Any ‘catch-up’ plans for education must focus on quality not quantity so our children and young people can thrive

By Julie McCulloch, ASCL Director of Policy

A publication yesterday (1 February) from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), calling for a ‘massive national policy response’ to the current crisis in lost learning, makes sobering reading. Based on the assumption that most children will have lost at least half a year of normal schooling by the time they go back to school, and that each year of schooling increases individuals’ earnings by 8% per year on average, the IFS has come up with some eye-watering figures. 

For someone earning £1 million over their working life (not far off the likely average in the UK), the IFS predicts that this lost schooling will mean a £40,000 reduction in their lifetime earnings. This equates to an “astronomical” £350bn in lost lifetime earnings across the 8.7 million school children in the UK. 

This analysis has, rightly, caused consternation. Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon, not known for his understatement, responded in the Telegraph by describing the current partial closure of schools as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding towards every pupil in terms of educational poverty, a mental health crisis, safeguarding, and now damaging their economic chances on the ladder of opportunity”. 

It’s right, of course, that we should all be deeply concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the lives and life chances of children and young people – and particularly those who already face bigger hurdles than their peers. And I certainly don’t disagree with the IFS’s call for a national plan – collaboratively developed and properly resourced – to address the educational impact of the pandemic. 

Crucial question
But we need to consider very carefully what such a plan is intended to achieve, and what mechanisms we might use to reach those aims. Like many others, I’m increasingly worried about the temptation to over-focus on a blunt idea of helping children to ‘catch up’. What the IFS publication reminds us is that the impact of the pandemic is going to be felt by a generation of children and young people, for many years to come. What children are ‘catching up’ to therefore becomes the crucial question. 

We are already, collectively, grappling with this question in considering how GCSE, A level and other qualifications should be awarded this year. There is a clear, shared desire to make sure that the grades this year’s cohorts receive don’t plummet as a result of circumstances outside their control. Instead, careful thought is being given to how students can be assessed on the work they’ve been taught, rather than on work they’ve missed. The idea here is to shift our expectations of what is reasonable and realistic to expect students to achieve, without lowering standards. Quality, not quantity, should be the watchword. 

The same approach needs to be taken, in my view, as we consider more broadly how to recognise the impact of the pandemic on education. A headlong dash to try to make sure that every child ‘catches up’ to some hypothetical norm which no longer exists risks making a difficult situation even worse. This is particularly the case if the message we give to children and young people, already worried about their futures and suffering escalating mental health problems, is that what they need to do is work harder and longer so that we can all pretend that the last year never happened. 

Target support
For me, the biggest issue is the differential impact on children and young people within this generation, which we know is enormous. Of course we need to do the right thing for all children. But we need to target additional support clearly and decisively at those who’ve been most badly affected by the pandemic, and to focus relentlessly on policies which have a strong likelihood of helping them particularly. 

And before we get too carried away with the idea that the answer is ‘more stuff’ – longer school days, after-school tutoring, summer schools and the like – we need to look closely at where we can improve what we’re already doing. We know, for example, that there are some school years, particularly those following key transition points, in which children nationally make much less progress. How much ‘lost learning’ could be made up if we did a better job of linking the primary and secondary curricula, so that learning in Year 7 followed seamlessly from that in Year 6? 

We also know that a huge amount of time in Key Stage 4 is spent on preparing for the large number of exams that students sit at the end of Year 11. How much of this time could we claw back for teaching and learning if we re-thought our obsession with high stakes assessment at age 16? 

We need, in other words, to take a collective deep breath before rushing headlong into an unsophisticated approach to ‘catch up’ which could do more harm than good. We need to consider what a generation of children and young people, affected by a situation which none of us have experienced before, really need in order to recover and thrive. And we need to take a long and honest look at what we could change about our current system to help this generation, rather than simply piling more pressure onto already stressed young people. 

So, yes please to a national plan. But let’s make it a plan based on quality rather than quantity, and on the reality of the situation we’re in, rather than the one we wish we were in. That’s what will give this generation the best chance to thrive. 

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Director of Policy
Posted: 02/02/2021 09:36:08