Alec Shelbrooke is MP for Elmet & Rothwell.
After an arduous ten weeks of home-schooling in lockdown, parents of reception, Year One and Year Six pupils began to send their children back to school this week.
But with further restrictions still in place for pupils of remaining key stages, particularly those in secondary schools, and with teaching unions arguing for countrywide school closures until September, is it time for a national conversation about how best to make up for lost time in the classroom?
A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies last month cautioned that during lockdown children from better-off households were spending an additional 75 minutes a day on educational activities at home than children from the poorest households. If schools remained closed to most pupils until September, disadvantaged pupils will return three weeks behind everybody else.
England’s children are now collectively at risk of falling behind their international peers too, with the European Union reporting that 22 member states have now reopened schools *and, incidentally, seen no increase in the rate of the virus reported among children or staff) In France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Greece schools began a phased approach to reopening schools from mid-May, with many started classes for secondary school pupils.
Some thought has already been given to how the Government should respond. Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, has already pressed the Education Secretary for an additional £300 million ‘catch-up premium’ to be targeted at disadvantaged pupils in secondary schools across England. The idea of retired teachers and graduates running summer schools has also been mooted as a way to catch up on lost teaching hours.
In planning its response, government will need to ensure that any policy it adopts has equal reach across all school and academies, and all key stages. Whilst immediate focus should be on providing catch-up opportunities for disadvantaged children, we mustn’t forget that whole cohorts of pupils have been without formal education for what will amount to a full term, and the longer-term focus must therefore be on providing catch-up opportunities for all pupils, regardless of their attainment level.
In short, we shouldn’t accept any deviation from the goal of every pupil making expected progress of two levels by the end of Key Stage Two, or from expected Progress 8 scores at Key Stage Four.
To maintain this goal, some of my constituents have asked how achievable it is to start this academic year all over again. Whilst there is a need to catch-up, there isn’t a need to repeat. In this scenario, primary years are likely to lose concentration going over things they’ve already been taught, and we would end up with a bulge-cohort moving through the school system in future years, as we’d need to accommodate the increasing number of children starting early years foundation stage in September, whilst holding back those due to transition to Key Stage One.
Another suggestion put to me was to reform the academic calendar in order to provide catch-up time without repeating the full year. To do this, schools would need to use the September to December autumn term as an extension of the current academic year, providing time to catch-up on lost teaching hours, and then start all new future academic years from January. This would require wholesale reform, including reform of school holidays, which is likely to be unpopular with both teaching staff and parents, as well as having significant impact on further and higher education settings.
There is however a less abrasive solution yet to be debated in any great depth. By moving the 2020/21 exam season, currently scheduled for May 2021, back to the end of June/early July 2021, pupils will gain extra teaching time across the course of the next academic year in order to catch-up before exams.
As announced by Ofqual, students in Year 11 and Year 13, who were due to sit their exams during the lockdown, will now receive exam grades this August based on predicted grades, teacher assessments and coursework. The lockdown has however meant that those halfway through their GCSE or A-level courses – students in Year 10 and Year 12 today – have lost a significant number of teaching hours which without cancelling school holidays, implementing summer schools or moving back scheduled exams, they won’t get back.
Delaying next year’s exam season could provide that catch-up time. It would require the willingness of exam boards to adjust their timetables and employ additional staff to mark papers in a shorter turnaround time, but with the will to achieve it, it could be done.