Well before the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner, the strong suggestion doing the rounds in Westminster was that the answer to make up for “lost learning” would be to increase teaching time, by extending the school day or week, or by introducing summer schools.
Politically, this is sure to have a certain appeal – increasing time spent in school to catch up has an undeniable logic to it. As a strategy, it would be easy to communicate to the public and might well be seen in some quarters as taking strong, decisive action.
However, the evidence to say that it would succeed in accelerating pupil progress is seriously lacking. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit concludes that both extending the school day and summer schools have “low impact, for moderate cost”.
If your starting point was the evidence, it would be doubtful that you would pin your hopes for your catch-up strategy on these two pillars.
Coronavirus catch-up: Binning the idea of short-term schemes
What looks more promising is the moderate impact from one-to-one and small-group tuition. The National Tutoring Programme has enormous potential, in the long run, to transform the availability of skilled tutors locally, and to work closely with teachers to provide additional support to pupils who need it most, when they need it most.
Taking this programme to scale will take time and considerable resource. But if we follow the evidence, this is likely to be one of our best bets available.
“Catch-up” is probably too easy a shorthand term for the work that will need to be done for us to do away with it entirely. But it would be good if could at least junk the idea of catch-up as a short-term concept.
So where should we pin our hopes of recovery, if not in short-term schemes? In people, of course.
The quality of teaching is, by a country mile, the most important driver of educational equity. Continuously improving core provision is likely to have significantly more impact on educational recovery than headline-grabbing add-ons to the school day.
Valuing and investing in teachers
Put simply, the best contribution to supporting recovery that government could make is to value and invest in the profession. This means three things.
To begin, we have to get better at retaining expertise in the profession for longer. Even before the pandemic hit, far too many teachers and leaders were leaving the profession prematurely. Now, there are extremely worrying signs that many more are ready to quit. This is precisely the moment for government to give staff who are wavering reason to stay, not to leave.
In parallel with this, we must significantly ramp up investment in high-quality professional development. Great teachers are made, not born.
Unfortunately, access to high-quality professional development is variable, at best. We need to create the conditions in schools in which teachers can thrive and be part of a profession that continually builds its collective expertise. Our recent report, covered by Tes at its launch last November, provides a blueprint for the change envisaged.
And we must do more to provide proper support to staff working in the most disadvantaged communities. At present, talented individuals are put off teaching in the very schools that need them most. The Department for Education needs to flip the incentives, so that skilled professionals are rewarded – not penalised – for working in the most deprived communities.
There is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates the impact of issues beyond the control of schools, which affect the life chances of our young people. The government needs to be prepared to look beyond the school gate when determining the actions required to improve outcomes for young people. Unless there is an accurate assessment of root causes, we are unlikely to target actions precisely enough.
Finally, a recovery plan for schools should capitalise on the innovation that has been born out of this crisis. Oak National Academy has created more than 10,000 online lessons, and delivered them 10 million times so far. Some schools are already talking about how they might want to use these and other lockdown resources to support homework arrangements in the future.
EEF evidence says that homework at primary school has low impact, and at secondary school moderate impact. It might just be that, with some adaptations – and a commitment to getting a device and access to wi-fi to every pupil who needs it – we could well see time spent by pupils on homework becoming considerably more productive.
The government’s long-term plan for education recovery must be informed by the available evidence of what works – and, for that matter, what doesn’t. Sir Kevan’s appointment means that there will be a strong voice at the heart of government decision-making to passionately advocate for the importance of an evidence-informed approach.
It is critical that his voice – and the voices of the profession – are not drowned out by political advisers, who may be looking more keenly at feedback from focus groups than at evidence of educational benefit.
Nick Brook is the deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT. He tweets as @nick_brook