by Dr Darren Moore, University of Exeter
Prof Neil Humphrey, University of Manchester
Research on ‘summer learning loss’ shows a marked reduction in attainment following sustained periods of absence.1 During lockdown, schools worked quickly to make learning available remotely for the majority of pupils, but access has proven to be challenging and engagement is understandably lower than typical schooling.2 Worryingly, existing inequalities appear to have been exacerbated. Children from better-off families are spending more time on home learning than are those from poorer families.3 Those with education, health and care plans relating to SEND have mostly been able to attend school, but the usual support has not been mandatory or often available.4 Meanwhile, pupils with SEND who are receiving remote learning are less engaged than their peers.5 Progress made in reducing the ‘attainment gap’ might be reversed, despite the best efforts of schools and parents.6
Children’s learning takes place in, and interacts with, multiple contextual systems of development (e.g. school, peer group, family, community).7 This learning influences, and is influenced by, their health and wellbeing. Pupils with better health and wellbeing are likely to achieve better at school, while the ethos of a school influences the pupil wellbeing and readiness to learn.8 Furthermore, teacher wellbeing can impact on pupils’ progress.9 It is critical to consider how children’s wellbeing may be affected by lockdown and the prospect of returning to school, while also considering how schools adjusting their culture and the challenges that teachers face can affect pupil progress as schools return.
One key factor as pupils return in September is the approach taken to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission (e.g. social distancing, bubbles of classes/year groups, staggering of timetables); here the evidence indicates that children are not so-called ‘super-spreaders’.10 This suggests that schools could be afforded more latitude in how they organise themselves from September, enabling them to focus more explicitly on play and interaction, which are vital to children’s development.
August will see a focus on examination results based on teacher assessments, and the practicalities of the full range of exams being available in the Autumn Term for those who need to or want to improve their grades. Anticipated changes for 2021 exams, which at the time of writing have only been pushed back, provide another source of uncertainty. Exam anxiety has been a pressing concern in recent years,11 and will be acutely felt in the next academic year.
Not every child attends school. 13% are persistently absent,12 and our research has shown that emotional difficulties are associated with higher rates of absence.13 Anxiety and depression in young people increased during lockdown14 and this may lead to an increase in persistent absence. Conversely, reduced attendance stemming from parental choice and/or school refusal may lead to increased emotional difficulties.
Finally, we are concerned about the risk that as schools focus on providing a safe learning environment for returning pupils and catching up on missed learning, presentations of learning, emotional and/or behavioural difficulties will be attributed to a normalised response to readjusting to school, rather than underlying difficulties in need of early intervention.