My wife had pneumonia at the age of ten and missed three months of school. Her abuelo visited her each day during her recuperation and helped her learn how to draw, taught her equations and read her the latest news. He loved it by all accounts. For her, the illness put a hold on her socialisation with her peers, but she kept on learning. Far from it being a period of emptiness, her family filled the gap left by her absence from school.
For many children across the UK, I think the same will be true when school eventually returns to something like normal – the ‘catch-up’ they need will be more social that academic.
For others, it is a far more complicated picture, and as the head of a school in an area ranked 10 (out of 32,844) for multiple deprivation in England, here’s where I start bristling.
Short-term ‘catch-up’ does not work, and is a little insulting to those of us working with these children permanently.
Bear with me.
The Educational Endowment Foundation has just published some research which suggests those the most disadvantaged children, because of the school closures, may have lost many of the academic gains of the last 10 years. Their boss, Becky Francis, says that it could be between 11% and 75%. Though I’m a little sceptical of how this can be measured, the basic premise is correct. The gap will widen significantly; we’ve seen this through our online learning programme.
So we need them to CATCH UP!!! Close that GAP! QUICK!!
I’ve lost count of the amount of people who worry out loud, or in print, that it is of the utmost urgency that these pupils ‘catch-up’ as soon as possible to minimise the damage. Robert Halfon, the Chair of the House of Commons Educational Select Committee, devoted a section of its recent meeting to this, bringing forward several ‘experts’ to express their anxiety and woe. The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longford, desperately wants to see ‘catch-up’ programmes over the summer, saying that the extra lessons must be ‘appealing, attractive and fun.’
How patronising is this?!! Does she seriously think that schools in such areas are all dull and unappealing, and all we have to do is don a clown hat, juggle a few torches of fire and we’ll have them all flocking in so they can ‘catch-up’? And does she really think you just flick a switch and they all attend, bright-eyed and bushy tailed?
And what do they all mean by ‘catch-up’ anyway? It seems to me that they assume it’s like an injection, dare I say vaccine, that can be neatly dosed in six week packages to correct their figures and make everything all nice again.
And who adminstrates these packages? Slowly but surely, an industry is growing, of trusts and charities that specialise in giving disadvantaged pupils the same kind of tutoring that middle-class parents habitually pay for. Action Tutoring, the Tutor Trust, there are many and they are good – they will take one or two children at a time and give them expert tuition, so their reading is advanced, mathematics improved. The subsequent progress data is vital as this then assures them of future funding.
I really don’t like this model. It reminds me of the Children’s Centre roll-out ten or fifteen years ago when all efforts were directed into producing data and evidence from which to apply for further funding. Rather than be out in the community, staff were on their computers much of the time doing the stats. Read ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey and you get a full picture of how people are parachuted in to tackle social inequality, but rarely stay more than a few months.
I would say I’m definitely middle-class, but I’ve been here for nearly fifteen years. Most of the staff have stayed a decent length of time too; it’s a long-term commitment. And we struggle despite enormous efforts.
In this context, six week catch-up programmes only serve as a way to plaster the wound and make everyone feel good about themselves. It doesn’t stick.
I am on a mission now. It cannot be right that schools are seen as the fall-guy for social malaise and deprivation. We simply cannot do any more. One day social workers, the next proxy public health officials, always advisors on parenting, we just cannot fill the gaps left by political failures over many years which have impoverished the public realm.
Or can we?
For if you invest in schools, I mean really invest in schools more, and change their whole modus operandi, if you signal greater confidence in the leadership at schools, if you allow them to play a full and transformative role in community development, then we could take on some of these responsibilities. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced. And I know that some will say it’s not the job of educators to address social reform, but I can think of no better people to do it, particularly as clusters of schools or MATs.
The director of the Action Tutoring said as much, that ‘working in partnership with providers is essential.’ I would go further and say ‘under the leadership of providers’. We need these tutor groups to be with us all year, not for six weeks.
In addition to tutor organisations like Action Tutoring, there are other great examples of how more (maybe) middle-class and culturally rich organisations could establish long-term, community programmes. In Harmony at the Liverpool Philharmonic, or the Chester Zoo educational partnership are two good examples. A day at the orchestra, or a day’s education at the Zoo is nice, but being there throughout a child’s education is transformative.
It’s just a question of innovative thinking and strong, principled leadership. This crisis has presented us with the perfect chance to make a paradigm shift in tackling the disadvantage gap, not through short-term ‘catch-up’ programmes, but through a belief in the power of the schools, properly funded, to lead that change.
Until then, I suspect we’ll be playing ‘catch-up.’