“Pupil catch-up” is not just about the curriculum

There has been much discussion as to how the government should help school pupils to catch-up from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic upon their education.

My initial reaction was that simply giving each child a few hours of extra “teacher time” (shared) would not address the specific and individual deficits of each pupil.  Some may be having problems with say chemistry while others may be struggling with trigonometry – how could twenty hours of “generic teacher time” address these individual deficits?

Further, before thinking about topping-up learning gaps, it seems that many pupils are still hampered by social and mental health issues.  The pandemic will have left many children with anxieties and feelings of uncertainty about the future.

On this topic, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), has released an interim report to say, that as a result of the pandemic, schools are experiencing an increase in pupils with mental health issues while social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to classroom teaching.

The NFER published a policy briefing, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, highlights the results of in-depth qualitative interviews with senior school leaders to understand the continuing implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for pupils’ education in mainstream schools.

The over-riding message from the senior school leaders, is that they need funding, support and the autonomy to make decisions in the best interests of their pupils; that the Government should provide clear guidance on future plans for assessment and accountability; and to take urgent action to free up capacity in critical health and social services for children and their families.

The NFER findings include:

  • Most pupils have been back in school full time since 8th March 2021, yet education is hardly back to normal. Schools are supporting children to recover both academically and in terms of their wellbeing, but this is a long-term undertaking made more challenging by measures to reduce Covid-19 infection.
  • Most senior leaders report that some of their pupils are suffering from Covid-related anxiety. Concerningly, a substantial minority report an increase in incidents of self-harm. Schools are putting measures in place to promote pupils’ emotional and mental health, and would like to do more. They cannot always get the support they need from specialist services, such as Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), speech and language and social services.
  • School leaders say that the pupils most affected by the pandemic were already vulnerable, including those with challenging home circumstances and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). However, wellbeing and mental health issues are affecting pupils not previously identified as vulnerable too.
  • Some senior leaders say that pupils’ behaviour is good or better than before, but some report an increase in incidents of poor behaviour and lack of self-control.
  • Most senior leaders say that social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to the quality of teaching and learning. For example, teachers are unable to circulate round their classes to provide feedback on pupils’ work and there is little interaction between pupils.
  • Many senior leaders report a reduction in enrichment activities (e.g. creative arts, sports and trips), largely due to infection control measures. They want to provide more variety and enjoyment for pupils, both within the school day and through extra-curricular activities.

The NFER says that “School leaders feel that the Government’s current approach to learning recovery is misconceived. They see the emphasis on academic ‘catch up’ as unhelpful and want an equal focus on emotional/wellbeing recovery and enrichment alongside academic catch up. They want the Government to provide adequate funding for recovery over a period of years and to allow schools to use it flexibly.”

This is a worrying picture. We are aware that CAMHS service is inundated and underfunded. It is worrying that the government’s focus is on “educational catch-up” rather than the emerging mental health problems that have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.

How can pupils focus and catch-up on their education when they are anxious and stressed?  The Government must rethink this programme.

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