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Unhelpful ‘catch up’ narrative about lost learning during the pandemic places unnecessary psychological pressure on children and young people

22 February 2021

We're urging the government to reconsider its emphasis on the idea that children and young people need to ‘catch up’ on their education, and saying that supporting the wellbeing and educational needs of all children should be a priority.

We're concerned that focusing on lost learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic misses the mark, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

With extended school days and potential summer schools being floated as potential solutions to address the perceived educational attainment gap created by the pandemic, members of our Division of Educational and Child Psychology are instead advocating for a phased return to regular schooling, combined with a quality-over-quantity approach to key learning. Where additional school time is a strategy, it should focus on supporting children through socialisation and play.

We're also highlighting the importance of focusing on what children have learnt and achieved over the past year - thanks to the home-schooling efforts of parents and caregivers and remote-learning provision delivered by teachers and other educational professionals throughout the pandemic.

Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology said: 

“It’s absolutely understandable that parents and caregivers are concerned that children have been missing out on many aspects of their formal education over the past year.

However, the notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone. 

It’s important to celebrate the progress, learning and development children have made in the last year and ensure that they feel proud of what they’ve achieved so that they can build upon their strengths and continue their key learning moving forward.

Together, parents, caregivers and teachers have done an amazing job of continuing children’s education outside the school environment, and its vital that this work isn’t diminished.”

The impact of the lockdowns on children’s wellbeing and mental health must be considered as part of the decision-making around the return to school plan.

“Some children will have had positive lockdown experiences, but we also mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the pandemic has had a huge impact on all children’s everyday lives,” continued Dr O’Hare. 

Many children may have seen their families struggling with sudden unemployment, loss of earnings or grieving the death of a loved one.

Vulnerable children and families from disadvantaged communities may have spent the lockdowns wondering where their next meal is going to come from, or how they’re going to keep a roof over their heads. 

Whatever a child or young person’s circumstances, we can’t assume that the right thing to support their recovery and wellbeing is for them is to be in lessons for longer each day.

The voice of children and young people has been noticeably missing from this debate and it’s essential that they are consulted and their thoughts and feelings considered as part of the decision-making process about the return to school.”

Research from the Education Endowment Foundation looking at the effect of extending the school day and summer schools on educational attainment, has found that these measures have a low impact but moderate associated costs, suggesting that it is not an effective way to address gaps in children’s learning created by the pandemic. Evidence also indicates that these interventions aren’t effective in meeting the needs of the vulnerable children who need support the most.

Dr O’Hare, said: 

“What really makes a difference in children’s attainment is high-quality instruction and high-quality feedback, delivered by teachers, who are best placed to assess children and young people’s gaps in knowledge.

 It’s important that children know that education and learning is a lifelong skill, not a sprint and it’s vital for their psychological wellbeing that the rhetoric around ‘catch up’ doesn’t detract from their achievements and progress during lockdowns.

It’s also essential that this conversation doesn’t detract from the many real issues facing the most disadvantaged children that more urgently need to be addressed by the government, such as food poverty, access to green spaces, use of digital learning equipment and access to high-speed broadband.

The government mustn’t lose sight of where they can make a high-impact and tangible difference to children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and subsequently their education.” 


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