First published by Challenge Partners on 29 June 2020.
As Covid-19 swept across Europe in March, schools throughout the continent were beginning to shut down – starting with Italy and eventually including the UK. This was a shock to the system: not since the Second World War had education across the country been so severely disrupted. Like all schools in the UK, my own started to confront this challenge as some schools in China and other parts East Asia were beginning to reopen after being closed for 9 to 10 weeks. However, we were soon to learn that the experience of one school in Hong Kong was to prove vital to how we weathered the Covid-19 storm. Essentially, the advice of our colleagues 5,941 miles played a significant role in our approach to dealing with school closure and remote learning.
This came about because my colleague Anthony Smith (@MrSmithEd) stumbled across a webinar by Mark Steed (@independenthead) for the Independent Schools Bursars Association on how Kellett School in Hong Kong was preparing for reopening after 15 weeks of Covid-19 closure (see here). Although our contexts are completely different, their suggestions were gold dust to us. There was advice on setting up remote learning classrooms, reorganising timetables and supporting pupils’ wellbeing, particularly the importance of maintaining contact with pupils and staff. Because of this we carried on with our assemblies (remotely), extra-curricular activities (we had remote drop-down days etc.), staff Inset, staff socials and so on. We even set up a daily virtual staffroom so that staff could meet, talk and keep a semblance of normality in completely abnormal times. A number of my UK colleagues in other schools started doing this as well, but well into the pandemic; we did from the start – not because we are superior in any way, but simply because we had the benefit of hindsight from our colleagues overseas.
It was only fitting that when my colleagues and I within the Herts & Bucks Challenge Partners Hub decided to research what a recovery curriculum might entail, I immediately turned to the experiences of schools in other countries and completely different contexts for ideas on what to do. This was necessary as I feel our own policy makers and expert consultants were somewhat at a loss. This is not because of a lack of competence or ability, but simply because we are not used to huge upheavals to the way we do things.
So, where can we turn?
Firstly, a large number of countries have had to close schools due to communicable diseases. Ebola has raised its ugly head in West Africa from time to time disrupting the education of children in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo amongst others. Secondly, plenty of schools have had to shut their doors as adults have decided to engage in armed conflict that has detrimentally harmed the education of their young.
As my Hub colleague, Mike Garvey, and I started researching recovery curricula, we found the lack of guidance from government, academic researchers and educational consultants/experts frustrating – save the odd good piece of advice from academics such as Professor Barry Carpenter or organisations like the Chartered College of Teaching here; this, again, is not a criticism of the aforementioned groups, but the reality of our current predicament. However, perhaps the biggest frustration was a lack of information on dealing with learning loss. Yes, there is plenty of research on summer learning loss addressing the issue of our arguably overlong summer holidays, but there was a dearth of information on dealing with learning loss in times of societal crisis and massive change.
Learning from the developing world
Nonetheless, whereas Mike found plenty of useful guidance on reopening from our Asiatic colleagues in both the state and independent sector (see here, for instance), I did eventually come across some useful studies in learning loss via UNESCO and a US non-governmental organisation called the Center for Global Development (CfGD). The CfGD advocates a number of strategies for dealing with crisis induced learning loss (as well as mental health, school reopening and safety). The learning loss strategies include:
applying accelerated learning strategies
simplifying the curriculum
targeting intensive programmes on those furthest behind
organising teacher-led learning camps and remedial tutoring programs
continuing remote learning and/or technology-based learning
training teachers to apply the strategies needed to remedy learning loss
leveraging the entire education workforce – not only the teachers – to support learning
The first strategy, accelerated learning, needs some clarification as it means different things in different contexts. Furthermore, there is a lot of pseudo-scientific nonsense on the internet packaged as ‘accelerated learning’. Nevertheless, as the Schools, Students and Teachers Network (SSAT) suggests, accelerated learning simply refers to attempts to speed up the teaching and learning process for pupils disadvantaged in some way – be that from a national crisis or simply socio-economic inequalities. The outcome is to “achieve desired learning outcomes faster and more efficiently than through more traditional arrangements and approaches”. Here, acceleration happens on two levels: 1) within the programme or redesigned curriculum and 2) the learning process experienced by pupils. As the SSAT points out, this could involve more able pupils joining courses or modules with older pupils or targeted support for at-risk or vulnerable pupils (you can read more here).
However, as already suggested, some of the suggestions for accelerated learning need to be viewed with a critical eye as there are some dubious learning techniques bundled into this umbrella term. An accelerated learning programme (ALP) would need to focus on the most effective learning techniques out there, which should, of course, be evidence based (see here for a guide).
The use of accelerated learning programmes in areas affected by human made or natural disasters, including disease, have been documented by USAID. Their reporting on 154 complementary education programmes in 39 sub-Saharan countries show evidence that ALPs can impact on learning loss recovery (see Rose 2007). UNESCO have also reported on the use of ALPs in aiding education recovery programmes and cite examples from Bangladesh, Tanzania, Malawi and our very own DFID in rolling out the School for Life programme in Ghana (see Longden, 2013). Moreover, ALPs have also been used in direct response to various crises, mostly in conflict zones, such as Afghanistan, Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, it is worth noting that most ALPs are not countrywide and are aimed at certain hard hit areas or marginalised groups.
UESCO emphasizes the success of these ALPs by dividing the number of years the ALP lasted by the equivalent years in the formal system, which allows them to calculate an average rate of acceleration. These average rates of acceleration vary from 1.25 in Bangladesh (on ALPs aimed at the rural poor) to 3 for the School for Life programme in Ghana (full report here). The caveat here is that most of these studies have centred on primary education.
