Pandemic: How Teachers Can Help Pupils to Catch Up
UK Schools were closed to all but key worker children on 5th January 2021 in response to COVID-19 – and re-opened on 8th March 2021. As schools re-open, and teachers adjust to their post-covid teaching jobs, Reuters reveals that the British government has pledged a £700m support package to help primary and secondary schoolchildren to catch up on their studies.
The Department for Education also pledged to introduce a ‘Recovery Premium’ to assist disadvantaged students, alongside other measures. This is to tackle concerns that those from poorer backgrounds will particularly be affected and be falling behind.
“Our package of measures will deliver vital support to the children and young people who need it most, making sure everyone has the same opportunity to fulfil their potential no matter their background,” says Gavin Williamson – the Secretary of State for Education.
In February 2021, it was also widely reported that the Government was thinking about extending the summer term into the holiday period to give pupils an opportunity to catch up. However, gov.uk reveals that there are plans at present to cut the summer holidays, or to “extend the school day”:
“This package is about getting extra immediate support out to students to help them boost their learning. So that means extra tutoring in schools and colleges and better early language support in reception year and nurseries, more cash for schools to spend on evidence-based interventions based on their pupils’ needs and optional summer schools for this summer for secondary-aged pupils most in need of support.”Gavin Williamson – the Secretary of State for Education
The Government also announced the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins, the former head of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to establish a long-term education recovery plan.
His goal is to help students to make up for their lost learning while schools have been closed to the vast majority of pupils. The BBC says, “Sir Kevan has had a long career in education, a former teacher who went on to be the director of children’s services and chief executive of Tower Hamlets, east London.”
Lost learning impact
Jonathan Kay, Head of Policy at the Education Endowment Foundation says it’s hard to say to what extent schoolchildren have been affected by lost learning. This is partly because there are many ways to measure it, and he suggests that some people might conceptualise learning to be about academic attainment. Others might also consider it to be about such things as the relationships school staff and students form. Social and emotional learning is often considered to be important too.
Kay therefore argues that learning can cover a range of activities and outputs. He nevertheless admits: “We know that school activity has been disrupted significantly over the last year, and there is growing evidence around learning disparities between pupils this year and in previous years. The EEF funded a study, conducted by the National Federation of Educational Research (NFER), which showed that pupils in Year 2 are roughly 2 months behind similar pupils from previous years in both reading and maths.”
There will be differences in learning between the different cohorts of children, and so he recognises that it’s important to uncover and address any learning disparities that exist between individual pupils.
“There are many sources of potential imbalances, such as variation in teaching and learning provision from school to school, to regional disparities, or, importantly, socio-economic inequality and children’s home-learning environment”, he reveals.
The attainment gap is nothing new, but school closers may have widened them. Even during pre-pandemic times, there were students who received free school meals. There is now evidence that, amongst their peers, this has grown over the last year.
Kay adds: “Surveys from organisations like the Sutton Trust and Institute for Fiscal Studies show that there have been substantial differences in factors such as access to devices, levels of parental support, and self-reported learning time. Our own study with NFER suggests an increase in the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and their peers.”
Speaking about the strategies that school leaders and teachers could deploy to enable children to make up for lost learning, he suggests that there isn’t a single strategy that can single-handedly support long-term recovery. He therefore advises that a combination of different approaches is vital, and that the recovery plan should be “led by teachers’ professional judgement of their pupils’ needs and consider wellbeing alongside attainment.”
“Different pupils will have different needs and teachers will be well-placed to determine what support might be most beneficial. An important part of this will be making meaningful use of diagnostic assessment, considering challenges beyond purely academic support, such as pupil wellbeing and social and emotional learning.”Jonathan Kay, Head of Policy at the Education Endowment Foundation
The recovery will also require a focus on high-quality teaching. Evidence suggests that it has the most potential to improve pupil outcomes. This may require decisions to be made to use external programmes or interventions, which can help to provide schools with more evidence-based targeted support.
Key to this will be the retention of teachers through training and career support – particularly beneficial to teachers who are at the early stages of their careers. This can be delivered through the new Early Career Framework, which Kay believes could be an important component.
He adds: “Different pupils will have different needs and teachers will be well-placed to determine what support might be most beneficial. An important part of this will be making meaningful use of diagnostic assessment, considering challenges beyond purely academic support, such as pupil wellbeing and social and emotional learning.”
Making room for small groups and one-to-one tuition, whenever possible, can offer an opportunity to both engage with each child and to enhance their learning in ways that large classes and brief online learning sessions may not be able to achieve. Kay says there is much evidence that this more focused approach on learning is effective when the necessary support is both required and available.
He says this teaching and learning support “might be provided externally, for example, through the National Tutoring Programme or within school through teachers or teaching assistants.” However, the return to school isn’t without its additional challenges.
For example, secondary schools are required to regularly test staff and pupils (the latter with the consent of their parents or guardians) to limit the potential spread of the virus in schools, using mostly lateral flow tests. Self-testing kits for primary school children are also available to their parents.
Covid testing has impacted on school resources, and there is the risk that bubbles within each school could be disrupted further whenever a member of staff or child, or children test positive. This can lead to staff and children being required to self-isolate at home for 10 days. Schools are nevertheless rising to this challenge. Both schools and their teachers are dedicated to helping children to catch up.