6 Strategies to Address Major Gaps in Student Learning
Some of the greatest insights can be gained from those on the fringes. The ones doing their own thing. Those with the advantage of looking in from afar coupled with the benefit of independence. When you are far removed from (and free from) the mainstream, you see the whole spectrum of activity and can pick, choose and adapt to suit your needs. Because your needs are unique. And you’re acutely aware that one size most definitely does not fit all.
Now that schools are set to fully reopen in September 2020 there are concerns about the learning that pupils have missed during the lockdown, and how they can catch up. With this in mind, the education sector can learn a great deal from independent schools, pupil referral units (PRUs) and alternative provision (AP). Schools that regularly have to devise strategies to address major gaps in student learning.
Even though we can all acknowledge that teachers have been working very hard to deliver learning for pupils, whether they were at home or in school, I am sure we can all agree that what they provided is not nearly as much as what they would have provided had it not been for the pandemic.
Teachers had to pivot quickly to online delivery and then rely on parents to support their children and encourage them to take part. Parents also did amazing things while trying to work from home, and in some cases also teach their own children, because not all schools provided online learning or sent work packages home.
All this has created a varied landscape in terms of what pupils have learned and what they have missed. And there is a lot of concern about how best to catch up. So much so that the government is investing £1 billion in a COVID “catch-up” package for schools.
I have already shared my opinion about catching up so I won't go into much detail here. In short, I think if we are so concerned that there is not enough time to catch up, we should create more time by resetting the clock. Extending the end of the school year to December 2020 and then following the calendar year from then on.
But obviously, this is not going to happen. So, let’s get back to independent schools, PRUs and AP and how they can help.
Non-Association Independent Schools Explained
Before we begin to identify strategies that address major gaps in student learning, it’s important to explain what I mean by independent schools in this context.
I’m a school improvement partner for non-association independent schools. These are independent schools that are not members of any of the associations that form the Independent Schools Council (ISC). They are, in fact, independent schools that are inspected by Ofsted. They tend to be small to medium-sized schools, admitting pupils by referral to offer a specialised provision, including SEND, SEMH, and therapeutic provision.
Pupils are referred to these independent schools by local authorities because their needs cannot be accommodated in mainstream schools, or they have been (or are) at risk of being excluded.
Some independent schools are set up to provide education for pupils in residential care homes or pupils that are hospitalised. Others are set up to deliver a specialised curriculum or to cater for pupils of a specific religion or who come from a country outside the UK.
In these schools, pupils are not referred, their parents choose to send them there for the reasons outlined above.
Next, there’s the PRU. For the uninitiated, a PRU is a type of school that caters for children who aren't able to attend a mainstream school. Pupils are often referred there if they need greater care and support than their school can provide.
Lastly, AP is an education provision outside of a school setting. This is arranged by local authorities or schools for pupils who do not attend mainstream school for reasons such as school exclusion, behaviour issues, school refusal, or short- or long-term illness. Some APs apply to the DfE to become independent schools.
With these definitions explained, we can now focus on exploring what the rest of the education sector can learn from these three types of provision as schools fully re-open in September 2020.
Strategies to Address Major Gaps in Student Learning
There are two key reasons why non-association independent schools have an edge on mainstream educational settings when it comes to addressing gaps in student learning. This is because pupils attending these three types of specialist provision share two common characteristics:
When pupils are admitted into these schools they tend to have gaps in their education.
They don’t spend the full 7 years of primary or secondary education in one school.
For some students, the gaps in learning can be as long as two years. Unlike the one term that we have missed due to COVID-19.
In other words, these three types of provision almost always have a limited time in which to support pupils to achieve good outcomes. Pupils who have missed a great chunk of learning. And it is for this reason that non-association independent schools are best placed to share information that other educational settings might find useful for September 2020.
So, what can these types of provision teach the rest of the education sector?
How do they engage pupils who have had significant gaps in their education, and with whom they have limited time?
How do they get outcomes from such pupils?
From my experience, working in the independent school and alternative provision sector, as well as ongoing training and professional development, I have identified six strategies that non-association independent schools regularly implement to address major gaps in student learning.
The following strategies may offer a glimmer of hope to the rest of the education sector as schools prepare to deal with the post-COVID knowledge deficit amongst their students.
