The terms “learning loss” and “catch up” are quickly becoming cliches. But they raise many as-yet-unanswered questions: who has lost? What have they lost? Where has it gone? Have some lost more than others? How could that be? How might we know?
As far as I can see, none of these questions have been addressed in sufficient detail to allow us to move on to consider the question of “catch up”.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has called for a national policy response, warning that “by the time the pandemic is over, most children across the UK will have missed over half a year of normal, in-person schooling. That’s likely to be more than 5 per cent of their entire time in school”.
Without a “substantial policy response”, it warns, “we will all be less productive, poorer, have less money to spend on public services, and we may be less happy and healthy as a result. We will probably also be more unequal, with all the social ills that come with it.”
Responses like this, and there are many, are extremely concerning, and make it difficult to understand why the government has chosen this time to cut the funding for pupil premium.
Researchers have warned that “urgent support must be targeted at disadvantaged pupils and schools in areas of high deprivation...as figures reveal the gap in England between some pupils and their wealthier peers widened by 46 per cent in the school year severely disrupted by the coronavirus lockdown”.
Catch-up? The Covid generation of children have learned a lot in lockdown
It is generally accepted that nature has benefited from the lifting of the restrictions placed on it by human activities. As Sir David Attenborough’s acclaimed The Year Earth Changed documentary states: “Living in lockdown opened the door for nature to bounce back and thrive."
So why not our children? There are those who propose a similar effect in education.
They believe the creativity, resilience and ingenuity that this “golden generation” has already shown is comparable to the generation of children who lived through the hardship and trauma of the Second World War.
Educator Professor Stephen Heppell addresses young people with an optimistic view: “There is much talk about you needing to ‘catch up’ and of the things that some adults think that you have missed during this current pandemic. Yet you, your peers and your parents know that you have had many experiences (not all of them wonderful) that have been very different to the experiences you would have had, in conventional times, at school.
“It's not just you; the last huge worldwide disruption of children from many nations was World War Two. In the UK, it faced children with everything from evacuation to underground shelters, bombing and rationing. Never mind the current lockdown for a few months – many children in WW2 were evacuated away from their families for years.
“But that disruption gave them much – resilience, ingenuity, responsibility, confidence, creativity, bits of unexpectedly deep knowledge, and more. The value of that is seen in that war-born generation… a very special generation who did things in rather non-standard ways, and who rebuilt the booming postwar world.
“Your new current Golden Covid Generation exhibit that same ingenuity and resilience, but it's not yet properly recognised. You need to know that you are also a very special, very valuable, wonderful generation. We haven't seen anything like you all for 75 years, and we may not see it again for another 75 years.”
The issue is much more complex and nuanced than the catchphrases of “loss” and “catch up”, and the solution will be much more complex than dishing out laptops to children, bunging a few million into the private tutor agencies or broadcasting talking headteachers.
The role of educational technology in the ‘new normal’
Technology has played a critical part in supporting teachers and learners in this period, and it looks like it will play an ever-increasing role in a “new normal” (yet another annoying cliché).
In a report entitled Shock to the System: lessons learned from Covid-19, Professor Rose Luckin makes a series of findings and recommendations about the need for investment in digital infrastructure and learning design, but, more importantly, the development of the confidence, capability and capacity of the education workforce.
“Our key findings were that too little attention was given to the education ecosystem in its entirety and that effective connections are vital to supporting the education ecosystem,” the report says.
Unesco has just released a very comprehensive report with a truly global view, which concludes: “If we are concerned to create educational practices that work towards the common good and towards sustainable futures, then our first concern must be to attend to the causes of existing injustices, individualisation and unsustainability and to proceed from there.”
It also makes some suggestions for “‘non-stupid’ optimism about educational technologies”. These require “a recognition of what we have learned from the past, namely:
1. That digital technologies alone do not transform education.
2. That digital technologies do not improve learning.
3. That digital technologies do not fix inequalities.
4. That digital technologies do not alleviate teachers work.
5. That there are unintended consequences of digital technology use in education that are impossible to predict and that stretch far beyond matters of learning.
6. That any "impacts" are context-specific and tied with socio-technical factors.
It's essential that we gain a much deeper understanding of terms like “learning loss” and “catch up” and then perhaps a clearer idea of who might need to catch up (if, indeed, they do), why they need to catch up and what they need.
If Professor Heppell is correct then perhaps the “Golden Generation” will be much better equipped to handle the next pandemic than this one. And it could be the way we acquire an education system fit for purpose.
Bob Harrison is a former teacher, lecturer and college principal, member of the Ministerial Further Education Technology Action Group, education adviser for Toshiba Information Systems and assessor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education Masters programme “Learning Design with Technology". He is chair of Northern College and a governor at Oldham College. He tweets @bobharrisonedu