Ministers should not focus on ‘policy gimmicks’ to help pupils catch up – heads

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Ministers should focus their attention on providing schools with enough funding so they can provide quality catch-up support for pupils rather than “policy gimmicks”, a headteachers’ union has said.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said speculation about longer school days and shorter holidays to help children was “misconceived and unhelpful”.

It comes as schools standards minister Nick Gibb said he is “open to all ideas” on how to help pupils catch up amid the pandemic.

Last week, the Prime Minister appointed Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner to oversee the Government’s catch-up programme. He has suggested that summer schools have “promise”.

But Mr Barton warned against a blanket requirement for after-school and holiday clubs as he said it could “grind out more hours of learning from tired children with the likelihood of diminishing returns”.

He added that mandatory attendance in the summer holidays would have to be enforced with fines and he suggested that families would be unlikely to support this idea after a year of coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Barton said: “The essential element of catch-up support is quality rather than quantity, and schools are very good at identifying learning needs and putting in place the appropriate support.

“The extra £300 million the Government has earmarked for catch-up funding for the next financial year equates to around £37 per pupil, and we think a great deal more investment is needed,” he added.

Appearing before the Commons’ education select committee on Tuesday, Mr Gibb said further details on how the extra £300m fund for catch-up will be allocated will be announced “shortly”.

He suggested that the additional funding was not rigidly tied to tutoring.

It comes after Sir Kevan said extra hours for sport, music and drama – alongside additional time for academic study – will be needed to help children catch up following months of disruption.

Mr Gibb told MPs that Sir Kevan will be looking at all “ideas and potential proposals” for how pupils can catch up.

When asked about the merits of a four-week summer break and whether the Government would consider this, the schools minister acknowledged there was “evidence of lost learning” during the six-week summer holiday – but he said there was also evidence of children catching up swiftly in the autumn.

Mr Gibb added: “We are learning a huge amount from what has been happening during this pandemic and we will look at all ideas to ensure that we can help children catch up.”

On the proposals, Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Research evidence shows that there are better methods to help pupils than lengthening the school day. The government must filter out loud calls for superficially attractive schemes and listen to the experts.”

In a separate Lords Covid-19 committee hearing on Tuesday, Richard Sheriff, chief executive of the Red Kite Learning Trust, warned against “big national complex programmes” for catch-up support.

He said efforts should be focused on vulnerable children – including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) – but also on pupils in more privileged communities who have failed to engage.

Mr Sheriff, who is also president of ASCL, said: “I think a lot of those will be boys and I think there’ll be a big gap this year opening up further the gap between boys’ and girls’ attainment. So let’s focus forensically on where the need is and give opportunity locally to meet that need.”

He told peers: “We’ve got a danger going forward of having a multitude of different external initiatives that are quite hard for schools to handle, that aren’t actually focused on the specific need, and just look like we’re really busy, but don’t actually have an impact.”

Mr Gibb was appearing before the education select committee as part of its inquiry into the underachievement of white working-class pupils.

The minister suggested that the issue of poor academic performance in school among the group was about poverty, rather than ethnicity.

Mr Gibb told MPs: “It is poverty which then translates into a poverty of low expectations and the fatalistic assumption that somehow those children should have a different curriculum, and a different set of expectations, than children from wealthier backgrounds.

“It is that which we have fought tooth and nail since 2010 to change.”

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