Catch-up: Why pupils need to feel safe and listened to

Pupils need to feel secure when back at school – we shouldn't frighten them about being behind, says Susan Ward

Susan Ward

Schools reopening: Forget Covid 'catch-up' panic – we need relentless optimism, says depute head Susan Ward

For Christmas, my husband bought me a virtual reality headset. It is pretty awesome. I can stand next to the Great Wall of China or step into Jurassic Park at the click of a button.

Browsing the different games available, I came across one with the apparently modest ambition of getting us to walk across a plank. A short download later and it transpired that the challenge part came from the plank in question being suspended between two virtual skyscrapers.

I’ve never been a great fan of heights, but, honestly, how realistic could it possibly be? Turns out very realistic. Standing on the edge of the simulated skyscraper, a flimsy-looking plank stretching out in front of me, my stomach dropped, my palms started sweating. I kept telling myself it wasn’t real, that I was standing in my kitchen, perfectly safe, but my body refused to believe it.

Remote learning feels a little like the VR plank challenge: it is both real and not real at the same time. Teaching is provided, questions are answered and children’s work is handed in, marked and duly returned, all from a safe distance. The activity of teaching and learning is there, but without the human connections that make learning come alive, is it really anything more than a simulation?


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With vaccination numbers steadily climbing, talk has turned to what will happen when schools throw their doors wide open once more and welcome back their children and families. The notion of "catching up" dominates the debate, with demands for longer school days and reduced holidays to "make up for lost time". Oh, if only it were that simple.

Reopening schools: Focusing on pupil wellbeing

Learning is not transactional. It is not about opening children’s brains and ramming a load of data in there. Simply increasing the hours available won’t speed up learning. Learning is a process. It is the gradual acquisition of skills, knowledge and experience. It is the process through which you come to know and understand the world and yourself. It is the difference between standing in your kitchen and standing on top of a skyscraper.

Undoubtedly, when the green light finally comes, there is a pressing and urgent need for schools to hit the ground running. When children return, families should rightly expect schools to maximise every teaching minute available, squeeze every drop of learning potential from every day. But central to the success of this is ensuring that children feel safe and listened to. Acknowledging what has gone before and moving forward together will knit the school community back together, reignite those human connections that set learning alight and make it real.

What children don’t need is to be frightened into thinking they are behind, that they need to catch up, that somehow this is all their fault. 

So instead of the education system bouncing around in a panic like the white rabbit in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, tapping its watch and insisting we are late, perhaps school communities could take a different view.

Establish a culture of rich learning where children feel valued and secure. Maintain a laser-beam focus on high-quality teaching and attainment to move learning forward. Support and guide teachers. Reassure children and point to all they have learned, not gesture hopelessly towards what they have missed. Suffuse the whole thing with a relentless optimism, a determination that better days are coming and things will be OK if we stick together.

Giving our children anything less will be just a poor simulation.

Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30

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