Knee-jerk, ill-informed ‘catch up’ plans

Imagine, if you will, a weird race which takes place once each year. The participants in this race have one hour to run as far as they can. Each year, different participants take part and the distance they travel is recorded. Of course, some participants run many miles, while other struggle to keep running the whole time. A few just drop out as they see themselves falling further and further behind the pack, often towards the final minutes of the race when they realise that there is insufficient time left to catch up.

Each year is the same: the average distance run doesn’t vary much, and there are always winners and losers.

And then one year, as the runners near the end of this weird race, a whistle blows and everyone falls into a walking pace. Two minutes later, the whistle blows again and the participants once more break into a run.

When the numbers are crunched, unsurprisingly this year’s racers didn’t quite cover the distance, on average, of previous years’ participants. But, all in all, the gap wasn’t too great. After all, for 58 minutes they had run just as fast as everyone who came before them.

How should we think about the weird race to GCSEs?

Like all metaphors, the one above is only really useful in illuminating quite a specific aspect of reality, but I think it makes the point quite well. What is occupying my mind is how we should consider the disadvantage caused by the interruption to the education of Year 10 students as a result of this pandemic, and what we should do to mitigate these effects.

Lest it is not obvious: in the metaphor, the duration of the race (one hour) represents the time children are in formal education (from reception to GCSEs) whilst the two minutes where the pace is forced to slow to a walk reflects the current period of remote learning, where the ‘pace’ of learning is likely to be somewhat slower (but has certainly not stopped entirely for most). The timings are roughly proportionate, on the basis of a term of students not being in school.

The point made by this metaphor is that we should keep things in proportion. If you believe, as I do, that schooling is a gradual process which supports the development of the child to become an ‘educated’ young adult, then the the entirety of the experience is important, not just the final push towards GCSEs. Children will undoubtedly ‘lose out’ educationally by missing months of school, but as in the metaphorical race, we must keep such losses in proportion. This generation of schooled youth will not emerge as noticeably ‘less educated’ than those previously.

So why does it not feel like this for Year 10?

The problem we are facing is that, whilst the educational ‘gap’ will be relatively small, the ‘gaps’ in GCSE performance may be quite large. Why should this be?

To get our heads around this, we need to think about what GCSEs assess. Do they assess the last two years of formal education, or the entirety of learning since the child started school? Or to use our metaphor, the distance traveled in one hour, or in the last 6 minutes of the race?

This is not an easy question to answer. In some respects, GCSEs assess the entirety of the educational journey. After all, you will really struggle to take any GCSE exams if you cannot read and write (or articulate your thoughts to a scribe). However, other things learnt along the way may hardly help you at all. To some extent, the answer depends on the subject in question. Arguably, students have been building towards GCSE Maths since they started counting, but the actual content which will be tested in the GCSE will only have been encountered in the last few years. Alternatively, in History students may not need much of the knowledge they acquired at primary school or KS3 (like that project you did on the Romans in Year 4 – remember it?). You can claim they have been building the ‘skills’ needed for longer than this, but this claim is only as sound as your belief in transferable skills.

There are all sorts of complex arguments around the extent to which knowledge builds over time in different subject disciplines, therefore we may not agree exactly on how much learning prior to KS4 matters in each subject. However, I think we can agree that although it differs between disciplines, the previous years of education must count for something, but that the actual content being tested is mostly that covered in the last two years of compulsory education.

The reason that this is important is that it helps us understand why a term of disrupted education for a Year 10 student is different to a term of disrupted education for a child in Year 8, 5, or 1. On the one hand, the loss is far greater to the Year 1 child who is experiencing their foundational years of schooling, but the loss of exposure to assessed content for the Year 10 will have a much bigger impact on the GCSE results. The distinction between ‘overall educational impact’ and ‘impact on GCSE results’ is very important. They are not the same thing. This fact gets lost in public discourse about ‘catching up’ Year 10 students.

Why should Year 10 need more ‘catching up’ than other years?

