As featured in Education Today - July/August 2021 Edition.
Bridging the learning gap
The UK may finally be approaching some form of normality once again, but the impact of the pandemic on young people’s education will take a significant amount of time to be fixed. School closures, classroom bubbles and self-isolation requirements have caused unprecedented disruption and, despite the best efforts of hardworking teachers and home-schooling parents, children have missed out on a lot. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have felt the effects particularly acutely, with a lack of access to technology making learning from home extremely challenging.
Summer schools have been touted as one of the leading initiatives to make up for this shortfall in learning. The government has pledged around £200 million in funding to help secondary schools run additional classes, citing statistics from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that suggest that pupils can make up to four months’ additional progress by taking part in a summer school programme.
While the basic concept of summer schools has plenty of merit, the government’s plans have been met by scepticism and opposition from some stakeholders. Teachers are concerned about the risk of burnout, while parents have expressed worries that too much of an academic focus could be bad for their children’s overall wellbeing.
Making summer schools work, therefore, means taking a nuanced approach that bears the concerns of every stakeholder in mind. Specifically, it is crucial that programmes strike the right balance between academic rigour and enriching activities that provide a holistic experience for pupils.
The impact of school closures
The first nationwide school closures in March last year saw young people miss out on around three months of in-person learning, with the second period of shutdown in January this year lasting until around February half term. Outside these periods, pupils have also had to deal with further disruption caused by mandatory self-isolation, as well as the various challenges of being in class bubbles.
Despite remote learning helping to maintain a semblance of stability in pupils’ academic routines, it is clear that many have fallen behind. Research has shown that reading skills across all year groups – both primary and secondary – have suffered, with learning loss in maths also being felt strongly.
In addition, school closures have had a huge impact on children’s mental health. A recent study has found a significant rise in emotional and behavioural difficulties in primary school children following closures in the 2020 spring and summer terms. Such issues are likely to be felt in the secondary school environment too, as any severe break in routine and time away from friends and teachers can be highly disruptive to young people’s wellbeing.
From this, it becomes clear that additional resources to help pupils catch up on lost learning and restore their sense of emotional fulfilment are key. Summer schools, in theory, should be aiming to do this.
Disadvantaged children bear the brunt
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have been hit particularly hard throughout this period. Research by the Sutton Trust found that almost a quarter of GCSE students from poorer families said they could not get help from family members with their schoolwork, and 40% said they lacked a structured routine to enable them to study from home. While 97% of children from disadvantaged families had access to a digital device such as a laptop or tablet at home, only two-thirds said they were able to use it to do their schoolwork. The slow response by the government to get devices to disadvantaged children early in the pandemic also exacerbated the situation further.
According to a freedom of information request submitted to the Department for Education by Learning Hive, only 27% of the 1.4 million devices given to pupils in England between March 2020 and March 2021 were provided within the first six months of the pandemic. This meant that during the first peak of the virus, hundreds of thousands of young people lacked the technological capabilities needed to keep pace with their peers.
Bridging this gap and properly reintegrating disadvantaged pupils should be a key aim of the summer schools programme.
Enter summer schools
According to government plans, the summer schools programme makes up part of the £1.7 billion already invested in helping pupils catch up over the course of the next year. It is aimed primarily at incoming Year 7 students to support their transition to the secondary school environment.
The government guidance states that summer schools should be short programmes designed to provide a blend of academic learning and enrichment activities. The thinking behind this is positive, as it emphasises the need to catch up in areas such as English and maths, but also the importance of focusing on pupil wellbeing and mental health.
What is less clear is how the potential of summer schools can be maximised in practice, and how scepticism or opposition to them can be quelled before the current school year ends. Below, we examine this in more detail.
Winning hearts and minds
Since the idea of summer schools was first announced, both teaching staff and parents have expressed concerns about whether the programme will be a success. To ensure pupils taking part get the very most out of the scheme, it is crucial that school leaders, local authorities and government ministers take the thoughts of key stakeholders into account.
Teachers have seen their roles completely transformed since the start of the pandemic. Keeping children happy and engaged in a classroom environment is a perennial challenge in itself, but the switch to remote and blended learning meant teachers had to pick up new skills very quickly. It is no surprise, then, that burnout could be a major issue if teachers need to run extra sessions during the summer holidays. With this in mind, any summer school programme needs to be designed to minimise the burden on teaching staff, without compromising on quality of provision.
Parents have also been forthright with their thoughts on summer school plans. A recent Ipsos Mori poll revealed that a majority (56%) see increased wellbeing support for all children as essential, with 55% also supporting additional tutoring sessions outside school hours. In contrast, only 41% advocate shorter summer holidays, and 21% are in favour of longer school days. Parents know their children better than anyone, so it is clear from this that a delicate balance between academic achievement and mental and emotional wellbeing needs to be struck.
This need for balance must also be reflected in the messaging employed by the government to promote the summer schools programme. So far, much of the language has been on the punitive side, with the Education Secretary recently announcing plans for “behaviour hubs” to tackle increasing disciplinary issues with some children. While such measures are well-meaning, they approach challenges from a negative standpoint.
Reaching a solution
While there are many hurdles to negotiate, there are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic if summer schools are approached in the right way.
Firstly, summer schools should be relaxed, welcoming environments: they should be places that children look forward to going to when they wake up in the morning. This means steering clear of strict, regimented approaches where they are expected to spend all day in a classroom. Instead, it is absolutely vital that enriching activities – such as drama or outdoor exercise –play a major role alongside academic lessons, and are not considered simply as an afterthought.
After all, a happy pupil is a motivated one, and building confidence and a positive attitude will stand them in great stead when the next academic year begins in September.
At the same time, teachers should not be expected to shoulder all of the workload. Summer schools should be managed not just by teaching staff, but by other qualified experts working in partnership. This can include a wide range of professionals, such as tutoring providers, sports coaches or specialist drama or music teachers. This is core to our own summer school programme at Learning Hive. If managed effectively, this approach would achieve the all-important goal of relieving some of the strain on teachers after a rollercoaster couple of school years.
A necessity, but not a drain
Summer schools might be a necessary measure to help children catch up on months of lost learning, but there is no need for them to be a drain on exhausted teachers or the pupils in their care. High academic standards – for the next school year and all the years beyond – are paramount, but these can only be maintained if all parties are happy, engaged and motivated to achieve their full potential.
This means listening to the thoughts and concerns of everyone involved in the process. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic was a resurgence in community spirit and a sense of togetherness. Piecing the country back together after the last year or so will require a collective effort by everyone, and this is even more relevant when it comes to safeguarding the future of our children. Make a success of summer schools, and we will take a hugely important step in achieving this.