Calls for summer catch-up lessons for young people who have fallen behind are understandable and well-meaning but they are the wrong solution to jump to, writes Nick Brook

As many of us feared from the outset of this crisis, research by the Children’s Commissioner and the Sutton Trust concludes that disadvantaged pupils have been disproportionately affected by lockdown. And while schools have moved rapidly to implement home learning arrangements, NAHT’s own surveys show that there is a significant difference in degree of engagement between families. Home circumstances and lack of access to connected technology are significant barriers to learning, and the more education relies on online learning in the absence of full-time schooling, the greater the likelihood that gaps between the most and least affluent will increase.

But while addressing these gaps in learning is undeniably important, children need to be ready to learn first. The impact of enforced isolation on young people is little understood, yet likely to be significant for many. This might range from loss of routine, social interaction and self-regulation through to erosion of mental health and coping with anxiety, bereavement and trauma.

Additionally, the children we would be most keen to engage in catch-up are also the least likely to attend; Schools have gone to extraordinary lengths during wider closure to reach out to all pupils yet school leaders tell us that there can be low engagement among pupils who have already fallen behind. It is unlikely that any ‘offer’ of academic catch-up would reach the children it is designed to help most.

Out of context and unaligned to curriculum, learning is unlikely to stick

And when it comes to summer schools, current evidence suggests they provide very little benefit. Out of context and unaligned to the school curriculum, learning is unlikely to stick. More importantly, the sum of learning through to the end of the year is unlikely to be any greater as a result. The Autumn term is already long. Every parent and teacher knows that children are exhausted mentally by Christmas. Putting on ‘catch-up’ over the summer risks shifting the point of exhaustion sooner, not just for students but for their teachers too.

This Autumn term is likely to be the most challenging that any teacher has experienced for generations. The lure of additional money to work over the summer might well be appealing to some, but such offers are also potentially damaging. Quite rightly, the Secretary of State has stated on numerous occasions that schools will not open over the summer because staff need a break.

In truth, teachers and leaders already work over the summer and we must avoid making even more demands on their time. It would not be wise for them or their pupils to go into September with the fuel tank already half empty.

There is a desperate need for young people to begin socialising in a safe and structured way again. School sites are perhaps the most obvious places to host summer activities, but school staff are not best placed to deliver them and curricular catch-up should not be their goal.

Youth groups and youth charities are perfectly positioned and experienced in structuring the sort of activities to draw young people out of their homes and encourage resocialisation. Yet when we need them most many are facing an uncertain future due to severe funding challenges.

High-quality provision that takes account of current restrictions will take time to get in place; funding needs to be available so that providers can plan with confidence and ensure that costs do not fall upon families. Government should be prepared to give a strong signal of intent and hard assurances of funding to youth groups across the country to start tentative plans.

Arguments are playing out in Westminster on how to balance public health needs and the negative impacts of lockdown. Our request of government is that these discussions are widened out to include school and youth sector representatives who understand the risks and are masters of the art of the possible.

With the summer break just seven weeks away, there is no time to waste.