'The UK needs to make up for lost teaching and playing - before it's too late'


A school boy reading a book at a table

In the opinion piece below, Professor Ian Walker, an Education Economist from Lancaster University Management School, discusses the impact Covid-19 will have on early education, and what steps can be taken to ensure children can catch up on what they've missed - before it's too late.

As schools across the country gradually re-open, we also need to think about how to help children catch up on what they have lost.

We know quite a lot about the importance of schooling. Missing schooling is known to have adverse effects on skills – both cognitive and non-cognitive. We know this from various sources. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for example, runs the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which offers comparable testing for children around the world. This has been running for 50 years in as many as 50 countries. PISA results are known to vary by the amount of schooling – some countries teach much less than others, and it shows in their PISA scores. Similar differences have been noted in New York City schools that have adopted longer school days. We know too – from 'snow days' – that bad US winters close schools for days or even weeks at a time. Comparing bad years with those that have good winters, we know that even short absences make a difference to year-to-year performance.  Flu-induced absences matter, and poorly controlled asthma is also associated with worse educational outcomes. 

We don’t have a natural experiment that has ever reduced the school year by a whole 3 months or more (many English pupils and almost all US students will be out for 6 months this year) – but extrapolating from the various pieces of evidence we do have, it would be surprising if test scores in maths were not significantly lower – on average – because of the loss of 3 months of schooling. Maths skills, which are known to be one of the most important determinants of earnings in later life, tend to suffer from interrupted schooling more than most subjects. Understanding maths builds through practicing on similar but progressively more difficult problems. Miss the start and you miss it all. Miss the end and you only half understand the start. More importantly, all the evidence points to large differences across children – some children will be hit much worse. Their parents may not in a good position to compensate for the schooling their children have missed – so they fall even further behind. And even clever parents with better resources and more time may be a poor substitute for a professional teachers. 

We also know that early schooling is particularly important – you learn a lot between the ages 5 - 7. Indeed, 'skills beget skills'. What you learn early in your life helps you learn the tougher stuff later on. And it really matters when you learn – for at least some of what you learn. For example, missing out on the formation of literacy skills makes you a poor reader and writer now – and this can stay with you for life. Catching up is particularly hard because your brain moves on, and it may no longer be so amenable to acquiring basic skills. 

So, the top priority should be to get young children back into learning as soon as is safely possible. The best schools are going to be better at reorganising themselves and will be ready sooner – reinforcing the social gradient effect. But schools that are late to the party could, potentially, stay open longer through the summer – bringing help to those badly affected during lockdown so as to reduce the widening gap of disadvantage.

But, all children have missed out on playing and socialising with friends and wider family, as well as literacy and numeracy. Perhaps most, if not all, schools should be encouraged to stay open through the summer. Teachers could be paid whatever it takes to keep them at the chalkface. And it will be important to get parents involved to generate social and sports activities to complement catch-up activity. Unfortunately, for many parents their jobs may be disappearing over the next few months. So, Government could step up to hire the willing and able young Mums and Dads, as well as the professional trainers and coaches that will be continuing to have a lean time as long as social distancing persists.  For many, summer holidays, now unaffordable, will be on hold. So parents might be happy to sign up their children if they don’t have jobs to go back to, and those who do have jobs to go back to, will be happy that to know that their children are safely cared for.

One of the groups first to return are year 6 pupils - those preparing to transition to secondary. They need to re-learn what they may have forgotten, so they don’t start secondary school behind the curve. Getting back on track will be hard – especially for the least advantaged. For these, but also for other underperforming children, additional tutoring in small groups might help. Parents who can afford it will keep private tutors busy, but most regular schoolteachers will probably be working flat out - so it might be expensive to elicit more time from them. But, just as retired health professionals responded to the nation’s call for help, it may be possible to tempt retired, or retiring, teaching professionals into returning too.

Evidence points to an ‘average’ pupil suffering significant impact to their overall skills as a result of the pandemic. But more worrying still is the variance in this. There should be deeper concern for the minority of more badly affected pupils. In part, this will be driven by disadvantage - but a broader range of children will be suffering. The effects from the widening gap in the skills of such children could be long-lasting – and care will be needed to ensure that extra support is supplied on the basis of intellectual need, rather than financial need.

Travel limitations and money shortages mean it’s unlikely children will get the sort of rich experiences they may have wished for this summer. So, when we are safely able to, introducing a form of summer school could not only help them with their education, but also offer social interaction away from the screens they might otherwise be glued to.

Rather than relying upon the professionalism of teachers and their instinct to go above and beyond for the children who need it, dedicated resources from the Government over the summer period could help teachers, parents and other professionals make up the time that will otherwise be lost.

I hope that Whitehall will be ready for more than just getting back to school. Resources to pay teachers, parents, and other professionals to run, subject to safety constraints, summer schools for many, and small group support for some, could be invaluable in ensuring that underperforming pupils could get what they need to catch-up. 

This will be a lucrative investment opportunity for the government, to rebuild human capital and skills. Providing free lunches and wrapping all this around exercise and play that many children will also have missed, will lessen pressure on their parents who are trying to rebuild their lives.

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