Jon Severs

The current 'catch-up' narrative could prove disastrous

Schools are being set up for failure – lost learning won't be recovered in a few months of longer days, says Jon Severs

Why the Covid catch-up narrative could prove disastrous for schools

I have always been pretty good at making quick decisions, but I have recently got myself stuck in the habit of answering any query with the empty and odious response of: “We’ll see."

My excuse is necessity. With four children at home, with work and remote education to juggle, with my attention being stretched in several directions, I am at risk of three things: committing myself to something I have not properly considered; overestimating my capacity to listen properly to multiple voices speaking at once; and unwittingly offending a member of my household.

“We’ll see” protects me. It is the linguistic equivalent of being put on hold: it’s inoffensive lounge jazz and an occasional message that says I appreciate your call and will get back to you really soon. It buys me time.

In my house, “we’ll see” is doing a lot of heavy lifting.

In the education world, the term “catch-up” is similarly burdened right now. The phrase is solid enough to keep parents temporarily happy, and hazy enough on the detail to not leave the government with commitments it cannot keep. It’s a placeholder.

But just as my children eventually saw through “we’ll see” and now expose my lack of commitment to a decision and my inability to listen, so too will the public spot the flaws in the notion of “catch-up”.

Covid catch-up: There are no quick fixes

Because the truth is: we have no idea what type of learning has gone missing, how much of it has been lost or how long recovering it might take. We have no idea how much capacity we will need in the system to try to correct for lost time, and how much money that might involve. We have no idea of the scale of timetable disruption that we might require, how far the work of external services may be needed and whether there is any resource left in those services to help to that level.

Most of all, we have no idea if catch-up is even plausible: after all, we have been trying – and failing – to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers for decades.

It will be schools that pick up the pieces when this realisation hits. It will be schools explaining that, actually, it will take time to diagnose the learning gaps, time to establish whether intervention is needed, time to find out which intervention should be used and to plan for it. It will be schools trying to motivate students who are constantly told they are behind, and who are being made to work twice as hard to make up the ground.

Let’s be clear: the catch-up narrative has the potential to be a disaster for schools and the young people in them. The best we can hope for in the next few months is mitigation, but the government is hinting at quick resolution. Schools are being set up for failure: the lost learning is never going to be recovered in a few months of extended days.

It is reassuring, therefore, that Sir Kevan Collins has been put in charge of “catch-up” and that he will apparently have a great deal of power over how things play out: he’s hugely experienced, knowledgeable about education and pragmatic.

And it is reassuring that, in his first week in post as “catch-up tsar” (a moniker bestowed upon him, not sought), he was careful not to say too much, overcommit or offend. Under a deluge of questions about what he is going to do, he, in fact, revealed very little.

You could argue that this is just another hollow diversion, a fobbing off like those the government and I have been giving. But I don’t think that’s true.

Instead, it’s a necessary postponement of decisions until there is better data on which to make those decisions. The last thing schools need now is a short-term fix to a problem no one can define. Teachers and pupils are owed a more considered path out of lockdown, and I have hope Sir Kevan will provide one. Will that prove trust well placed? I guess, in time, we’ll see.


This article originally appeared in the 19 February 2021 issue under the headline “The current 'catch-up' narrative may prove disastrous for schools”

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