Covid has created new challenges, but it has also highlighted existing ones. Eventually, we must tackle them all, writes recovery tsar Kevan Colins’ chief adviser
Over the period of the pandemic, schools and teachers have acted with great skill and dedication to ensure pupils continued to access high-quality education. In spite of those efforts, the majority of pupils returned having missed 115 days of school, and emerging evidence indicates a learning gap of some four months in English, slightly more in maths, and greater still for disadvantaged pupils.
The full picture is still developing, and it will take the next 18 months to fully grasp the long-term impacts. As a result, any recovery plan will need to strike a difficult balance on a number of fronts.
For a start, it will need to be both highly focused and highly flexible in response to changing circumstances. To achieve that, and to maximise the contribution of local authorities, MATs and other agencies, the recovery must be school-led and convened in local areas.
Then, the recovery package must balance pupils’ academic progress and their wellbeing needs. One-to-one and small-group tuition is a promising way to deliver that, and the NTP has already done a great job in enrolling 200,000 pupils. But the programme’s expansion over the next few years will be critical, and schools will need far greater flexibility as to the way it is delivered.
But perhaps the toughest balance to strike is between the need for additional time for teaching and learning on one hand and care for teachers’ workloads and professional development on the other.
There is more to be done, but teachers’ time is already stretched
The evidence from education recovery after school closures (for example, after Hurricane Katrina and after Argentina’s year-long teacher strikes in the 1990s) indicates that additional time in school is a necessary factor in any plan’s effectiveness. It is unlikely that recovery could be successful in England without it.
In addition, there is more to be done to develop the workforce, particularly with regard to special educational needs and digital teaching and learning.
But teachers’ time is already stretched. So in the first instance, teachers who agree to additional time on catch-up programmes must be paid for it. Last week’s launch of a wellbeing charter creates an encouraging context for developing policy in the coming years, but an expansion of high-quality professional development will be crucial to support it.
And beyond these tensions, the pandemic has highlighted long-standing weaknesses in our education system, including assessment, accountability, curriculum, support for pupils’ wellbeing and pupil underachievement. So we must look beyond simple recovery and open a sector-wide discussion on reform.
For instance, could tutoring be systematically embedded? Could the flexible, focused and skilled intervention it promises be the resource teacher leaders need to support pupils across year groups, subject areas and wellbeing programmes? Could it solve some workload issues and maximise teachers’ classroom impact?
And what type of assessment model is needed for the next decade? The world of work and the world of learning are now reconfiguring at pace, so what skills, knowledge and aptitudes do our young people need to navigate it? These factors must determine the why, what, when and how of assessment.
What outcomes do we want curriculum to achieve? The sidelining of the national curriculum during the pandemic has led to much discussion about its purpose. It has also created an opportunity to reflect on the bizarre anomaly by which it does not apply to over 40 per cent of our schools and the majority of our pupils.
And what is the best way to hold schools accountable? Lockdowns revealed a wide range of innovative support for schools from parents and communities. Could local accountability be built on to promote that parental support and improve how policy is shared? Accountability should not be down to Ofsted alone. Already, constructive questions are being raised about how we can refocus accountability on improvement, the promotion of system learning and pedagogical excellence.
Recovery is a long-term goal. After all, the pandemic is still with us and we don’t yet know its full impact on education and young people.
But recovery offers a gateway to discuss reform, and that is an opportunity we should take.