The long-awaited return to the classroom for all pupils feels like the start of something new. With children swapping the kitchen table for the classroom and getting together with their friends and teachers after many months, the mood is one of optimism and hope.
However, the road to recovery will be long and bumpy.
New data suggests it is the youngest children whose performance suffered most from the impact of the first lockdown.
Findings from the Juniper National Dataset Report, which examines teacher assessment data from 6,000 primary schools, shows a steep fall in pupils who reached age-related expectations in reading, writing and maths in summer 2020 compared with pre-pandemic levels.
The progress of Year 1 was hit harder than any other pupil group, with the percentage of children achieving at or above expectations falling by around a quarter.
This pattern reflected the experience within our trust. We had expected the major learning gaps to be in Year 6, but our benchmarking showed the gaps were much further down in Years 2, 1 and Early Years in the more teacher-focused areas such as phonics.
Measuring learning losses
With the youngest children falling behind at this critical point in their education, it’s important to find out exactly where the gaps are and take swift action to make up for lost ground. However, with children returning to school having had such diverse learning experiences over the past two lockdowns, this isn’t easy.
More testing may look like the answer, but the drawback with testing is that a score on a test – even a very good score – can mask gaps in learning. Teacher assessment, on the other hand, can provide more targeted insight into missing learning, but on the flipside it adds to the workload.
For the primary academies in our trust, we took a hybrid approach when children came back to school in September 2020 and started a regime which combined teacher assessment with testing that was as informal as possible.
“More testing may look like the answer, but the drawback with testing is that a score on a test – even a very good score – can mask gaps in learning”
This approach will also work now the children are back in the classroom once more.
Technology-based testing makes for a more relaxed process as it can be more engaging than a traditional pen and paper task. Techniques such as an online quiz in the classroom or a digital reading assessment work very well.
Dotting these activities throughout the day eats up less time for teachers and can be more fun for children.
Having identified where the learning losses are, schools may need to adapt the curriculum to ensure they teach the essential elements that allow children to make progress and plug any gaps that are holding them back.
Teachers will already be managing a heavy workload, so technology in the form of digital mark sheets and pupil trackers can help schools map out the curriculum objectives that must take priority while monitoring which skills each pupil has gained.
New ways to engage pupils
The positive news from the national dataset is that when Year 6 children returned to school last autumn, the drop in their attainment compared with pre-pandemic levels was a lot less pronounced and their rates of recovery were greater than the younger year groups.
This could be because older children have already developed the building blocks of their education and tend to be more self-sufficient, enabling them to adapt more easily to home learning.
While there’s no doubt that supporting children’s learning remotely has been a challenge, some teachers have found their pupils have responded very well to learning from home. The teachers in our trust have put together some fantastic, highly creative learning resources for pupils and this has engaged children in the technology they use as well as the subject at hand.
Of course, remote learning is no substitute for the human touch, but getting children to adapt quickly to a digital world has had some positive consequences.
For one thing, schools have given children the skills that will be vital in a changing workplace where flexible working is likely to become much more common. Pupils have been exploring online resources, communicating using different platforms and taking part in video conferences, which is all good preparation for when they join the connected workforce.
Now that face-to-face teaching and learning has resumed, it’s important that children are encouraged to keep up their IT abilities and schools should find ways to blend technology with traditional teaching methods to boost accelerated learning.
The pandemic will no doubt continue to put challenges our way, but with all children back at school, it’s time to put past difficulties behind us and look ahead with optimism.
You might also like: Ender’s game: how to game our way to vaccine understanding