Covid catch-up: Please, stop asking more of teachers

Asking teachers do to 'more' won't automatically lead to better results - but a focus on efficiency and simplicity will, writes Jonny Kay

Jonny Kay

Covid catch-up: why we need to stop asking more of teachers

We’re nearly there. Not quite, but nearly.

With Covid, with Christmas is on/Christmas is off/Christmas is sort of on, with being face-to-face/being online/being sort of both, with TAGs and everything in between, it’s been the longest year in living memory.

And, somehow, there still seems to be lots to do before the summer is finally here. Though TAGs are now submitted, schools and colleges will continue to teach and support students (who have all been negatively affected by the past 15 months) in preparation for next year.

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Added to this, there is the uncertainty of next year. There has been little guidance from the government, the Department for Education or exam boards on what assessment will actually look like next year, and discussion about this has divided education. Some see TAGs as more accurate and supportive of those students who do not perform well under the pressure of exams. Others say that the extra workload on teachers is unfair and that the majority of the exam workload now sits within teaching departments up and down the country. 

With this in mind, teachers in all sectors are attempting to plan for a 2021-22 without a final focal point. There is debate about how catch-up funding will be used, and about what resources can be used to support intervention and catch-up. The myriad resources and products that have sprung up in the past 12 to 15 months have certainly meant that teachers and leaders are spoiled for choice.

Whether we’re talking about new (such as Oak National) or existing resources and products (which have changed how they support students), the choice appears endless. At times, it can feel like we’re drowning in innovation, with each new piece of tech or software screaming out for attention as it promises to cure lost learning.

It occurred to me recently that every single innovation, strategy or catch-up/intervention idea involved more. More teaching, more planning, more work, more marking, more teaching. More. It also occurred to me that there is a reason we teach, plan and assess the amount that we do. Student, parent, teacher and leader anxiety and stress has risen exponentially over the last decade (and arguably longer). Is anyone thinking about the impact that “more” will have? If we’re all working at 100 per cent, is more even possible? Won’t this mean more stress, more anxiety?

Surely more is unlikely to work in the long run? Simply put, more doesn’t always mean better. And it certainly doesn’t mean best. 

Why we need more efficiency and simplicity

However, there are some things we need more of. To be precise, there are two things we need more of: efficiency and simplicity. But how can we achieve this?

For a start, we need to let teachers focus on, and decide, what is important. What is important is giving enough time to plan high-quality, engaging lessons that support students to know what they do well and what they need to do to improve. What’s important is making sure we have enough capacity to support students who require more support (whether that be in the classroom, pastorally or with external services).

In some quarters, there seems a clamour to get in the flashy tech, to pay for the gimmick, in the hope that this will act as a magic bullet. It won’t.

For 2021-22, we need to keep things simple and return back to normal, and back to basics. Getting the basics right is the best support we can offer students. Discreetly collect data from low-stakes assessments – no more repeated sets of in-the-hall mocks or “teach and immediately test” on a seemingly endless rota.

An old boss of mine had a saying about anything I proposed we introduce. Taken from a book on the British rowing team, which was so successful over a series of Olympics, he read that the coaches, scientists and experts who supported the team always asked one question when anything new was mooted: “Will it make the boat go faster?” 

We need to think of students as boats, and speed as progress. And that’s how we need to think for 2021-22: “Does this innovation/strategy/idea/process support student progress?” If the answer is “no”, in the bin it goes.

If “yes”, is whatever you’re proposing to introduce in the simplest form possible? Again, if so, introduce it. If not, revise it. 

The irony here is of course that simplicity itself is not so simple. But where’s the fun in anything being easy?

Jonny Kay is the head of teaching and learning at a college in the North East. He tweets at @jonnykayteacher

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