NFER research director, Caroline Sharp draws six key lessons from schools’ response to the pandemic so far

In May and July 2020, NFER conducted surveys of school leaders and teachers in a representative sample of 2,200 mainstream primary and secondary schools in England. Six lessons emerged that every policymaker and practitioner should be aware of. Struggling teachers and school leaders may also find comfort in the fact that they are far from alone.

 

  1. National lockdown held back pupils’ learning

In July, teachers had covered about 66 per cent of the usual curriculum and nearly all teachers (98 per cent) estimated that their pupils were behind normal expectations for curriculum learning, by three months, on average. Three factors were strongly associated with pupils falling behind: lower levels of parental engagement, schools that did not provide training in remote-learning support, and teachers who felt unable to teach at their usual standard.

 

  1. Existing inequalities were made worse

Covid-19 has had a particularly negative effect on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teachers in the most deprived schools were over three times more likely to report that their pupils were four months or more behind in their curriculum-related learning, compared to teachers in the least deprived schools (53 per cent compared to 15 per cent). Disadvantaged pupils were significantly less likely than those from more advantaged backgrounds to be engaged in remote learning or to attend school when invited back in the summer term, and significantly more likely to need intensive catch-up support.

 

  1. Some distance-learning strategies worked better than others

Schools using a virtual-learning environment (VLE) to inform pupils about learning activities – rather than the school website – and those delivering learning content to pupils through online conversations or activities that involve consolidating previous learning had higher pupil engagement during lockdown.

 

  1. Covid-19 has hit school budgets

Among the 78 per cent of senior leaders who had concerns about the manageability of opening their schools in September, many said they needed additional staffing and resources, including teachers, TAs, support staff, cleaning staff, additional cleaning and protective equipment and IT. On average, these additional costs amounted to around £720,600 for secondary schools (about 12 per cent of their annual budget in 2020/21) and £280,100 for primary schools (about 19 per cent of their annual budget). Not surprisingly, the top priority for senior leaders and teachers in helping to manage the impact of Covid-19 was for government to provide more funding.

 

  1. Covid-19 is affecting teaching and learning

In July, 74 per cent of teachers said they were unable to teach to their normal standard due to the restrictions of social distancing. The continuing need to reduce social mixing means that pupils are sitting in front-facing rows and there are fewer opportunities for small-group work or movement around the school. Being unable to get close to pupils hampers teachers’ ability to give formative feedback. One teacher described the frustration of “not being able to get close enough to each child in order for them to receive specific tailored learning, support, guidance and challenge”. Such restrictions could lead to more didactic teaching with less differentiation or variety. This issue could benefit from some rapid research to identify practical solutions, so school leaders are able to support teachers in reducing the barriers to effective pedagogy.

 

  1. Catch-up will be a long-term process

School leaders’ top three priorities for September were to: support pupils’ emotional health and well-being; re-engage pupils with learning; and settle them into school (63 per cent). Overall, teachers estimated that almost half (44 per cent) of their pupils were in need of intensive catch-up support. Given the extent of the challenges schools are facing and the time it will take to identify which pupils are in greatest need of support, it is unrealistic to expect catch-up to be a quick fix. Therefore catch-up should be seen as part of the ongoing process of learning recovery over an extended period, rather than as a quick-turnaround solution.