Quality not quantity: focus catch-up plans on how children learn best

The row over Covid catch-up funding stoked by the resignation this week of the education recovery commissioner for England, Sir Kevan Collins, is threatening to overshadow discussion of what post-lockdown learning recovery programmes for children should actually involve. New research from a Cambridge University academic calls into question the value of extending the school day simply to cram in more subject-based learning. Meanwhile, education psychologists are arguing that we should use this moment as “an opportunity to re-set our priorities for our children and their education”. These interventions raise fundamental questions about how children learn best.

Sir Kevan took on the role of catch-up ‘tsar’ in February to develop a long-term plan to help pupils make up for lost learning during the pandemic. He is reported to have put forward proposals costing £15bn, roughly in line with Education Policy Institute calculations that catch-up recovery would need £13.5bn. Provision for sport, music and drama was part of Sir Kevan’s thinking as well as extra time for academic learning.

A recently published academic study by Vaughan Connolly, a doctoral researcher at the Cambridge University Faculty of Education, suggests that adding extra classroom time to the school day may only result in marginal gains for pupils and that long-term plans to recoup lost learning may be better off focusing on maximising the value of the existing school day, rather than extending it.

“Simply keeping all students in school for longer, in order to do more maths or more English, probably won’t improve results much; nor is it likely to narrow the attainment gap for those who have missed out the most,” Connolly said.

“This evidence suggests that re-evaluating how time is used in schools — for example, by trimming subject time and replacing it with sessions focusing on ‘learning to learn’ skills — could make a bigger difference. Quality is going to matter much more than quantity in the long run.”

Meanwhile, educational psychologists are reported to be “urging the government to re-think the way it approaches the so-called ‘catch-up’ programme for children in schools, with a focus on play, socialisation and wellbeing as opposed to just adding more hours of lessons to the timetable.”

Vivian Hill, vice-chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology, said:

“Children don’t have to be sat at desks in a classroom to learn; giving them space to play sports, paint, try different crafts and socialise will all lead to learning and the development of important life skills.

“We have an opportunity now to re-think what we view as ‘good outcomes’ for children. By having schools as the centre of the community they can be used to help tackle social inequalities and give all children access to the resources and support they need.

“For example, for children who have no safe spaces to play outside at home, having access to the school playground to play football with their friends would be invaluable. For children living in overcrowded accommodation it could give them space to read and do their homework, or find their passion such as music or other forms of art.

“If we create the right environment for our children to thrive, then good academic achievement will be a by-product of this. These plans must be psychologically informed, and children must also be consulted on what they want and what they need to thrive.”

We have recently posted about the need for an approach to learning that prioritises thinking and enquiry skills, promotes curiosity, imagination and creativity, and draws on the latest insights into how the brain learns most effectively.

We have highlighted the role that physical activity can play in closing the attainment gap as well as the importance of sport, physical activity and outdoor play in helping children to grow up physically and mentally healthy.

And we have repeatedly posted about the benefits of children learning about and interacting with nature and the environment, and particularly about the impact on mental health of being actively involved in bringing about positive change, for example by taking part in the BBC’s new Plant Britain initiative.

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The image at the head of this article was used on the ITV website here.

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