by Rebecca Brooks
AUK Education Policy Advisor

When I was in secondary school, my parents requested permission to remove me from school during term time for a week to go on a holiday of a lifetime. The school reluctantly agreed, on the condition that I would work hard to ‘catch up’ the work that I missed.

I duly complied. I hadn’t missed too much work in that final week of the term and, refreshed from our fabulous holiday, I was able to catch up what I had missed very quickly.

The Covid-19 conversation in education is rapidly moving on to what will happen after the majority of children are able to return to their settings, and whether a programme of ‘catch up’ is needed to address ‘missed learning’.

But does the language and focus around this conversation miss the mark? I was able to ‘catch up’ on ‘missed learning’ after my holiday, but our children have not spent the last few months on an extended holiday. They have not been relaxing on beaches, or exploring exotic cultures, or engaging in a wealth of well-planned holiday activities. They will not return to school well-rested after a lovely break, ready to ‘catch up’.

‘Missed learning’, too, is a problematic concept. What we really mean by this term is a concern that children will not have made progress through a specific curriculum, towards specific attainment targets and, ultimately towards a set of terminal exams, the results of which could determine their futures.

As a society, we have decided that such learning is important, but we cannot assume that children have not been learning during lockdown, even if that learning does not correspond to the usual curriculum. Children are always learning.

Many will have vigorously pursued their own interests, engaged in life skills activities like never before, and undertaken a fast track programme of social and emotional development as they navigate family relationships in a uniquely intense setting where issues must be resolved because there is no option to escape them. Prolonged periods of boredom can be a huge incentive to explore new things and be more creative.

While accessing the remote curriculum has been difficult or impossible for some, many respondents to Adoption UK’s survey on home learning commented that their children had made remarkable progress, advancing reading levels, improving their speech and language, and growing in confidence and self esteem as they worked at their own pace, without the pressure cooker of comparison with their peers and fear of public failure.

Sadly, we also know that some children across the nation will have learned devastating lessons. They may have learned a deeper understanding of what it means to live in poverty, or encountered this for the first time as parents and carers have lost jobs to the pandemic. They may have learned the crushing grief of bereavement. They may have learned to hide, to become invisible, to protect themselves from adults who are not safe, without the respite that school can provide.

What children need – in fact what society needs – after the pandemic is not ‘catch up’. It is ‘recovery’.

‘Catch up’ implies a narrow emphasis on curriculum goals with a focus on getting all children to the same end point as quickly as possible. ‘Recovery’ acknowledges that the impact of this crisis has been far wider than ‘missed learning’ and that we will need to begin where children are, rather than focus on where we would like them to be, and how to get them all to that same point as quickly as possible.

Some will return to education having made surprising progress, not only in learning of all kinds, but also in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, which are foundational to learning success. Others may have maintained their learning to a degree, but be carrying an emotional burden which will guarantee that they buckle under the pressure of ‘catch up’ programmes. Still others will arrive on shaky ground in all areas, having endured a period of their lives where survival was the only attainable goal.

There is no possibility of a regime of ‘catch up’ that will restore all children to their curriculum targets in a few weeks. We cannot rely on extra tuition and summer classes and hope to continue on after that as if Covid-19 never happened. To imagine that we can not only ignores the impact of Covid-19, but also the inequalities that already existed in education and have, if anything, been exacerbated in recent months.

Recovery is not a one-size-fits-all process that can be achieved with a quick burst of energetic activity. It will probably be years before our society, our economy and our children come out from under the shadow of this crisis, if ever, and we must be willing to enter into a long period of recovery that recognises not only where we want to end up, but where we really are right now.