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Covid-19 and school availability: impact on parental labour supply and wellbeing

School closures and children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties” - Report, March 2021
(J. Blanden, C. Crawford, L. Fumagalli, B. Rabe)

How have school closures affected children’s mental health?” - Blog for the Economics Observatory, March 2021 (J. Blanden, C. Crawford, L. Fumagalli, B. Rabe).

School closures and parents’ mental health - Report, May 2021 (J.Blanden, C.Crawford, L.Fumagalli, B.Rabe)

How to fix the education system - Podcast - IFS Zooms In: The Economy, September 2021 (B.Rabe)


School closures have been an important feature of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These have a high direct cost to children, disrupting learning and impacting mental health. They are also costly for parents, as time must be spent on childcare that would previously have been spent on work or other activities.

Project aims

This project focuses on parents and examines the impact of school availability and attendance on parental labour supply, family finances and mental health.

Government guidance on school reopening created differential access to childcare for parents with children in different year groups. Schools initially reopened for primary years R, 1 and 6 in June 2020. This means that, during the summer term, some parents no longer had to provide childcare during school hours, while others with very similar age children still had to do so.

Comparing changes in the outcomes of parents with children in year groups expected to return with those of children in other year groups will allow us to isolate the impact of access to school on parental outcomes. We will also explore the responses of schools and parents to this guidance, providing insights into which schools and parents were most likely to comply, and what effect children actually returning to school had on parents’ outcomes.

Timely research on these issues will provide important insights into the likely consequences of any future school closures or reductions in capacity, including the possibility of longer-term effects on employment and family wellbeing for parents, especially mothers.


We will use the Understanding Society (UKHLS) Covid-19 survey linked to mainstage UKHLS data, and the Labour Force Survey.

The UKHLS Covid-19 survey is a monthly survey of about 17,000 participants of the main UKHLS survey which started in April 2020 and has responses from the parents of about 4,000 children each month (roughly 300 per year group). From July the survey will be bi-monthly. It includes measures of labour market status (working, hours worked, working from home, furloughed), earnings and mental health (from the General Health Questionnaire, GHQ) and information on the perceived financial situation of the family and whether they are up to date with bills and housing payments in each wave.

The main advantage of this data is that it is based on a probability sample representative of the UK population and can be linked back to mainstage UKHLS data, enabling us to obtain rich and longitudinal background information on all respondents which can be used as controls in our modelling as well as to weight the Covid survey respondents to be representative of the population.

We will supplement this with data from the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS), which collects information on a nationally representative sample of around 36,000 households (90,000 individuals) every quarter, for up to 5 quarters. It contains rich information on labour supply and earnings, and some information on mental and physical health. Its main advantage relative to the UKHLS is its larger sample size.

Both Understanding Society and the LFS are longitudinal, enabling us to look at changes in outcomes over time without relying on recall. Baseline information for the UKHLS analysis will come from an early release of mainstage UKHLS wave 10 and 11 data collected in 2019. In the LFS we will use data from individuals interviewed at least one quarter before lockdown (Q1 of 2020). It also means we can repeat our analysis into the winter months, as more data becomes available, enabling us to look at the effect of school eligibility and attendance in both the shortterm and the slightly longer term (up to 9 months). In this way we can investigate the impact of school reopening on future employment and earnings to test the hypothesis that parents – especially mothers – who experience longer labour market disruptions face a longer-term labour market penalty.

Deriving school eligibility and attendance Children’s eligibility to return to school will be determined using dates of birth to derive the school year of each child in the family in both UKHLS and LFS.

The September UKHLS Covid-19 survey will carry a module on children’s return to school, including questions looking back at school availability and attendance during the summer term. These variables are discussed further in the supplementary information. This will enable us to examine the characteristics of schools that followed government guidance regarding reopening as well parents that chose to send their children back, and look at the impact of school attendance on parents’ outcomes.

It is not possible to identify which children returned to school in LFS. We will use information from the Department for Education on school openings and attendance to provide additional indicative evidence on the impact of school attendance on parental outcomes in the LFS.

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social wellbeing. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and qualitative methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

Team members

Dr Birgitta Rabe

Reader - ISER, University of Essex

Dr Laura Fumagalli

Research Fellow - ISER, University of Essex

Dr Jo Blanden

Reader - University of Surrey

Dr Claire Crawford

Reader - University of Birmingham

Covid crop

Photo credit: Anthony Cullen