I’ve made the point that the only reason we could logically claim that Year 10 lost time matters more than for younger age groups is because GCSEs disproportionately weight the learning in the last two years of formal schooling. What we are arguing for is to close a GCSE shortfall, not an educational shortfall. But this is really quite illogical. We have arbitrarily made GCSE courses as long and as content-filled as they are, and we can arbitrarily change them if we wish. For example, we could choose to make GCSEs half the size and teach them in one year, over Year 11. The GCSE exam would then test the syllabus covered in this time. In this scenario, we would not be concerned anywhere near a much about Year 10’s GCSE results because they haven’t started GCSEs yet! Alternatively, we could design a 50% bigger GCSE and start it in Year 9. In this scenario, we would also be worrying about how we ‘catch up’ Year 9 with their GCSEs (although as they have missed one term out of a three year course, the ‘gap’ – and therefore the difficulty of catching up – would be less).

Again, I’m playing around with reality here to make the point that we need to be really clear and sensible about what damage has actually been done, and what steps we might reasonably take to mitigate this.

Of course we should be concerned that, all else being equal, this cohort will have learnt less of the GCSE content than previous cohorts. If we put them through the same exams and accurately reflect how well they perform compared to previous cohorts, they will almost inevitably get lower grades. We can’t allow this. Therefore, should we divert huge amounts of resources and effort towards ‘catching up’ this GCSE gap, or simply accept that the overall educational harm done to these students is no more than for any other and adjust our measurements instead? I understand that the grades awarded in an adjusted examination will not be ‘comparable’ to previous cohorts in terms of reflecting what students have learnt, but over time this comparability is an illusion anyway. The content of GCSE syllabuses change, the assessment methods change and the quality of education changes. We can’t honestly say that a grade C achieved 10 years ago in Geography GCSE is comparable to a grade 4 achieved this year, other than that the students who achieved these grades were in a similar rank position in relation to their cohorts.

Okay, if you really insist we need to make up for lost time

Before I am accused of complacency, let me say at this point that I am not against doing something to counter-balance the impact on Year 10 (indeed all) students caused by the pandemic. But we need to think very carefully about what we do.

Among the bad ideas out there are catch-up summer schools. This idea is so bad I do not even know where to start. To rush into this over the summer would be a huge waste of resources. We don’t really know how big the gaps in knowledge are for students, or where those gaps are. We can probably estimate who might need to catch up – mostly those who haven’t engaged well, for whatever reason, in the remote learning offered – but the factors which led to this disengagement will also mean these students are the least likely to access provision over the summer. Drafting in retired teachers or graduates to do this job is also a terrible idea. What these students need is someone who knows them; someone they trust. They also need teachers who have direct and recent experience of the GCSE syllabus and examinations. This isn’t just about cramming stuff into their heads – it is about rebuilding relationships, confidence and the desire to do well. Simplistic interventions won’t deliver.

To begin to imagine a better approach, we should need to be clear about our values and purpose. We have spent years in schools making a hash out of gap-closing. The intervention culture in schools may have closed GCSE gaps to an extent, but has it left students feeling empowered, proud and equipped for the future? And in what state has it left the workforce? Before we lengthen the school day, schedule regular after school catch up classes, and organise holiday seminar programmes, we should question whether our goal is to increase grades in the short term, or create more independent and educated individuals in the longer term.

If the latter, let’s learn from what we have experienced. In a very short space of time, the country’s teaching community has been up-skilled significantly in remote working techniques. We have refined our approach to setting study tasks which students can complete independently and we have learnt to use new technologies. Collectively, we have realised that a national effort to produce high quality resources is highly beneficial, and that many students will gladly access and benefit from such resources. Those students have have engaged have become more independent and resilient. They have learnt that teachers are really useful to them, but also that they can do so much more than they thought by themselves. This new knowledge is very powerful. We have an opportunity to raise our expectations of what students can do by way of independent study, to reinvent aspects of our schooling model, and to achieve far greater efficiency with how we employ our time and expertise as teachers. We don’t need more education: we need better education. This is an opportunity that will be missed if we tie up our time and creative energy in designing intervention programmes.

If we can keep things in perspective, we can improve the fitness levels of all future runners. Education is about going the distance, not a last minute sprint.


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