In my own context, I will be accelerating learning by removing many non-essential activities, creating less cognitive load in lessons by sticking to the essentials and using targeted support (as described below) to support those pupils who have done the least throughout the school closure.
Simplifying the curriculum
The CfGD’s report cited Sierra Leone’s experience of simplifying the curriculum as an example of recovery after an educational hiatus. Here, the curriculum was designed to cover two academic years in one following the Ebola epidemic. Although more evaluation is needed, the report suggested that a combination of simplification and accelerated learning was eventually effective. Moreover, the CfGD also suggests that variations of this approach have shown positive results in other countries. Here, the reports authors said, “The idea is not to do more with less time but rather facilitate quality catch-up with a simplified curriculum of select core components to cover thoroughly in the time available” (Cavalho et al. 2020).
I find this last point self-evident for my own teaching. I am currently reviewing my lessons and schemes of learning for next year to see how I can strip any unnecessary asides away to focus on the core components of my GCSE and A Level syllabuses, which I hope to cover thoroughly in the time available. I will jettison a whole host of games, documentaries and small projects that I used to include to enrich the syllabus. Moreover, I am also looking at removing some of the ‘extension activities’ I do in my lessons, where extensive elaboration on key parts of the syllabus are included purely because I find them interesting or intrinsically worthwhile, but are not actually necessary to the pupils’ overall understanding of the syllabus. However, this will need to be balanced so that my pupils do not have a diminished view of the subjects I teach.
Targeting intensive programmes on those furthest behind
This, again, is self-evident, but essential. As the CfGD points out, “Following prolonged closures, students will return to school with varying levels of learning loss, possibly due to previous skill levels, differential access to distance learning, or varying home support during the closures.” My school, like many, will offer an extensive programme of targeted support next year. For those nearest exams, form time and other form-based learning will be integrated into a targeted support programme that will span the curriculum. We are also meeting with pupils to assess any gaps in knowledge in line with their teachers’ reports on their remote learning engagement. This will also be adapted for those lower down the school in September.
Teacher-led learning camps and remedial tutoring
Evidence cited by the CfGD suggests that learning camps and additional tutoring can support student learning, especially if these opportunities accelerate the mastery of basic skills. This research includes camps prior to and between school terms, which might be difficult for many schools in the UK. However, schools will be organising various catch up activities. My own, for example, will include a targeted mentoring programme for our Year 11 pupils as well as additional sessions during our ‘electives programme’, which happens on two days a week after the usual hometime. We will, of course, consider using the holidays for catch-up classes nearer the exams for our Year 11s and 13s.
Continuing remote learning/technology-based learning strategies
Many institutions, especially universities, have been discussing ‘blended learning’ or ‘hybrid learning’ as a strategy going forward whereby remote or online learning is mixed with face-to-face sessions. Whereas this is feasible for higher education, it is not as easy for primary and secondary schools. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot carry on using the remote learning resources and skills we have picked up during the school closures into next year. We can simply adapt our new abilities to improve homework, revision and direct independent study for our pupils. Of course, this could form part of our ‘accelerated learning’ packages for pupils. As the CfGD found, even in some of the world’s poorest countries, “When schools reopen, these platforms could complement regular instruction to support learning recovery.”
Training teachers to remedy learning loss
Again, this might seem completely obvious, but could be overlooked. One of the key ideas my school took from the Hong Kong experience was not to stop Inset or staff training; indeed, in April we continued with a two day Inset, which a colleague of mine in another school found bemusing and said they had simply cancelled theirs. We have also continued with weekly remote Inset sessions and Share Fairs centred on remote learning (we also blogged ideas: see here, for instance). I also sat down with ITT and NQT mentors to discuss adapting the tracking of the Teacher Standards to fit in with remote learning.
Going forward, we will continue to do this – as will most schools, I’m sure – in relation to our recovery curriculum. We already have Insets planned on this. Again, collating evidence on this from elsewhere, the CfGD state that, “As schools reopen, teachers will face the daunting task of supporting students in covering lost ground. They will be operating in a modified environment and will likely be delivering an irregular syllabus. All of this requires new skills and capacities.” Basically, targeted recovery Inset is vital.
Leveraging the entire education workforce
Lastly, we will all need to pull together to support our pupils. All of the strategies above will need to engage not just the class teachers, but support staff as well. There is also a need to examine how the wider staff body could help with targeted support or tutoring, especially if they have qualifications and/or skills that could be of benefit to pupils. Of course, this also works in reverse. Support staff involved in pupil wellbeing, SEN, EAL and career development will need to share their expertise with teachers in order to engage and motivate pupils (as well as teachers) in their areas of expertise. Again, as the CfGD reported after examining various studies, “Evidence suggests that engaging other education professionals, volunteers, and peer-to-peer support as tutors, mentors, and additional help for teachers can strengthen learning outcomes as well as support vulnerable students, including girls, in returning to and staying in school.”
It is essential, I think, that we learn from each other – regardless of contexts – when planning our recovery curricula. This blog has largely focused on learning loss and there are other important practical considerations to bear in mind as well as the centrality of pupil wellbeing (you can read the full CfGD report here). Of course, not everything mentioned above will be useful or agreeable to some of you reading this, but we do need to keep an open mind on how we adapt to this evolving situation next year. This is not the first time schools have closed because of a disease – parts of West Africa have seen this all too often – but it is the first time we have had to do so in the UK. Never has the idea that we are fellow travellers and all learners together been so relevant.