Covid: Prioritise attendance, assessment and recovery over time, schools urged

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Effective diagnostic assessment and a focus on “recovery over time” should be priorities for schools – rather than an obsession with “catch-up” – the Education Recovery Commissioner has told MPs.

Sir Kevan Collins was speaking during a session of the Education Select Committee focused on “Covid catch-up plans”.

He said that using the Covid recovery premium to carry out diagnostic assessments of students in order to “inform curriculum adjustments” for September could be crucial.

MPs on the committee also heard from Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), who said that ensuring good attendance could be much more effective than measures such as extending the school day.

The hearing took place on Tuesday, March 2, and saw Sir Kevan repeat his warnings about the kind of language we are using in this debate. He said: "Catch-up isn't really the language I'm using – I think it's much more about recovery over time. Catch-up is part of it, but that isn't going to be enough – we do need something over the longer period. The disruption has hit children who face disadvantage more than others."

Debate in the national media has focused much more readily on academic “catch-up” ahead of wider pastoral issues and there has been increasing speculation that blunt approaches such as summer schools and extending the school day will be favoured by politicians.

However, as Headteacher Update reported last month, the evidence does not support many of these approaches.

For example, the EEF’s own evidence summaries show that extending school time, either the school day or year or via targeted before and after-school programmes, is a low impact approach for moderate cost, leading to just two months’ additional progress across the year. On summer schools, the impact is low (two months’ additional progress) for moderate cost.

Prof Francis told MPs that ensuring all pupils attended school could be more effective than extending the school day, which would bring only “marginal gains”.

She added: “It's been shown that there's a tapering of benefit the longer that the school day progresses … there are issues around pupils' attention and what can be required of pupils."

Instead, she urged schools to focus on ensuring that disadvantaged children are attending school: “The value for money there and impact on results may be better than simply extending school, whether for disadvantaged students or all.”

The EEF is running the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), which is offering subsidised tutoring to schools, and Prof Francis said that she sees this work as a “legacy” for disadvantaged children and part of the long-term recovery plan.

Elsewhere, Sir Kevan said that assessment of pupils from March 8 onwards would be essential to help schools tailor their curriculum delivery from September. He said the Covid premium funding could be usefully employed for this purpose.

He explained: “I think it’s something we really need to work hard on now. Great diagnostic assessments, in all year groups, so you can inform the adjustments you need to make to the curriculum in September.”

It comes after the Department for Education (DfE) said that the latest £702m addition to the recovery funding would include £200m to expand tutoring programmes, including the NTP, £200m for secondary schools to deliver face-to-face summer schools this year, with a suggested focus on incoming year 7 pupils, and £302m for state primary and secondary schools in the form of a recovery premium (the average primary school will receive around £6,000, and the average secondary school around £22,000).

On summer schools, Sir Kevan said that it was for schools to “determine and target which children, if any, they want to bring to the summer schools”. He added: “School will assess, they'll meet, they know their children and will try to work out what different children need – so the right children can be targeted for the summer schools."

The hearing came after yet more evidence emerged of the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health, this time from charity YoungMinds.

Its research is based on surveys of almost 2,500 young people aged 13 to 25 who have a history of mental health needs. The work was carried out in January and February this year, during the third national lockdown.

The results show that many are struggling with isolation, a “loss of faith” in their prospects for the future, and academic pressure for those who are learning from home. Key findings include:

  • Three-quarters have found the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones (44 per cent said it had been “much harder”).
  • A majority (67 per cent) fear a long-term negative effect on their mental health, including young people who have been bereaved or undergone traumatic experiences during the pandemic. Many are worried about whether friendships will recover, about a loss of education, or prospects of finding work.

Sir Kevan has previously said that recovery work cannot focus solely on the academic. Speaking to the BBC last month in his first media interview after being appointed he said that our response cannot be just about adding extra hours of study.

He said: "I think we need to think about the extra hours not only for learning, but for children to be together, to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama because these are critical areas which have been missed in their development."

Back in the YoungMinds survey, more than 1,800 of the respondents reported that they have needed mental health support since the pandemic began, but only 54 per cent have received it – including via the NHS or school counsellors.

The charity is asking the government to make wellbeing a priority in school recovery planning, and to take “a cautious approach to measures that could introduce additional pressure to some young people – such as extending the school day”.

It also wants ministers to address the inconsistent mental health support available through schools by introducing additional ringfenced funding.

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