Catching up with COVID – what should the Government’s latest programme address?

Finlay Morriss

Account Executive

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In response to the loss of learning experienced by children and young people due to Covid-19, last week the government announced the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner. Sir Kevan’s role will be to lead a comprehensive programme of educational ‘catch-up’, aimed at young people who have lost out on hours of learning during the pandemic, with the most disadvantaged students reported to have lost up to seven months’ progress.

Sir Kevan’s experience includes 30 years in the education sector and time as head of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). During his first interview with the media in his new role earlier this week, he commended children for their amazing “resilience”, but emphasised the need to “act quickly” to make arrangements for the summer.

It has been reported that the government is considering numerous different options to fulfil this need. These include shorter summer holidays, summer schools and extended school days, with initial catch-up plans due to be announced in late February. But what are the key areas that the catch-up programme, once rolled out, need to address in order to have the required impact on children and young people?

Mental Health

Figures published by the NHS last July showed the alarming rise in school-aged children who have a mental health problem, with figures growing to one in six. This is a stark increase from one in ten in 2004 and one in nine in 2017.

A new report released this week by ImpactEd, based on research on more than 62,000 pupils who were tracked over seven months to Christmas last year, has also found that GCSE students have experienced the lowest levels of learning during lockdown, and their anxiety levels have risen more than any other key stage group.

Children and young people’s mental health has never been so high on the public agenda and it is pivotal that actions are taken and steps are implemented within the catch-up programmes to address this. Alongside dedicated pastoral support for those who need it, this may include providing time for students to take part in sport, music and drama, as well as additional hours of academic learning, to help young people to reengage with one another and fill critical gaps that have been missing in their development.

The Digital Divide

Throughout the pandemic, accessibility has been a huge problem for remote learning. Put simply, if a young person is unable to access a computer and/or an internet connection, their learning is at a huge disadvantage. This is particularly the case for those who were already considered “behind” their peers, purely down to their starting points in life.

Despite efforts made by the government through their bid to get more than a million devices to schools and colleges during the Covid-19 crisis, and a number of mobile internet providers such as EE and Three providing free internet for students, there remains a deep digital divide, which is only widening. This divide is one that the catch-up programme must look to address if it is to reach all students, particularly those who need it most, as neglecting this issue would exacerbate the developmental challenges associated with a lack of access to education.

The Attainment Gap

Closing the attainment gap has long been an aim for many educators, however the impact of the pandemic has widened it beyond recognition. As early as May last year, a senior official at the Department for Education warned that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers could widen by as much as 75 per cent because of the pandemic, with issues around accessibility to education playing a key role.

It is critical that the government are aware of the challenges accelerating the growing attainment gap and that the catch-up programme seeks to address them urgently. One size does not fit all, and different methods of teaching and learning that are accessible to every single child must be provided.

The impact of Covid-19 on children and young people’s education cannot be understated, and despite the current pace of the vaccine rollout presenting a path back to life as we know it, a huge amount of work is required if we are to repair some of the damage done by the last year, and genuinely make up for lost time and lost learning. Let’s hope the catch-up programme is a good place to start.

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