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Playing Catch Up


Although the title of this blog alludes to the job which schools face in terms of catching up after the national lockdowns, it makes more sense to me to consider its focus is to ‘mind the gaps’. Although I have succumbed and find myself using the ‘catch up’ phrase quite often, to my mind it still has connotations of ‘you haven’t been doing enough; you need to work a bit harder to catch up!’


Of course, all of our schools have been working flat out since the partial closure began in March. They’ve been providing emergency remote education and a lot more besides. Many became the hub of support for their communities – providing food parcels, regular telephone contact with vulnerable families and much more. And they’ve been doing this over normal holiday breaks, Bank Holidays and even some weekends too. Time and again on visits to schools this term parents expressed their deep appreciation of the role played by their child’s school during the spring and summer.


After a period of settling back in during September, which we called the establishment phase, our schools set about assessing the impact of the lockdown. And it was really as we had predicted. All children had been affected – but not all children had been affected equally. Pre-existing inequalities seem to have been magnified.


For some children, with parents who could ably support home learning - who had the time, the motivation and the broadband speed - home learning was a positive experience. And for some it has continued to be; out of our 3,000 pupils a handful have continued with home learning this term.


However this certainly wasn’t the picture across the board. Of all the curriculum subjects, in line with the national picture, our data highlights that progress in mathematics has been hit the hardest. Although the extent of the ‘Covid slide’ fluctuates a little between different year groups and between different schools, typically pupils who were less secure with their learning have been affected most.


Reading and writing appear to have been affected in different ways. Despite lots of excellent online phonics resources, children early to reading are needing to refresh their phonics knowledge. Stamina for writing has been identified by our teachers as an issue – as children have got out of the habit of writing for a sustained period of time. Of course, linked to writing are skills of letter formation, accurate spelling, punctuation and so on. These really are ‘use it or lose it ‘skills!


In some of our schools that have significant proportions of pupils new to speaking English, children returned to school in September having not spoken any English during the lockdown period. While filling the gaps in learning caused by lockdown is an obvious priority, it wasn’t the only one.


At the start of the school year, all of our staff worked hard to support pupils to have a smooth transition back to school. Helping children re-establish friendships, re-discover a stamina for learning, overcome anxieties and process issues that had arisen for some became key. Our schools designed imaginative whole school topics - taught separately in bubbles - which served to re-unite the school community. Topics like “Over the Rainbow” (with a nod to the recognisable NHS rainbow symbol) saw pupils testing and building kites as well as setting their own targets for the learning this year. Despite this, sadly, some children have still struggled to get back into the routine and expectations of school life, so this is very much an ongoing piece of work.


School leaders have applied the same levels of creativity to ‘catch-up’ plans. Extra sessions of ‘Snappy Maths’ have been timetabled to support pupils’ recall of basic operations. Heads have used some of the ‘catch up’ funding to release teachers from some of their afternoon teaching commitments so that the teacher who knows the pupils’ needs the most delivers the intervention. Our schools are also running targeted reading groups, phonics refreshers and additional handwriting practice.


To make time for all of these additional sessions, schools have scaled back some of their topics. All of our schools are holding on to their overall curriculum plan but are not teaching some aspects to the same depth in some subjects. In fact we were all agreed that our schools didn’t want to just end up teaching maths, English and then more maths.


Analysis of our November data drop shows us that we have, in the main, been successful in halting the ‘Covid slide’. Encouragingly there is evidence that the recovery period has begun. As expected, the recovery for some pupils will take longer than for others. Some children will need to continue with additional support - whether for learning or for well-being into next term and beyond. But at least, as we come to the end of a challenging term, the direction of travel is positive one!


Cathy Williams

Director of Teaching and Learning