Sir Kevan Collins Q&A: Covid innovations can drive catch-up challenge


The new ‘education recovery’ commissioner believes Covid innovations such as virtual classes can be used to extend the school day and drive the catch-up challenge.

Speaking to Schools Week today, Sir Kevan Collins said he was not interested in “gimmicks” to help children catch up, but is looking to the long term in his role as education recovery commissioner.

When asked about proposals for extended school days, he suggested virtual classes and online lessons may be the answer.

“I think we need to break out of a slightly old-fashioned view of this,” he said. “I think that Covid has shown us innovative ways, that schools are showing us actually that we need to capture to extend the learning time.”

Collins also said decisions on catch-up should be locally-led, but supported by the evidence.

Here’s what he had to say in full…


What will your first priority be?

My first priority is to engage with as many people as possible. I think I just need to talk to lots of people about what they perceive the issue to be and collect brilliant examples of the initiatives happening already to meet the need. So, it’s a kind of listening first off and to set out the way I’ll work, the office I’ll work in and the remit of the work which is still kind of being defined to a degree.


Will you be setting up your own expert group to help you with your catch up work?

I’m going to be based at the DfE [Department for Education] and have a small secretariat around me and people in the DFE. I’m not planning to get involved in a big bureaucratic structure because I think we need to move more quickly than that, but I do expect to engage quickly with as many of the networks and structures that exist. I will be drawing on the advice of, particularly where the evidence sits. So, it is the knowledge I’ll draw on if you like rather than a particular framework of people.


Will you have a say on interventions, or will you tasked with implementing what is chosen by ministers?

I certainly won’t be tasked with driving the implementation of things, I’ll be supporting officials as they do that and that’s a kind of a locally led I hope but centrally kind of informed and supported process. But yes, I will be interested in the implementation because we know all too often that any good intervention is stymied by poor implementation, and the implementation matters every bit. And that’s something which I’ve been interested in for a long time how we implement well in a fairly diverse system.


Sir Kevan Collins
Sir Kevan Collins

You’re known as champion of evidence. Extending the school day scores +2 months on the EEF toolkit, with a “low impact for moderate cost” conclusion. Do you think it’s a sound proposal given the evidence says it doesn’t have the best impact?

When you dig deeper on that research what we learn as with everything in education is that quality always trumps quantity. Whatever we do, whether it’s increasing opportunities for catch-up in terms of tuition or whether it’s additional classes after school or learning opportunities, whether it’s online – what we know is that it’s not just the doing of it, it’s not a dosage question. It’s the quality of what you do.

What we have to do in terms of extending learning opportunities for children because they have missed learning is support teachers the best we can in their teaching which is the ongoing professional development and learning of teaching and that’s going to be quite a big deal in the next period, but also make sure that any new programmes any new initiatives we put in place – and I think I could imagine extending learning opportunities for children in that – have to be of highest quality possible.

I’m not just talking about academic learning, which is what that might measure in terms of that entry toolkit, but I’m thinking about the whole raft of other opportunities to learn together whether it’s sport, drama, artistic pursuits, play all these things really matter and they’re aligned to success in academic skills.

I’m not interested in gimmicks at all

The EEF say that summer school provision that aims to improve learning needs to have an academic component and maintaining high attendance can be a challenge. How would you manage this?

The great thing about summer schools is you can organise the learning in quite different ways. Let’s take year seven children arriving at secondary school this year, we may find a whole additional group of young people who might not be reading at the level they might have been if they’ve been at school. We know very clearly from the evidence that if you haven’t got yourself into a position of a self-improving reader, it’s very difficult to access a secondary curriculum and to thrive.

[With summer schools] we shouldn’t think of a blueprint, we should have locally led, locally informed summer schools. It’s very different running a summer school in rural Somerset than it is in urban inner city Tower Hamlets in east London, because of the experience and because of just the geography so summer schools need to be thought through very carefully.

I think they can be successful, I think they should be balanced definitely of the content, but they should be engaging and motivating for young people. What we’ve seen from young people it is a desire, all through this to stay engaged in their learning. I think that’s something we should sort of honour.

Unions have warned against catch-up ‘gimmicks’. What do you say to them?

I completely agree. I think gimmicks are the last thing we need I think we need to understand the evidence, I think we need locally informed determination, but informed by the evidence as well as the local circumstance.

I’m not interested in gimmicks, I’m interested in the long-term business of building the quality of teaching, continue to invest in our teachers, our most precious resource, but also using the innovation we’ve seen that’s come through through Covid, to support some pragmatic, rapid support for young people, as we deal with this shock that they’ve had to their to their education experience. So, no, I’m not interested in gimmicks at all.


How do you envisage schools could extend their day or terms? Where will the resources potentially come from for that?

I think the language for me is – I’d hope it doesn’t sound too pedantic – but I’m interested in extending the learning opportunities and time for children. So, the idea that it’s no more than just tagging on an extra lesson doesn’t seem to me to be as creative as we should be thinking but the learning time includes learning in sport, the drama, the art – the kind of things that go around – that is learning. And that’s important learning.

We saw last year that when we did the study two years ago on breakfast clubs in schools for our youngest children, we saw all children make two months more progress where we provided breakfast clubs as we support the children at the earliest stages so all children benefited from those children getting a breakfast that really needed it. national tutoring programme


So it might not necessarily be a maths or English lesson, it could be something as simple as a breakfast club?

I think this is for schools to really understand, they know their children. I think this locally led recovery, but supported with the evidence supporting with the resources, this doesn’t come for free, and how you create those opportunities and how you support and reward teachers for doing it, and how you bring in potentially other people.

We’ve seen parents really play a new role in children’s learning. There’s something about a new engagement in the children’s learning which I think is interesting, which we would want to capture.

And critically, the way technology is really beginning to change education, new opportunities for learning through technology, through virtual classes, online learning – you can imagine that being provided in different times of the day and over the week. I think we need to break out of a slightly old-fashioned view of this. I think that Covid has shown us innovative ways, that schools are showing us actually that we need to capture to extend the learning time.


How do you think the National Tutoring Programme has done so far, and how do you think it can improve?

I think tutoring is definitely part of the suite of the menu and again, we need to make sure that schools are very much in control of this, they know the right children, they know how to line it up to the curriculum, again the technology helps your tutoring be aligned to what’s needed in the school, and the tutoring is much more closely aligned to school, I think that’s when it works best.

I think it’s a good first start but it’s only a first start to have those sort of programmes in place, but it was a very pragmatic and sensible reaction and provision that we could put into the system straightaway for that group for that large group of young people and more to come.


What does the evidence show is the best interventions for catch-up?

The very best intervention for catch up is to provide children with the highest quality teaching that you can offer. So this is why everything we do, must be underpinned by a commitment to support our teachers to be the best they can, to continue to invest in them, their professional development, that is undoubtedly the best catch up offer.

And then I think around that you can ask the question, what’s been the loss? What’s been the gap? Now, from diagnostic assessment people have to work that out, and then ask the question, how can we build that in? And I think that’s where you’re going to get to a broad range of activities. So, the best catch up is the one that’s locally informed, built on diagnostic assessment and driven, but at its heart by the best quality teaching we can provide in our schools.

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