Why catch-up isn't just about squeezing in more hours

It isn't as simple as totting up pupils' missed hours of education – there are no easy solutions, says Michael Tidd

Michael Tidd

Schools reopening: Why Covid catch-up isn't about longer school days or extra hours of teaching

As the return of all pupils to school dominates the news, attention is turning to the need to make up for lost time over the past year. 

There’s no denying that the chaotic 11 months we’ve had since March 2020 will have had an impact on children’s learning. What’s much harder to pinpoint is quite what we should do about it.

Most pupils in key stage 2 will now be lucky to have had a whole term’s in-school teaching over the past 12 months – barely a third of what they might ordinarily have received. And that’s not to mention the knock-on effects of closures, from friendships and socialisation, to hunger and family breakdown.

But tackling it won’t be simple. It’s tempting – particularly for politicians and media commentators – to call for the implementation of quick solutions. After all, in times of crisis, what is often needed is quick action. 

Schools reopening: Not just about finding more hours

However, they’d do well to remember that what we face is not a crisis, but a recovery from one. The damage has been done, but rushing to implement poorly planned solutions helps no one.

Part of the difficulty is the complexity of learning and teaching. If you’re not directly involved in it, it’s hard to understand that side of things. 

From the outside, the whole thing seems quite simple: children go to school for just over 1,000 hours a year and emerge being better-educated. If last year they only had 350 hours, then the obvious solution is to find more hours. It’s all the more appealing if you’re naïve enough to think that teachers have plenty of free time after three o’clock every day.

It’s also a model that works perfectly well in many other trades and professions. I presume that if construction of a new office or housing estate was paused for 20-odd weeks over the past year, then those buildings will end up being completed 20 weeks late – or more working time will be needed to speed up the process. 

Of course, it’s probably not even true in that sense. Simply delaying everything by 20 weeks and hoping to pick up where you left off probably doesn’t work in construction any more than it does in teaching. Some contractors won’t be available at the right time now; some jobs that are quick to complete in the summer months will now have to be completed during a cold wet winter. In some cases, there may even be such damage to part-completed work that first that must be undone before new work can be completed. Every site will have its own issues.

Coronavirus: Longer school days?

So perhaps the metaphor holds a little better than it might first seem for education. 

It’s certainly not the case that we can simply tot up the missed hours and squeeze them in elsewhere

For a start, almost no child has gone without education in that time. But what each might have gained from the remote learning on offer will differ wildly. Nor can we simply carry out some test to find the much-referenced “gaps” – no assessment is that accurate, and no class homogenous.

And, as with buildings, in some cases there may be other issues to tackle before we can focus on the next stages of learning for each pupil.

Whatever happens over the next half term, any attempt to “catch up” won’t be achieved by a couple of weeks of summer school or insisting that seven-year-olds add an extra maths lesson to the end of their day. 

What it will need is a profession with the time, freedom and resources to do what they do best – and a recognition that there are no easy solutions.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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