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How to catch-up after Covid

In the second of a three-part series on bridging Covid-related learning gaps, Phil Roberts, Director from SIMS at ParentPay Group shares the strategies teachers are using to get children’s learning back on track.

In the second of a three-part series on bridging Covid-related learning gaps, Phil Roberts, Director from SIMS at ParentPay Group shares the strategies teachers are using to get children’s learning back on track.

30 Nov 2023, 9:00

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Schools have been on a steep learning curve since the pandemic, continually evaluating pupils’ learning levels and adjusting teaching to bridge gaps and boost pupil progress.

But how are schools adapting to get children to where they need to be?

In response to a survey for our Generation Catch-Up Report, over 500 senior leaders highlighted three key areas that are priorities for their schools and shared the strategies they are using to close the gaps successfully.  

  • Build literacy skills

Strong literacy skills are crucial for progress across the curriculum so shaping successful catch-up programmes to boost reading and writing can make a real difference to pupil outcomes.

Interestingly, more than half (56%) of primary and secondary school leaders in our survey said they had planned or already put in place targeted catch-up provision for their pupils in English and literacy.  

Additional training and CPD opportunities for teachers is the focus in some schools to ensure catch-up programmes for literacy, reading and writing get results. This is the approach taken by Donna Faley, headteacher at St Thomas More Catholic Primary, a voluntary academy.  

“It was very difficult to teach writing during lockdown and there are still wide gaps in writing skills,” she says. “To address this, our English lead is working towards the National Professional Qualification in Leading Literacy (NPQLL).”

Incorporating reading and writing activities across subject areas is helping children build literacy skills more quickly too, as Donna explains.

“We have embedded writing across the curriculum which gives children opportunities to write at length in subjects like geography, history and RE. Producing longer, high quality writing has really helped with children’s writing stamina.”

If poor reading skills are not identified and addressed in primary schools, the knock-on effect is clear to see once a child reaches secondary school. At a time when students are at the important stage of preparing for GCSEs, some schools have looked at different ways to supplement day-to-day teaching so that tailored support can be delivered more easily to address gaps.

At Beacon Academy, there’s been a focus on tuition. Assistant headteacher, Peter Hall, explains the school’s strategy. “Children who are three or four years behind on reading age struggle with all subjects. We have employed some reading intervention tutors to find out exactly where pupils’ stumbling blocks are on a one-to-one basis as each child has different difficulties.”

  • Close whole cohort gaps

While tailored interventions have always been a great way to support individual pupils and small groups, the size of pandemic related gaps calls for a much broader approach. Many schools have found strategies are needed to support whole year groups affected by learning loss.

In primary schools, key skills have been identified that entire classes need help with. Adapting lesson plans to embed the development of these skills in day-to-day lessons is an effective way to tackle the shortfall on this scale, but schools have also found ways to ensure individual children aren’t falling through the net.

“We would ask ourselves what we felt the whole cohort was struggling with, for instance what Year 3 as a whole could not do well or still needed to work on, such as applying multiplication to real situations,” says Louise Pink, a primary headteacher during the pandemic and now customer success MAT manager at SIMS. “This not only helps the children who are still building those skills, it benefits children of all abilities.”

The impact of lockdowns affected children and young people in many different ways. Senior leaders in secondary schools have noticed students in the younger year groups have lost confidence working on their own.

Schools can support students who lack independent learning skills by concentrating their efforts on providing more individual attention than they did before Covid. At St Illtyd’s Catholic High School, changes have been made to the structure of lessons to create more time and space between whole-class activities to allow individual students to benefit from extra help where it is needed.

“Teachers are adapting tasks into shorter chunks to help children learn more independently, and they are allocating more time in the lesson to explain new concepts,” says Ieuan Price, the school’s director of digital learning.

  • Free up time for teachers

A major challenge for schools is finding time in the school day to deliver good quality catch-up provision.  

Many schools have found it difficult to get good attendance at after school catch-up clubs. Online tuition sessions can offer an effective alternative to supplement in-school learning.

“We tried offering online reading or maths support through recorded or live sessions which children could access at home,” says Louise Pink. “Families worked around that, and children were more likely to join in. It also gave teachers more flexibility to manage their own workload and run the catch-up classes from home if it suited their routine.”

Some secondary schools have made better use of the time available in the school day to offer focused catch-up in core subjects and provide the additional support students need.  

“Using tutor time for additional maths tuition has had a positive impact, and students really appreciate a teacher caring about them and taking time to focus on their progress,” says Peter Hall from Beacon Academy. “It is easy for a student to feel unnoticed in a big school and that individual support is a key factor in improving students’ confidence.”

The versatility displayed by teachers during the crucial first response to the pandemic is still evident today. Schools are identifying which children need the most support and adapting teaching methods accordingly. It is this resourceful approach to targeted catch-up provision that will ensure children do not remain victims of the Covid legacy.

In the next article in this series, we will explore how leaders are focusing on improving pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, the biggest factor they named as affecting pupils’ learning.

To see our data in full or examine the insight and gap-closing strategies from school leaders, download a complimentary copy of the Generation Catch-Up Report.

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