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Education recovery: curriculum catch-up is only one area of concern within the sector

4 min read

The government has now launched part of its plan for education catch-up in England. Widely anticipated by the education sector, the scheme did not made the headlines education secretary Gavin Williamson would have been hoping for.

Frustration was been felt within the sector, culminating in the resignation of Sir Kevan Collins, the recovery tsar who was specifically brought in to help draw up the proposals. Much has been made of the £1.4 billion funding offered. However, this is only one area of concern amongst education experts, with many worried that the government is focussing too heavily on getting children caught up with the curriculum and not enough on supporting those impacted mentally and physically by the pandemic.

The package of support, less than 10 per cent of the amount suggested by Collins, is targeted primarily at one-to-one support through the national tutoring programme. This is in addition to the £1.7bn previously committed toward tutoring and mental health support.

Across government and the sector, there is widespread agreement on the need to mitigate the negative impacts of the past year on young people’s learning, which is why Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made it one of his key priorities for the post-pandemic recovery.

Analysis from the Department for Education, and carried out by the EPI earlier this year, found that all year groups experienced a learning loss of between 1.6 and two months in reading, and even greater gaps emerged in maths. In secondary schools with high rates of free school meal eligibility this gap widens to up to 2.2 months.

Prior to this week’s announcement, key figures such as Education Committee chair Robert Halfon, and even Williamson himself had been suggesting measures such as lengthening the school day and shortening holidays, in an effort to catch up.

The government should prioritise mental wellbeing as much as making up for lost learning time

These measure had been included in Collins’ original presentation to officials, which was leaked shortly before the full plan was announced. His whole package of support focussed on “time, teaching and tutoring” as priorities, and would require an additional £15bn over three years, which the Treasury refused to commit to.

In an article for The Times, Collins described the proposals as a “half-hearted plan.” Since his resignation, Williamson, Johnson and the Treasury have all hinted that more money could be made available in the autumn spending review, including funding for extended school days.

The suggestion of add on teaching time has been less well-received by teachers, school leaders and unions. Questions also remain around what additional time in the classroom would be used for, and who would facilitate it.

The resounding message from across the sector is that the government should prioritise mental wellbeing as much as making up for lost learning time, which is why many proposals to the government include activities that would increase the use of “soft skills” and play.

When first appointed to the role, Collins had said he wanted to place an emphasis on subjects such as sport, music and drama in the recovery process. However, no such measures were included in this week’s support package.

Some in the sector argue that, while the focus on “catching up” is important, any effective long-term plan needs to also prioritise “recovery”. They argue that catch-up programmes shouldn’t just focus on missed parts of the curriculum, but instead require a new approach to help children with everything lost – both mentally and physically - over the past year.

Arguably one of the first priorities, should be tackling the impact on children’s mental health and social skills, which the government states itslatest injection of funding for mental health support teams in schools goes some way toward doing.

On lost elements of the curriculum, one suggested solution could be to incorporate essential subjects, such as maths and English, into pupils’ further education – whether that be in college, a traineeship, or an apprenticeship – for the Covid cohort. There is precedent for this, as T Levels already feature English, maths and digital essentials as part of the qualification, so similar sessions to accommodate lost learning could be added to sixth form or college timetables.

Individual assessments of lost learning per pupil may also need to be undertaken in order to place each child in the correct catch-up stream. This is something school leaders have called for previously – if not to tailor support, then at least to get a clearer picture of the scale of catching up required.

Despite the negative headlines surrounding the funding of this week’s package, there is still hope from within the sector that the government could be marked up by focussing on supporting children through a holistic approach, to rebuild young people and the sector after such a difficult year.


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