Reject the ‘reductive, deficiency-riddled terminology of catch-up’

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

We must reject the catch-up at all costs rhetoric and rebuild a school system that learns the lessons from the pandemic. Pete Henshaw reports from the ASCL annual conference, which set out plans to publish a Blueprint for a Fairer Education system this summer

School leaders must reject the “reductive, deficiency-riddled terminology of catch-up” and prioritise a rich curriculum as we rebuild post-Covid.

The message comes as the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) set out its plans to publish this summer a Blueprint for a Fairer Education System in a bid to steer the national conversation about how we “Build Back Better”.

The blueprint will be based on ”evidence and expert testimony”, general secretary Geoff Barton said during his online address to ASCL’s annual conference this week.

Mr Barton’s address praised the crucial role schools have played during the Covid-19 pandemic. His key message to school leaders across the country was: “You are more significant than you realise.”

He said that “beyond the woeful U-turns and missteps, the shameful headlines about hungry children and the ravages of poverty”, schools and colleges have provided “hope, educational continuity, vestiges of community cohesion and – in spadefuls – relentlessly optimistic leadership” during the past 12 months.

In the run-up to the conference, Mr Barton had already spoken out about the dangers of unproven “policy wheezes” being proposed or adopted as part of the government’s “catch-up” agenda, such as extending the school day or year.

During his address he sent a clear message to political leaders by rejecting the rhetoric of catch-up at all costs, echoing the sentiments of ASCL president Richard Sheriff, who in his own address to conference on Friday (March 12) warned against labelling the current cohort of students as “the Covid generation”.

Mr Sheriff – who is executive headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School and CEO of the Red Kite Alliance – told delegates: “I hope that the tag of the ‘Covid generation’ will quickly disappear into oblivion because they deserve better than to be labelled by the pandemic.”

Picking up the theme, Mr Barton said: “We cannot see them as educational victims in all of this. That’s why we reject the reductive, deficiency-riddled terminology of ‘catch-up’.

“It’s why we welcome (education recovery commissioner’s) Sir Kevan Collins’ immediate recognition that the extra-curricular magic of the arts and sport will play their crucial part in recovery. It’s why we also believe that Ofsted’s commitment to a rich curriculum offer may be especially important in the months ahead, rather than pupils being endlessly targeted for extra maths or extra English.”

Mr Barton said that ASCL’s blueprint would celebrate the education system’s strengths and offer practical solutions for government and schools to help tackle the challenges and weaknesses that have been magnified during the pandemic.

He told delegates: “We’ll celebrate its many strengths – the commitment to a broad and balanced education, the recognition that what happens in the classroom is enriched by the quality of what goes on around it – the conversations between children and trusted adults, the arts, the sport, the debating, the residentials and visits.

“We’ll celebrate the often undervalued skill-sets of our teachers, teaching assistants and other staff. We’ll highlight the vital community role so many schools and colleges play in often fragile communities.”

However, he also said that crucial issues would be tackled, not least the system of comparable outcomes at GCSE which leaves a third of students “without the dignity of achievement in the basics of English and maths”.

The blueprint is also to tackle the elephant in the room of education – the fact that after years of Pupil Premium funding, the attainment gap is not significantly closing.

He added: “Even before the pandemic began – modelling by the Education Policy Institute suggested the rate of progress in closing the attainment gap at GCSE between disadvantaged pupils and their peers was so slow that it would take over 500 years for it to be eliminated. We won’t let the voices of the children who are left behind continue to be forgotten. We’ll forensically identify where we need to go from here.

“Because at the moment, for too many children and their families, their educational trajectory feels like some arcane board game played by other people who know the rules better than they do, something beyond their immediate control.”

Mr Sheriff, during his address, picked up a number of themes that the blueprint will tackle, including exams: “The fragility of our qualification system and its reliance on endless pen-and-paper exams in exam halls has been brutally exposed by the pandemic. Is an approach to assessment which is not dissimilar to that of the 1950s really the best we can do for students in the 2020s?”

Mr Barton, meanwhile, gave a flavour of what suggestions we might see in the blueprint, including moving away from ideology and “politicking” and focusing on smaller, realistic changes. He said a core theme would be one of “no quick fixes”, adding “can we ditch the gimmickry now please?”.

He talked about prioritising a broad curriculum, a move away from an “industrial level of exams” at 16, and an accountability system that prizes collaboration over competition.

Funding looks set to be a key point too: “World-class education doesn’t come from smoke-and-mirror funding promises and labyrinthine access to ring-fenced pots. Great education costs. It’s an investment. Funding for our schools and colleges must be sufficient to ensure all children and young people receive the education they deserve, while also being targeted towards pupils, schools and colleges with the biggest challenges.”

Mr Sheriff said that many schools were already beginning their processes of change, deciding what they will be keeping from the Covid experience:

“The experience of the pandemic has given us some pointers of the way ahead. In conversations with colleagues over the past 12 months I have heard again and again about ‘Covid keepers’, the things changed for Covid that will now become part of the everyday school experience.

“Often these are organisational – split lunches, year group social areas etc – and very often technological, including new approaches to remote pedagogy, feedback and assessment. So, let’s consider other things to think of afresh.”

Ultimately, ASCL has said that the blueprint process will seek to address five fundamental questions:

  • What and how should children and young people be taught?
  • How should teachers and leaders be identified, developed and supported?
  • How should the education system be structured?
  • How should the education system be funded?
  • How should we judge if the system is doing what we want it to do?

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