathering evidence from a range of sources to understand the immediate and long-term implications of the pandemic for young people, and assess where greater support is needed as we move through recovery.

We know that young people are experiencing ongoing economic and social impacts that present a risk to their long-term health and wellbeing. Here, we explore how their education, work, relationships and social time have been affected by the pandemic.

Education and learning in the time of COVID-19

School and university closures due to lockdown restrictions have reduced young people’s participation in learning – an essential building block for a healthy future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that secondary school pupils spent 4.5 hours per day on learning in the first lockdown, compared with 6.6 hours before the pandemic. There was also a difference in who was spending the most time on learning, with the richest third of pupils spending more time learning than the poorest third.

By autumn 2020, there was more lost learning in schools with higher levels of deprivation (2.2 months compared with 1.5 months in schools with lower levels of deprivation). The OECD estimates that learning loss equivalent to one third of a school year can reduce a young person’s income in their later life by 3%.

While schools reopened in autumn 2020, disruptions to learning were still common, and access to in-person teaching was not consistent. By mid-November, 51% of teachers in private schools reported being fully open to Year 11, compared with just 33% in state schools.

I’m worried there’ll be a knock-on effect on my future learning. I feel like I’ve lost so much of it already. After all this is over and I go back to college, it’ll take me a long time to get back on track. I’m worried about the impact that’ll have. I don’t want to get put off and drop out.
19-year-old member of the Health Foundation’s young people’s advisory group.

With schools largely closed again in January 2021, the proportion of pupils spending 5 or more hours per day on learning increased significantly from 19% in the first lockdown to 45% in this lockdown. The gap between private and state schools remained substantial: more than double the share of pupils at private schools were studying for more than 5 hours a day, compared with pupils at state schools.

Looking at reasons for not engaging with online learning, as reported by secondary school teachers, the biggest differences between state and private schools were lack of parental support for learning (65% versus 25%) and access to suitable technology (44% versus 14%).

  • The Sutton Trust briefing on COVID-19 and social mobility, focusing on university access and student finance
  • Child Poverty Action Group report on the cost of learning in lockdown

What about young people and work?

In terms of work, 40% of those aged 18–24 who had been employed in February 2020 (compared with 25% of the overall working population) were either unemployed, furloughed or had seen their earnings fall by 10% or more by January 2021. This was by partly due to the high number of young people working in the sectors most affected by lockdown restrictions, such as hospitality and leisure.

Apprenticeships were also affected – in April 2020, only 39% of apprenticeships continued as normal, with 36% furloughed and 8% made redundant. 17% of apprentices also had their off-the-job learning suspended.

There have been stark differences in changes to youth employment among different ethnic groups, widening the inequalities that existed before the pandemic. For instance, the unemployment rate for people aged 16–24 from black ethnic backgrounds increased by 9% (from 25% to 34%) between March 2020 and January 2021, but only increased by 3% (from 10% to 13%) for the same age group of people from white ethnic backgrounds.

A deterioration in employment outcomes during the pandemic is associated with poorer mental health, but the furlough scheme appears to have provided at least some protection. The Resolution Foundation found that 36% of people aged 18–35 who lost their job during the pandemic reported ‘poor’ mental health, compared to 28% of those furloughed and those with no change in employment status.

  • Resolution Foundation briefing on changes in youth unemployment and study since the onset of COVID-19
  • Institute for Employment Studies report on the impact of the pandemic on the youth labour market

How have young people’s social connections changed?

Lockdown has had a dramatic impact on our day-to-day lives. For many young people this has been particularly difficult, as they rely so much on peer support and social connectivity. Research shows that adolescence is a crucial period for social cognitive development.

The experience of lockdown and spending more time at home was mixed for many young people. In a YMCA survey from July 2020, the majority (92%) said they enjoyed seeing more of their family, connected with people online (90%) and spent more time on their hobbies (89%). However, 58% reported that their relationship with their family had become more strained, 77% had felt more lonely and isolated, and 92% missed being face-to-face with people.

In February 2021, 71% of undergraduate students were concerned about being able to participate in social life. Participation in student societies fell from 54% in autumn 2019 to 39% in autumn 2020 and to 30% in January 2021. Participation in student societies during the autumn term was lower for those from a working-class background (33%) compared with middle-class students (44%). 

In March 2020, the sudden withdrawal of support services from schools, colleges, universities and youth centres (as well as other spaces for social support) also had a major impact on young carers, on LGBTQ+ youth and on young people from Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities. They lost spaces which can usually provide a safe support network as well as information and advice.  

What next for generation COVID-19?

The government and societal response to the pandemic has led to profound changes for young people, from disrupted schooling to lost employment. As we move through recovery, it is vital that we learn from young people’s experiences to offer better support and mitigate any long-term health impacts of both COVID-19 itself and the associated restrictions.

Government must therefore continue to place young people at the heart of COVID-19 recovery plans – ensuring they can make the essential first steps onto the employment ladder, closing educational attainment gaps within and between cohorts, and ensuring vital opportunities for social connections.

Rachel Cresswell is the communications manager for the COVID-19 impact inquiry team at the Health Foundation.

Shreya Sonthalia is a research fellow in the COVID-19 impact inquiry team at the Health Foundation.

Caitlin Webb is a programme and policy officer in the COVID-19 impact inquiry team at the Health Foundation.

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