Strategy 1 - Gather Data to Identify Starting Points
When pupils join the three types of specialist provision, there is an extensive attempt to gather as much information about the pupils as possible. Typically this will include their achievements, previous attendance record, behaviour, any gaps in education, their needs, their family and living situation.
It's not always easy to get this information, but staff go out of their way to gather as much insight on their students as possible. That way, they're very clear about pupils’ starting points.
So, what can the rest of the education sector take from this?
In this case, we are dealing with pupils who have missed one term. As a result, it will be relatively easy to gain this insight because, unless you are managing pupils in transition years, most of the information will be right there in your school.
Find out the following about the pupils who will be in your class in September:
How many were attending school during the lockdown and how many were at home?
What did they learn at school?
What was covered through online learning and through work packages that were sent home?
How well did pupils engage and what progress did they make?
Most importantly, talk to parents to find out what they have taught their children independent of the school. If you can get examples of the work, even better. Map it out very clearly so you know each pupil’s starting point, including their gaps.
Strategy 2 - Using Initial and Diagnostic Assessments
In these three types of provision, the next step is to carry out initial and diagnostic assessments. Granted, these are usually only in mathematics and English, but these assessments help pinpoint where pupils truly are, despite what they may have achieved in the past.
This is especially important when they have had gaps in their education. The diagnostic assessments are critical because they point out pupils’ areas of strength and their areas of weakness. This way, teaching staff can plan in a targeted way to make sure that they address the areas of weaknesses as thoroughly as possible in the limited time they have with their students.
So, going back to the rest of the education sector, after you have gathered data about what was covered during the lockdown and how pupils fared, carry out initial and diagnostic assessments.
You might not already do this because, usually when a pupil moves into a new year, you already know what they achieved previously and what their strengths and areas of weakness were in your subject.
Again, the information is available in your school. But since what has been covered varies, initial and diagnostic assessments will help you find out exactly what each pupil needs to focus on in order to engage with the learning in the new year.
Diagnostic assessments are uniquely important because pupils have been learning during the lockdown. How much, depends on the provision put in place by their schools, how well they engaged, and how involved their parents were. So, conducting this process will give teachers important information for planning.
Strategy 3 – Targeted Planning
Across the three types of provision, the majority of pupils tend to have either Individual Learning Plans (ILPs), Individual Education Plans (IEPs), or Personal Education Plans (PEPs). For this reason, in addition to small group learning, one-to-one tuition is used extensively.
When teachers plan for small groups, the content delivered is targeted based on common areas of weakness identified through diagnostic assessments. In these contexts, there's usually not enough time to cover everything. As I mentioned earlier, pupils arrive at these schools with significant gaps in their education. And they don’t spend the full seven years in primary or secondary provision.
So, for example, a teacher will look at the diagnostic assessment results for their group, identify trends and common areas of weakness, check that pupils have the prior knowledge to access these topics, and then focus delivery on those areas first.
Teachers will also identify individual areas of weakness and direct teaching assistants to deliver one-to-one tuition or precision teaching. For this to be effective, teachers need to provide detailed guidance and resources for teaching assistants.
As a result of this targeted intervention strategy, pupils get focused time to specifically develop the areas of the curriculum where they struggle. However, in order for this to be done successfully, these types of provision usually have a large body of support staff.
This is something to consider across the rest of the education sector. Perhaps there is a need to increase your body of support staff to make it possible to address individual areas of weakness. And about the planning strategies. If you think this might work in your school, reach out to teachers in independent schools, PRUs and AP. Collaborate and work together to find ways of making this work in your context.
Strategy 4 - Flexibility
In order to meet pupils where they are, these three types of educational settings work very flexibly.
There is flexibility in delivery (as described above); in delivery venues (where some pupils work offsite in the community on a one-to-one basis until they can be re-introduced to group learning); and in timetables (to make it possible to deliver to each pupil’s IEP, ILP or PEP and integrate external vocational training and work-related learning).
Pupils who have been out of education for significant periods of time (say a year or two), will not automatically turn up on the first day of school and maintain 100% attendance. In some cases, these provisions sign contracts with referrers that allow pupils to engage initially on a part-time basis and build up their attendance with time. This allows them to be gradually re-introduced to the idea of turning up to school regularly.
In these cases, if full-time attendance were enforced from day one, schools would run the risk of losing the pupil altogether. Because it’s an impossible target to achieve, let alone aspire to, from the get-go.
