Why rushing back to a full timetable may help no one

The catch-up narrative may be dominating the political agenda but a slower approach when schools return may reap longer-term benefits, finds Dan Worth

Dan Worth

Coronavirus schools reopening: How my school is preparing to welcome pupils back to the classroom

Think of a fable and you’ll probably recall the tortoise and the hare, and the lesson that slow and steady wins the race.

Yet, as schools plan for reopening – with attention paid to social distancing, bubbles, Covid-testing, ventilation, and more – there is a narrative that there is no time to go slow. They must rush to help pupils “catch up” on all the learning they have lost during lockdowns.

So widespread is this concern, that calls for longer school days and summer schooling to help make up for lost learning – even if history suggests this doesn’t necessarily boost outcomes – are now part of the discourse.

Damaging ideas

Yet many are concerned by this. Earlier this week, Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the the British Psychological Society (BPS) division of educational and child psychology, said the talk of catch-up and lost learning was hugely damaging.

“The notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone,” he said.

Not only this but the last period of lockdown will have also had a hugely negative impact on many pupils, as Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute outlines.

“We know that the lengthy lockdown period will have taken a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of many pupils,” she says.

Professor Gemma Moss from the Institute of Education at UCL agrees and says that this must be take into account as schools return. 

“You need to just wait and let [children] settle in and reconnect, and remember what learning in a formal setting is like,” she says.

“If you over-calculate what has got lost and then try to dream up magic solutions that will repair that, and over- diagnose problems, you end up with overly complicated intervention packages when, instead, if you just take time in the classroom, it would repair itself.”

What the research tells us

Furthermore, she notes that existing research on the issue of apparent lost learning and how it can be recovered suggest the situation may not be as bad as many fear.

The most sensible piece of evidence on learning loss in the US shows that while children may have gone backwards during absence – such as the summer holidays – once they are back, they can pick up extraordinarily fast. In fact, the evidence shows children who appear to have lost the most recover the quickest.”

That paper, titled "Projecting the Potential Impact of Covid-19 School Closures on Academic Achievement", outlines this as follows: “Our models suggest that students who lose the most while out of school would gain the most the following year (at least under typical summer loss conditions).

“Thus, there is hope that students most affected by [attainment] losses under Covid-19 may also be the ones who rebound the most by the end of the 2020–2021 academic school year.

Making gaps worse 

Furthermore, this research finds that it is more likely to be the academically strong pupils who have been least impacted by the pandemic – so rushing ahead with more learning will likely only serve to increase learning gaps that have grown during lockdown.

And, perhaps most fundamentally, the paper notes that existing research around students affected by the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 show that social and emotional wellbeing will have a huge bearing on how students return to school.

Prior research on students displaced by Hurricane Katrina indicated that students had difficulty concentrating and often manifested symptoms of depression in the months following the hurricane,” it says.

“Understanding these impacts will be essential to supporting students’ social and emotional needs after this huge disruption of Covid-19.

Time to reconnect 

As such, Moss says schools should make sure they find space in the timetable to ensure children have a chance to reconnect with one another and get used to school life again.

“If we don’t allow children the chance to regain all of the social confidence and competencies, and the knitting that goes on through peer interactions, and insist they come back to a mountain of tasks to do that are too narrowly focused – that won’t help them,” she says.

“Children are hugely adaptable and resilient but they need the chance to adapt. If you listen to children speaking, what you hear them say is they miss their friends, they miss being together. What they are missing is the informal side of learning that goes on inside school.”

This is no small matter. A briefing paper by the Education Endowment Foundation has noted previously that positive associations with school not only boost academic outcomes but many important later-life outcomes, too.

“There is extensive evidence associating childhood social and emotional skills with improved outcomes at school and in later life, in relation to physical and mental health, school readiness and academic achievement, crime, employment and income.”

Education is more than exams

This is especially important in primary settings, the paper notes: “Good social and emotional skills – including self-regulation, self-awareness, and social skills – developed by the age of 10, are predictors of a range of adult outcomes (age 42), such as life satisfaction and wellbeing, labour market success and good overall health.”

Ben Waldram, headteacher of Lowdham CofE Primary School, is keenly aware of the importance of developing these skills in young learners and says this will be a key focus of a return to school.

“We know we need children to be numerate and literate by the end of key stage 2 but that’s not all that education is about,” he says.

“We need to make sure when children come back that they can get back into what the groove of learning looks like – being with their pals, connecting with their teachers, how to work with others, what sharing looks like, what kindness looks like – this all really matters.”

To this end, the school will be doing what it can to help children reconnect with each other through working on PSHE initiatives, mindfulness and outdoor learning as part of its forest school provision.

