Heads warn against 'grinding out hours' in summer catch up

By Katherine Sellgren and Sean Coughlan
BBC News

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Head teachers' leaders have warned against "gimmicks" in plans to help pupils in England catch up for lost learning in the pandemic.

Geoff Barton said speculation about longer school days and shorter holidays was "misconceived and unhelpful" - and it would not help to try to "grind out more hours from tired children".

Schools Minister Nick Gibb told MPs he was "open to all ideas" on catching up.

"We just have to leave no stone unturned," said Mr Gibb.

Mr Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union, also cast doubt on whether penalty fines would really be imposed on parents for not sending their children to classes in the summer holidays, should they be made compulsory.

Last week the prime minister announced that Sir Kevan Collins would be an "education recovery commissioner" - in charge of helping pupils to catch up after the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Among the ideas under discussion have been extended school days and a reduced summer holiday, along with existing plans for personal tutors.

Sir Kevan also suggested the importance of sport, drama and music.

'Quality not quantity'

But Mr Barton said it was "quality and not quantity" that would be important for how children were helped to make up for lost time in the classroom.

He said many schools already ran after-school activities and summer holiday clubs - and that any "blanket requirement" to force children to stay in school for longer would have "diminishing returns".

Appearing before the Commons Education Select Committee on Tuesday, Mr Gibb said he was "open to all ideas" on how to help pupils in England catch up in the wake the Covid-19 pandemic.

Asked whether he preferred the proposal of extending the school day or shortening the summer holidays, Mr Gibb said: "We just have to leave no stone unturned in making sure that we can help those young people catch up from the lost education."

Mr Gibb told MPs that Sir Kevan would be looking at all the "ideas and potential proposals for how we can ensure that young people catch up."

He added that further details on how the extra £300m fund for catch-up will be allocated would be announced "shortly".

He also suggested the funding would not be tied rigidly to only academic tutoring.

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Image caption,
Schools were told to close for most pupils at the start of January

Mr Gibb added: "As a government, we are absolutely determined that no child or young person will have detriment to their life chances as a result of this pandemic."

He said that while schools had successfully provided a remote education for pupils, this was "never as good" as being with their teachers and friends in class.

Nick Brook of the National Association of Head Teachers said there were "better methods to help pupils than lengthening the school day".

He warned against "loud calls for superficially attractive schemes".

Left behind white pupils

Mr Gibb was appearing before MPs to give evidence about what the Department for Education was doing to help left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

He said the issue of poor academic achievement in this group was about poverty, not ethnicity, and that it was "poverty that then translates into low expectations".

"Whatever the level of poverty is in society, there should not be a poverty of low expectations," he said.

"And the way you break the cycle of poverty is to make sure young people, whatever their background, leave school well educated and able to fulfil their potential."

He told MPs the challenge was to overcome "fatalistic assumptions" about low achievement.

But Conservative MP Tom Hunt said there was evidence of a "specific issue" with underprivileged white pupils doing worse in schools than disadvantaged children from other backgrounds.

Labour's Ian Mearns suggested there needed to be more attention to different regional patterns in underachievement - including areas with a higher proportion of disadvantaged white children.

Jonathan Gullis also asked why if this underachievement was "just about poverty and income" why white children on free school meals were "not keeping pace" compared with similarly disadvantaged children from ethnic minorities.

The MP for Stoke-on-Trent North said the way that ministers "aren't addressing specifically white working class pupils feels that this is part of the problem. It's a taboo subject".