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England’s education recovery plan should focus on wellbeing, not on ‘catching up’

The most recent lockdown and school closures have, once again, thrown educational provision in England into crisis. Nearly a full year of disruption of schooling will have had a serious effect on children’s education. The outgoing children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, has called for children to be at the heart of the recovery from COVID-19.

The government has made £1.3 billion available for educational recovery in England. But it would be a mistake to focus on finding ways to push children through the parts of the syllabus they have missed. Instead, an educational recovery plan should focus on wellbeing just as much as learning, and should recognise the efforts that pupils have put in over the past year.

In the past few weeks, senior figures in education have proposed various ways to help children catch up. Sir Kevan Collins, newly appointed education recovery commissioner, told the BBC that children would need extra hours of learning. Nick Gibb, the schools standards minister, recently wondered out loud about the possibility of longer school days and reduced summer holidays.

Education unions pushed back: Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned against trying to “grind out more hours” from tired children.

First of all, there is a problem with the idea of school students “catching up”. This implies that there is a deficit on the part of pupils, who have spent the last year doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances.

The best approach would be to reject this idea and instead focus on building back skills and knowledge gaps without pressure from arbitrary expectations of where pupils ought to be. This means that expectations of what pupils should know and understand at each stage need to be adjusted.

This has implications for the assessments that will replace the cancelled summer exams – which have yet to be announced – as well as for colleges and universities. Plans for first-year students will need to be adjusted, and students will need extra help with transition into university and college. Without exams, universities and colleges will have a much less clear picture of the knowledge new students have secured – whatever “catch-up” plan is adopted.

What children need

It is important to get a good understanding of pupils’ current needs, both educationally and from a wider perspective that considers their wellbeing more holistically. Teachers know their pupils best. Any education plan should put power and resources into the hands of these skilled and committed frontline workers. What’s more, schools must receive funding to enable teachers to work effectively during the remainder of this academic year and beyond.

Funding plans must acknowledge that, to recover from the experience of the last year, enhanced mental health support must be available to all pupils. Many schools already have strong pastoral care and links with specialist support and counselling, but this is often a victim of overstretched school budgets.

Pupils’ mental wellbeing must be considered as a twin priority with educational achievement, because the latter cannot be sustained without the former. With the long-term emotional and social impact on young people yet to unfold, pastoral care will be essential to enable pupils to succeed academically.

Teenage boy talking to woman in office
Pupils should have access to pastoral care. New Africa/Shutterstock

With the whole country hoping that the summer will bring better times, the prospect of spending August in a classroom may not appeal to many children. A recovery programme must include opportunities to rebuild social connections and personal resilience. This could be through sport, outdoor activities and performing and creative arts as well as classroom-based learning.

All over the country, educational programmes for children and young people have been on pause for nearly a year – from scout groups to local football clubs and events at theatres and galleries. This is a vast resource of opportunity and expertise, and tapping into it could make summer 2021 one to remember for children for all the right reasons.

Finally, despite the wealth of evidence of disadvantage and lost opportunity for pupils, some children and young people have been able to build new skills over the past year, including digital abilities, self-regulation and independence. Pupils have engaged with their teachers and their learning in new ways, using new tools.

In the years to come, schools and education bodies in England can learn from the experience of the pandemic, evaluating what can be improved in teaching and hard-wiring this gain in digital skills into teaching and learning. But for now, we need to focus on embedding a holistic recovery plan throughout our educational system.

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