“It’s so much more sensible to take a slower pace and help children get used to being back in school because being in the classroom, being in an assembly, is not the same as being on a video call all day.”

Rebuilding structure 

Ruth Luzmore, the headteacher of a primary school in London, is making similar plans, especially as this lockdown seems to have taken a far greater toll on the pupils.

“Our approach back in June last time was to get straight back into things, mainly as we had children in for such a limited time before the end of the academic year,” she says. 

“This time, it does feel like we will need to take a little more time on the pastoral than before, as this lockdown has been so much tougher on families. So we want to understand a little more about what their experience of lockdown was.”

She adds that returning will also require giving pupils time to adjust to the demand of school – especially from a physical perspective – and so more time in the timetable may be given over to rebuilding this.

“I genuinely think stamina is going to be a problem and I expect that families will have tired tears at times while they rebuild their whole school day readiness,” she says.

“Attention may be a bit more limited at the beginning so I would want staff to consider how they structure the day and whether they have shorter periods of work with breaks built in.”  

This focus on relationships and community is not exclusive to primary schools either, as Rose Lawson, a secondary school history teacher, explains.

“For key stage 3, we plan to dedicate some time to strengthening friendships: this is a key area that both pupils and parents seem concerned about,” she says.

“Belonging has come up as a key theme that we feel we need to focus on when the students return. We need to find a way to ensure all pupils feel connected and valued in the school community.”

She adds that the school intends to start a yoga club – something many pupils have requested – as a means to help the return to school have more than just an academic focus.

“We hope it will provide a positive extracurricular space for pupils to relax once they are back to the stress of hectic school days.”

Perera says this extracurricular focus should be a key plank of the government’s strategy. 

“The government should also look at how it can support extracurricular and social activities in the summer months, provided it is safe to do so,” she says.

“Amid the many plans for academic catch-up, we can’t forget the importance of supporting children’s social development during this crisis.” 

An unprecedented situation 

For other school settings, such as alternative provision, giving children time to get back into the reality of being in school is also vital, says Kate Martin, vice-principal of Restormel Academy in Cornwall.

“All pupils are going to need to settle into normal routines and, with ours, we are offering a recovery curriculum that includes time to just ‘be’, art and other enrichment projects and reflection time,” she explains.

She adds that it must be recognised that the experience of the past 12 months is unlike anything any generation has experienced at school, so it must be recognised that getting back to normality is not just an academic issue.

“Too much pressure to ‘catch up’ is the last thing these children need. And I’m saying ‘children’ deliberately because when we say ‘pupils’ or ‘young people’ or ‘students’, it makes them seem less vulnerable somehow,” she says.

“The best thing we can do is listen to our children, be with them and focus on helping them process this trauma – only then push them to catch up academically.”

Let schools use their knowledge 

No doubt other schools will have similar plans in place based on what they think students need, and this tailored approach is key, says Professor Moss.

“One of the things that learning disruption literature tells us is that – from situations such as schools being affected by bushfires or flooding – the knowledge and understanding of how it has impacted pupils lies with the school.

“If you parachute in a solution without bothering to consult on the local situation, you may parachute in the wrong solutions.”

SEND requirements 

This need to allow schools to adapt and make space in their timetables for the pastoral and wellbeing needs of their pupils is even more pronounced for special educational needs and disability (SEND) settings, says Dr Amelia Roberts, also from UCL.

She says this is why these settings must feel in control to go forward as best suits their students: “Schools need to have the responsibility and accountability for their own cohort of students,” she says, adding that this may especially be the case for any new funding the government may provide around catch-up initiatives.

“They need to be able to say ‘we need nurture groups’, ‘we need more pastoral support’, ‘we need opportunities to take students outside in afternoons to let off steam’. It’s really important they have more control over budget so they can respond to needs of their context.”

She says this will be especially important to allow SEND pupils to rebuild their relationships with other pupils and their teachers, and for families and schools to connect, too.

What’s more, these settings will also have additional factors to consider when reopening, that they must be allowed to manage in a way that suits pupils best.

“If a school is doing testing and there is pressure to get them all tested quickly, but you have a child with autism who is unhappy with someone sticking a swab in their nose but is given no time to process that or to have it explained to them – that will make them very unhappy,” she adds.

Roberts says she believes most settings of all types will be well aware of these pressures and proceed accordingly, but that the wider narrative on lost learning and catch-up could make schools feel pressured.

“Schools are good at this but they become less good when pressure comes on from other areas,” she adds. “My advice to schools is to do what you have always done, and do it as well as you have ever done it.”

No doubt schools will rise to the occasion as they have throughout the pandemic.The hope will have to be that those watching on understand that “slow and steady” wins the race.

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