Schools could be working to help children catch up on education for at least five years, according to the educator appointed to help young people in England recoup learning lost during the pandemic.
Sir Kevan Collins, who was announced as the government’s education recovery tsar last week, said children’s learning had suffered a “profound shock” and would require “a number of years”, as well as extensive further funding and “creative” new approaches to the curriculum, to recover.
The timescale demonstrates the scale of the setback for a generation of young people, who the government hopes will begin to return to school after March 8 following more than a year of disruption.
Collins said it was too early to say exactly what programme of measures he would recommend, but said extending learning time into the holidays or with additional hours in the school day were among the options “on the table”.
Teachers could also be trained to incorporate catch-up into normal school lessons or more learning could take place at home with parental support. As well as academic study, Collins said catch-up would include extracurricular activities such as drama, music and sport, and wellbeing support.
“Quality in education does trump quantity,” he said. “This is a long game, it isn’t going to be sorted out quickly . . . you can imagine it definitely being in the next four or five years. Then, I don’t really know.”
Data from the Education Endowment Foundation — a charity formerly led by Collins — demonstrates the scale of the catch-up challenge. By autumn last year, six- to seven-year-olds were two months behind at school compared with 2017, and the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers had widened to seven months.
To help, the government has so far committed £1.3bn, which has funded a national tutoring programme and been distributed directly to schools. But Collins said more would be needed to properly fund the catch-up.
“It’s a good start, but that’s what it is. I am clear the recovery will require more investment than that,” he said. A better allocation of resources, including to non-academic activities and to the most disadvantaged children, was also crucial, he added.
“The ambition we have is not just to soften the blow but to actually recover — and to also use the recovery as a platform to go further,” he said. “If when we go back we don’t reorient what we’re doing, the gap will widen.”
After months of hostility between teachers and the government over schools opening, unions have expressed unease over possible plans to extend the school day or year to make room for catching up.
But educators have welcomed Collins’ appointment and believe it may foster a better relationship between schools and the Department for Education.
A former teacher, he has built a trustworthy reputation and advised the last Labour government on education before being made chief executive of Tower Hamlets borough council then joining the Education Endowment Foundation.
He said teachers were “our most important resource” and should be given support, resources and training as part of a “school-led recovery” tailored to local needs.
Schools would also be encouraged to include a “full range of child development — competitive sport, drama, play” in catch-up efforts.
“We need to be reminded of the benefits of school that are not just academic, but for children are a crucial part of growing up and being the citizens we want them to be,” Collins said. “These things don’t exist in opposition — it’s a reciprocal relationship.”
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union, which represents teachers, said she was “reassured” by Collins’ commitment beyond academic catch-up. “He’s a very good person to be doing this job,” she said.
Catch-up efforts may also extend beyond the school gates. Parents could be encouraged to be more involved in their children’s learning, Collins said. And universities, colleges and employers should assess how school leavers may have lost learning and support them to catch up with additional training or classes.
“It’s not going to be sorted without being quite radical about what we do,” he added.