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How to turn the page on lingering learning gaps

Schools have found creative ways to deliver catch up teaching says Louise Pink, former school leader and Customer Optimisation Manager at SIMS from ParentPay Group. 

The conversation in school corridors and staff rooms may have moved on from the experience of teaching through a global pandemic four years on. But in classrooms, the legacy remains. 

Some of the more recent data available comes from a survey of 500 school leaders, who were asked about the status of teaching and learning in their schools as part of the Generation Catch-Up Report. The result was almost universal agreement that pupils’ learning is yet to recover from the disruption of Covid. 

A staggering 96% felt that learning gaps were continuing to have an impact on pupil achievement – and nearly two thirds (61%) described the impact as major.

One in 10 schools reported learning loss of between one and two years, which is why work continues in many schools to close the gaps. 

Who is most affected?

Primary school leaders were most concerned about their Year 4s. These are the children who were in Year 3 at the time of the survey. In secondary schools, the picture was more mixed. Year 10s were highlighted as the year group most affected by learning gaps. These were the students in Year 9 at the time of the survey and preparing for GCSEs.

Some of the issues raised by senior leaders include Year 7s starting school with low literacy levels. In older year groups, they raised the point that students were feeling unprepared for their exams. The ripples of Covid appear to have left no child untouched. 

However, there have been positive developments in recent years too. Despite being under intense pressure, school leaders and teachers have been taking action to close learning gaps and help children get back on track. 

Taking action on literacy 

Additional training and CPD opportunities provided to teachers help to ensure catch-up programmes for literacy, reading and writing get results. In St Thomas More Catholic Primary, the English lead was working towards the National Professional Qualification in Leading Literacy (NPQLL) when the report was published. 

There’s been a drive to incorporate reading and writing activities across subject areas too, which is helping children build literacy skills more quickly, as Donna Faley, headteacher, explains.

“We have embedded writing across the curriculum which gives children opportunities to write at length in subjects like geography, history and RE. Producing longer, high quality writing has really helped with children’s writing stamina.”

Beacon Academy had identified children who were three or four years behind on reading age. “We looked at our assessment data and identified the weakest pupils in history and geography and spotted they also had the lowest scores in reading tests,” says Peter Hall, the school’s assistant headteacher. 

“This enabled us to focus on those who needed the most support and monitor the interventions we put in place for them.” The school also employed reading intervention tutors to find out exactly where students’ stumbling blocks are on a one-to-one basis as each child had different difficulties. This has helped to address reading gaps.  

Supporting whole cohorts 

The size of pandemic related learning loss has called for a much broader approach in many schools.  

In primary schools, key skills have been identified that entire classes need help with. Adapting lesson plans to embed the development of these skills in day-to-day lessons has helped to tackle the shortfall at scale. 

Senior leaders in secondary schools reported students in the younger year groups had lost confidence working on their own. Many schools have therefore concentrated their efforts on providing more individual attention. 

“Teachers are adapting tasks into shorter chunks to help children learn more independently, and they are allocating more time in the lesson to explain new concepts,” says Ieuan Price, director of digital learning at St Illtyd’s Catholic High School.

Freeing up time for teachers 

Finding time in the school day to deliver good quality catch-up provision has been a challenge for many schools. Encouraging attendance at after school catch-up clubs hasn’t always been easy, so online tuition sessions have offered an effective alternative to supplement in-school learning.

Some secondary schools have made better use of the time available in the school day to offer focused catch-up in core subjects too, providing additional support to those students who need it.  

“Using tutor time for additional maths tuition has had a positive impact, and students really appreciate a teacher caring about them and taking time to focus on their progress,” adds Peter Hall from Beacon Academy. 

The ingenuity and resourcefulness showcased by schools throughout the pandemic to continue to deliver teaching and learning is still apparent today. And it will influence education for generations to come.


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