For the rest of the education sector, this is something that might not normally be possible to do. However, due to the impact of COVID-19, pupils will have lost their routine. They’ve had nowhere to go, little to do, and a lack of daily structure for six months. Even if they were taking part in learning online, completing work packs, or being taught by their parents, that timetable will certainly have been different from their school timetable.
And if they used to travel to school independently, they will not have had to wake up early in order to catch a bus or train for six months.
How can we now expect these pupils to start turning up on time every day without fail?
I’m not suggesting that we lower expectations. However, we may have to deal with issues of timekeeping and attendance from pupils who previously didn’t have these issues. So we will need to be flexible and handle things delicately.
On the other hand, we might have pupils who are so happy to be back that their punctuality and attendance improves. So a great deal of flexibility is required in September.
Depending on the level of COVID-19 risk of transmission in September, and the necessary safety measures, it might not be possible to have all pupils in school at the same time. So flexibility will be required with the timetable.
And if pupils are not in school all at once, then we might need to continue offering some online provision in order to ensure that pupils do not miss out further on their learning.
Strategy 5 – Celebrate Small Steps in Progress
It is important, in the context of the three types of non-association independent schools, to measure small steps in progress. This is because pupils, as already mentioned, are not at the school for the full seven years of primary or secondary education. And schools still need to demonstrate the value they have added.
So, they look at measuring the small steps that pupils have taken. Whether they know a little bit more than they did when they started. Or whether they can do a bit more than they could at the beginning. Or simply whether their skills have improved just slightly. Here, the focus moves away from the usual big measurements of achievement, outcomes, or progress. Instead, it’s based on descriptions of exactly what pupils can do now that they couldn't do before.
This takes a lot of planning and focused monitoring. And it is not always measurable using the big management information systems.
Another reason to do this is to demonstrate to the pupils themselves that they are doing well. Some of these pupils will have lost confidence in education and the idea that they can achieve, so highlighting their small achievements goes a long way towards improving motivation and future engagement.
What can the rest of the education sector gain from this?
When pupils return in September, some might have lost their confidence. Some might begin doubting what they can achieve when they find themselves struggling to grasp new content because of the gaps they have. Highlighting small steps in progress can be useful to motivate them, inspire continued engagement, and rebuild confidence.
Again, if you think this might be useful, reach out to teachers in independent schools, PRUs and AP and collaborate to find a way to make this work in your context.
Strategy 6 – Extensive Support for Pupils’ Needs
As previously mentioned, the three types of educational provision presented in this article offer extensive support for SEND, SEMH needs, complex needs, behavioural needs, trauma and all the other specific needs that pupils have that affect their engagement.
Of course, this support is available across all education sectors. But in these types of provision, because the majority of pupils have these needs, the support, resources, training and partnerships are significantly greater.
Why should the rest of the education sector care?
In three different webinars I attended recently organised by the DfE, TES and PRUsAP, health professionals shared the results of emerging surveys about the impact of COVID-19, the lockdown, and school closures on pupils. They say that coming back from the lockdown pupils will have experienced losses: loss of friendships, routine, structure and more.
Additionally, some pupils will have developed anxiety or increased their levels of anxiety during this period. Some will have had little or no mental health support from CAMHS during this period. And some will have become significantly more attached to parents because of the loss of school relationships.
This means you will be dealing with many new anxieties, attachment disorders, and even manifestations of self-harm. An anxious pupil cannot engage in learning.
One of the speakers in two of these webinars, Barry Carpenter CBE, mentioned that schools will have to ‘develop a culture of finding out’ in order to identify new needs and be able to put in place the necessary support required by pupils. Only then can pupils learn to cope and be in a place where they are ready to engage again.
He said we need to give pupils the time and the resources to explore their feelings about what has happened. Schools will need to invest more in training for staff to support pupils’ needs. Increase partnership working with external organisations that can support pupils’ specific needs. Buy resources that support ‘a culture of finding out’ where pupils stand. How they feel about what has happened. All this to ensure that pupils can engage.
This is usually easier to do in independent schools, PRUs and AP because they tend to be small and flexible. The rest of the education sector needs to consider this. There is much to learn. And again, I would recommend spending some time with leaders from these sorts of provisions. Alternatively, you could visit the Recovery Curriculum<