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A more measured approach to educational recovery

As the sector continues to navigate the effects of Covid-19 disruption, Rachel Crowdy shares some examples of how schools are responding through a focus on quality support rather than just increasing the quantity of intervention

The tumultuous months of lockdown and learning remotely have resulted in considerable concern about pupils missing out on learning and falling behind, alongside worries about the long lasting effects of the pandemic on young peoples’ mental health. As a result, schools are being placed under increasing pressure to catch up and step in with a range of initiatives to stave off the threat of a “lost generation” of children. Stemming from a lack of consensus across the sector on the exact purpose of education, as Mark Enser has noted, schools are valiantly doing a bit of everything, with endless calls for them to do even more.

These efforts are of course welcome - whether it be the investment in national tutoring initiatives, summer schools, or young people’s mental health. But as these recovery initiatives take place, there is a real danger of simply promoting more and more intervention - rather than focusing on the root challenges to be addressed.

Over the course of the last calendar year, ImpactEd’s national Lockdown Lessons research reached more than 60,000 pupils across the country, investigating factors relating to both their learning and their wellbeing. A few key messages emerged from this:

  1. The challenges for schools are not the same everywhere. For example, the proportion of secondary school pupils saying they were excited about returning to school following remote teaching varied from 16% to 81% across schools.
  2. Challenges were felt much more strongly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds - with less than half of Pupil Premium eligible pupils reporting understanding their school work while learning remotely.
  3. Young people’s wellbeing during the first lockdown was more stable than might have been expected, and there were numerous examples of schools and young people reporting the pandemic giving rise to new ways of teaching and learning that would be beneficial in the future.

Crucially, our findings also showed that planning for recovery should focus not only on narrowing pupils’ knowledge gaps but also on their wellbeing and emotional development.

We are currently planning ahead to the next stages from this national research, and how we might continue to share lessons across the sector. As this work progresses, we wanted to share three emerging insights from our network of school partners - which may help inform your approach to educational planning for the coming academic year.

  1. A sharp focus on pupil motivation and independent learning

One of the key consequences of the pandemic was the radically increased amount of time that pupils had to spend learning for themselves without the support of a teacher by their side. While this created challenges for many, it also poses some opportunity - to better understand how pupils can be supported to study independently, and work out what gives some pupils the motivation to do so successfully.

ASSET Education is a trust of fourteen primary schools in Suffolk, whose approach to education is grounded in their four values of excellence, engagement, empowerment and equity. Having taken part in our Lockdown Lessons research, they had access to a rich range of diagnostic data capturing pupils’ responses on factors relating to their learning and wellbeing. They have now continued collaboration with ImpactEd to focus on the transition between remote and in-person learning, and carry out in depth analysis to get to the bottom of what ‘makes a successful learner - the fire in the belly to solve problems, organise themselves, and do well at school’. This research is taking place through a series of quantitative questionnaires focused on metacognitive skills and wellbeing, alongside case study interviews with the young people scoring most highly in these measures.

A key takeaway from this work is that the pandemic has helped expose the differences in motivation and independent learning between different individuals and pupil groups. A rigorous focus on understanding where pupils have been most successful with this will help yield lessons that will last long beyond the pandemic.

2. A radical approach to addressing disadvantage

The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT) is one of the largest MATs in the South of England, consisting of 45 primary and secondary academies. Serving a range of different contexts, the Trust has centred addressing educational disadvantage as a key priority - with Covid-19’s impact only underlining this.

To do this, TKAT is piloting a tutoring programme which takes a distinctive approach to supporting pupils eligible for Pupil Premium. Their ‘A Champion for Every Child’ programme, currently being piloted in six schools within the Trust, pairs each individual with a mentor who provides both academic and pastoral support with an emphasis on ensuring every young person has someone they can talk to and share concerns with.

This approach to support is designed to ensure a step-up in the provision available for disadvantaged pupils. To make this happen requires significant commitment - not just of financial resources but also staff time, and consideration around how this works within the school day. As such, we are also supporting an evaluation of the pilot programme which is designed to combine academic progress data with implementation findings to help not only measure the impact of the programme itself, but to also find actionable ways of improving the experiences of the pupils, tutors and teachers who take part in it.

The combination of a radical approach to addressing disadvantage with a robust evaluation approach that ensures any resources are being put to the best possible use is a key part of the picture - schools should look to ensure that they are not doing one without the other.

3. A movement towards impact not outputs

Our Lockdown Lessons research showcased the considerable variation in the challenges created by the pandemic. In some cases this may have been simply about access to devices; in others the root causes were likely to have been more profound. As one teacher from Bohunt Education Trust commented, “We talk of a digital disadvantage, but in many cases we are facing a furniture disadvantage - there are kids who need a chair, or families who need a bin”.

As such, it’s crucial that schools focus their recovery planning with the understanding of the specific needs in their setting. For some, this may mean additional lesson time and emphasis on core academic subjects. For others, this may mean a much wider range of pastoral and extra-curricular support to provide some of the wider experiences that the pandemic will have restricted. In the case of Bohunt Education Trust for example, they were able to use rich diagnostic data on family context to identify issues that may pose fundamental barriers to learning, such as difficult living arrangements and caring responsibilities for younger siblings

Understanding what is and isn’t working in specific school contexts or for specific pupils is a tricky question at the best of times, and even more tricky with the backdrop of a global pandemic. But if recovery initiatives are to have the impact in supporting young people that we want, we need to ensure that they are rooted in a sound understanding of the specific challenges being faced by schools in their contexts, and that any intervention is targeted towards those problems. Crucially, the emphasis here needs to move from outputs to impact - we should not be judging the success of these initiatives by money spent or hours dedicated. Instead we need a careful and considered approach to evaluation that helps determine what is working most effectively - and what isn’t - in order to help schools focus their efforts on where they can make the biggest difference;

To find out more about how ImpactEd is working with schools and Trusts to help them plan for and evaluate the impact of their approach to recovery planning, please get in touch. Our Lockdown Lessons research is freely available for access  - we'd welcome your feedback!