Covid catch-up: How schools are being set up to fail

Catch-up guidance has been phrased to make schools responsible for the government's failures, says Adam Riches

Adam Riches

How the government is setting schools up to fail on Covid catch-up

Returning to school after both big lockdowns wasn’t easy for us all. Not only did we have the fears of the pandemic ever-present in our minds, but we were also haunted by the demons of lost learning. 

Many of the phrases coined during this pandemic aren’t particularly fitting. However, “lost learning” is one that makes total sense – I think this is the most fitting term for the missed learning over the pandemic. 

Upon our return to the classroom, it wasn’t a simple job of “catching up” on what students had missed. Bubble closures, isolation, absences – these all made the challenge all the more laborious.  

Now, as some of the dust starts to settle, the magnifying glass has once again been cast upon teachers from above. This time, the demands are that lost learning should be found. I’m not sure quite where.

The Department for Education has published non-statutory guidance for schools on “teaching a broad and balanced curriculum for education recovery”. Although this guidance is optional, the direct implication is that its advice should be heeded. 

Covid catch-up: The DfE is asking the impossible of teachers

Returning to the classroom, it was quickly apparent that teachers had two choices. Reteach what should have been learned, sacrificing new learning time – or crack on with new learning, filling gaps as they arise. Many of us opted for the latter, because logic dictates that missing more new content means you’ll always be chasing your tail. 

This is not, however, the view of the DfE. Its guidance tells us, “You should prioritise teaching missed content that will allow pupils to make sense of later work in the curriculum.” 

Theoretically, in an ideal world, we’d have picked up where we left off when students returned each time. But, practically, those of us who teach know it’s an impossible approach to adopt. Time simply doesn’t allow for it. 

There is a certain level of irony in the suggestion of additional intervention classes reducing workload: “While interventions might suggest an increased workload, time spent on them, making sure that pupils catch up, can be a good investment of effort.” 

Agreed. A world-class catch-up effort that is properly funded by the DfE can also be a good investment of effort.

Making catch-up schools' responsibility

Teachers have been lumbered with the work that the government promised it would support. The catch-up effort has been carefully, and – dare I say it – deliberately phrased here to make schools responsible. It’s a very different picture from the one that was painted a few months ago. Once again, it is those in the classroom who are most affected. 

For a document that claims to be – and heavily promotes – a research-led approach, there is very little tangible evidence. In fact, there’s not one reference to any subject experts who were (or maybe were not) consulted during the writing of the guidance. 

With a document that is giving quite bold advice, it is good practice to properly cite and reference the thinking, isn’t it? That’d certainly give a lot of us – the ones implementing it – more confidence in the thinking behind the guidance. 

It’s also massively unhelpful that this guidance has come out a few weeks before the summer holiday.

If this is the approach that the government wants us to take for curriculum recovery, then letting teachers have it when students returned to school would have been really helpful – not three months after we’ve got going again.

Adam Riches is an assistant principal and senior leader for teaching and learning, specialist leader in education and head of English. He tweets @TeachMrRiches

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