Why I’m not worrying too much about COVID ‘Catch-up’

There’s a lot of talk about COVID catch-up at the moment. Young people, who have in some cases missed around 9 months of in-person education, are now behind their non-COVID peers from older year groups. There’s a gap. A crisis, if you will. This gives us as teachers a problem to solve, and if there’s anything that teachers love, it’s a Sissyphean problem like this. A task where we can expend enormous amounts of effort on a task that’s probably futile in the grand scheme of things. This is perhaps because we always feel like we have to justify our salaries and holidays to an often sceptical public (frankly it doesn’t matter what we do, we’ll always have a sceptical public).

If the recent history of education is anything to go by, what are we likely to see happening as we try to ‘close the gap’?

· The creation of enormous tables on Word documents outlining how we plan to telescope nearly a year’s worth of lost learning into 3 months. That no one then reads or actually uses because these documents will be the same hostage to fortune they always are.

· Some dubious ‘data’ that helps us chart a ‘flightpath’ to recovery. Probably with a multi-coloured spreadsheet involved. And some dubious ‘assessment’ that tells us in numerical form how much learning has been lost. That we can put on the spreadsheet.

· After school interventions to catch up already reluctant learners with no obvious end goal in sight. Like after school Year 11 intervention that we all love so much but now for everybody! Maybe a bit of Saturday morning school, just for laughs. And holiday catch-up.

· A whole consultancy ‘catch-up’ industry popping up around education to sell us some silver ‘catch-up’ ballets (to be fair I think we’ve got that one already) that fundamentally won’t make very much difference for the cost involved.

· Numerous TLR and SLT posts created with ‘catch-up’ in the title, some lofty staff meeting presentations, and then everybody just carrying on doing what they were doing before.

We’re in significant danger of falling into that trap which besets this job of doing lots of things that are desirable, but might not actually be possible. Just like all the effort to devise teaching and learning techniques to ‘show’ progress or learning in a single lesson for the benefit of an observer, or assessment regimes in Key Stage 3 that purport to suggest what GCSE grade a child is on right this second, we’re in that cul-de-sac of wanting to do things we can’t actually do. We can’t put nine months of learning back into the child with no significant extra time (a few after school sessions doesn’t count). If we’re saying we can put nine months of learning back in within three months, then that would raise questions about why we were going so slowly before, right? That would suggest a massively inefficient system. Which to be fair might be true but then I think leads to a whole series of different questions and answers about what to do.

This might sound gloomy and fatalistic — maybe it sounds riven with low expectations? Well, we’re living through a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 of our fellow countrymen and nearly 2.5million people worldwide. Forgive me if I’m not too bothered, in the grand scheme of things, whether or not little Johnny remembers all the reasons why the First World War started. What I’ll worry about is whether or not he learns about the things I want him to learn about in whatever time I’ve got to teach him. Just like I would normally.

Does that mean we should do nothing? That we should literally just pick up from where we left off? Well, sort of. What we’ll need to do are the usual building blocks of good teaching and good schools. What we do all the time.

· We need to focus on what we want the children to learn in the time we have available.

· We need to focus on re-establishing our in school routines to ensure a calm and orderly climate for learning that keeps everyone safe.

· We need to ensure that our students are attending school as much as possible.

· We need to really know our students so that we can mitigate any aftershocks that the pandemic may have left behind in terms of bereavement and illness. This work is already going on remotely via the hours of phonecalls and Zoom conversations and remote Parents Evenings that teachers have been involved in.

· We need to look at the gaps between most advantaged and least advantaged learners — they would exist anyway but they’ve probably widened significantly during this period.

· We need to focus on honing our craft to use the most effective teaching methods possible.

· Remotivating some of our learners — especially in exam year groups — will be an immediate short term objective.

· We need to use our retrieval practice to consolidate the learning, such as it was, that was done during the lockdown phase (and from before).

· We need to think about how we can integrate the best of remote learning into our regular offer.

Doing the things that we’d do anyway, if we’re focusing on the right things and not the make-work boondoggling that plagues this sector, will be a good start. Getting back to normal, as much as the pandemic situation allows, as quickly as possible, is the logical thing to do.

Heads of Department will have a key role to play in Secondary Schools. Planning out what’s important in the time we have left will be a key task. It doesn’t need onerous hours of table filling however. You probably already know if your head what needs doing. You need to talk about with your line manager and your team. And then crack on. What else can you do?

However, unless there’s 10,000 more teachers walking through the doors, or massive expansion of school facilities, there’s not a lot else that’s realistic that we can do right now. Those are questions for government policy-makers and civil servants and teaching unions and the rest to grapple with. When their edicts have been passed down, then we’ll see.

For now, I’m just not going to worry about it too much. All I can do is control what I control — same for schools as a whole. So let’s do that.

I’m a Head of History in North Yorkshire. I’ll be writing about issues relevant to History teachers as well as middle and senior leaders in secondary schools.

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