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There Is No Catching up – Let’s Reset the Clock



I was happy to read that Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this recently:


“I want to once again thank teachers, childcare workers and support staff for the brilliant work they have been doing throughout the pandemic. This includes providing remote education for those not in school, as well as face-to-face education for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers.”


I think teachers have done exceptionally well to continue providing education during these challenging times. And it’s good to hear this acknowledged publicly by the Prime Minister.


That said, pupils have missed a big chunk of teaching time. And as schools are set to fully reopen in September, we are all worried about how they will catch up.


Catching up on Lost Time

In a press release on 19th June, the Prime Minister and Education Secretary announced that children in England are set to benefit from a £1 billion COVID “catch-up” package to directly tackle the impact of lost teaching time.


I applaud the government for not only acknowledging the impact of COVID-19 on education but also for taking action to address the resulting issues and knock-on effects of the prolonged school closures. However, I just don’t think this catch-up package will do the trick. I don’t see how we can truly catch up. After all, the setback has been considerable. We have lost more than a full term of school.


Instead, I think we need to completely reset the clock. And I’ll explain why.


Switch It off, and on Again

“Have you tried switching it off and on again?”


IT Technician’s love this phrase. And if we unpick it, it makes a lot of sense.


That’s because resetting and rebooting allows you to start with a clean slate, instead of compounding the problem.


Any teacher will tell you that when planning learning, subject content is sequenced in a logical progression. Scaffolded, if you will. Effectively each stage builds upon the previous one. This is so that pupils have the foundation of knowledge required to access new content going forward, thus building their knowledge and skills towards specific endpoints.


If schools fully reopen in September, pupils will be moving into the next year group. How can they be expected to access new knowledge and skills when they are missing the baseline needed to access this new material? How can anyone catch up while moving on at the same time?


I think we just need more time overall. We shouldn’t try to squeeze what we have missed into a time slot that is already occupied.


What Are the Catch-Up Strategies and Solutions?

Of the money earmarked by the government for their education catch-up plan, £650 million will be distributed amongst state schools in a one-off grant. Headteachers will then decide how to spend it (although there is an expectation that it will be spent on small group tuition for those who need it). The rest of the funding is for the most disadvantaged pupils to access high-quality tuition (which, I assume, means one-to-one tuition).


These catch-up strategies (I assume, once again) would need to be run outside of normal school lessons. Perhaps after identifying pupils struggling to access new material because they are missing chunks of essential prior knowledge?


It just doesn’t make sense to move forward while trying to catch up.


Instead, I think it would be a good idea to take the time to cover what has been missed, then move forward.


In other words, pupils remain in their current year groups then move forward in January 2021.


I know this seems radical. It’s not even my idea. Tariq Shoebridge suggested this shift from the academic year to the calendar year on Linkedin and it resonated with me.


The Argument for Changing the Year

Here’s why I think it makes sense to change the year. I know a change like that will have its own ramifications and many considerations would need to be made, but there are many countries in the world whose education systems follow the calendar year.


In a world where through daylight savings we can decide what time it is, despite what time it is, we can definitely decide to extend the school year and restart.


Let’s talk a bit more about how the government suggests we catch up – through small group tuition and access to high-quality tuition.


These two strategies are actually effective interventions. According to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), small group tuition can help pupils make an additional 4 months of progress.


However, this is when it is used to help low-attaining pupils catch up with their peers. Or to teach challenging topics or skills. In both these scenarios, pupils will be grappling with content that has already been covered, not brand new content that should have been covered and which pupils have not yet tackled.


One-to-one tuition is also an effective intervention according to the EEF. It can help pupils make an additional 5 months of progress.


That is when it is delivered in addition to and explicitly linked with normal teaching. Not when it is being used to deliver brand new content that should have been covered and which pupils have not yet tackled.


It is also important to note that these interventions we are discussing would be applied to a single subject at a time. However, since pupils have gaps in all subjects, it would be impossible to apply these to every subject all at the same time.


In summary, these interventions are effective, but not for the sort of catch-up that is proposed. And even if they were effective for this sort of catch-up, they couldn’t possibly be implemented for every subject that forms a pupils’ curriculum, in the time available.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Before this press release, there had been an announcement about a massive catch-up programme over the summer which seems to have died a quiet death.


Although such a programme would have given pupils time to cover what was missed, staffing that programme would have proved challenging. Not to mention, asking pupils to spend all summer in school after going through the lockdown sounds like it would have been an impossible task.


These are unprecedented times. And as such, they require a radical rethinking of expectations and deliverables. Because what has worked to date, no longer applies.


Perhaps we should try switching it off and then on again?


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