Teaching Support - A Lifeline for Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 30 September 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Coronavirus

In recent articles in this column the impact on disadvantaged pupils caused by the lockdown and closure of schools has been graphically set out. Most worrying has been the widening of the attainment gap between the high achievers and those who were already struggling to keep up with the baseline targets of pass grades in GCSE English and Mathematics which are the gateway to higher education and employment.

The BBC are now reporting that 300 teaching positions are to be created in Northern Ireland specifically to help disadvantaged children catch up with learning lost during the lockdown as part of the £11.2m Engage programme announced in June by the Department of Education.  The scheme is designed to provide the vital assistance schools have asked for as they seek to address the needs of children and young people who have lost out during this unique year through disadvantage or lack of effective home learning.  The scheme was due to run until March, but the Education Minister has  said that he hopes to secure a further £4.8m to allow the programme to continue until the end of the school year as the Northern Ireland Executive is aware of, "the potential long lasting impact in terms of pupil achievement". Peter Weir’s statement sets this out as follows;

"I am determined that, during what has been a most challenging time, every pupil in Northern Ireland should receive the support they need to help them engage with learning, to enhance wellbeing to ensure that they can all reach their full potential."

It is gratifying to see that the Executive has recognised the scale of the problem facing schools as they struggle to make up for the learning lost during the last part of the previous school year. I am sure schools will welcome this answer to their urgent pleas for help. It is also good to see that this move will provide work for the hundreds of newly qualified teachers here. It is a classic “win – win” solution to some of the current problems we face.

The Irish news has reported that the amount of money available will vary depending on school size and the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals. It added that there is expected to be a degree of flexibility afforded to schools in how they can use the money. The newspaper also reported that the investment means schools can offer fixed-term contracts to substitute teachers and it confirms that as many as 300 teachers will benefit.

So how should this support be best utilised?

In November 2015 the Department of Education in England published a briefing for school leaders based on NFER research and current best practice entitled, “Supporting The Attainment of Disadvantaged Pupils”. The Minister responsible at the time, Sam Gyimah MPendorsed the advice by saying; 

“ I was delighted to see this headteachers’ briefing note, summarising the research conducted by NFER on behalf of the Department for Education. The note is a valuable source of evidence about tackling under-achievement among disadvantaged pupils and provides us all with an opportunity to consider how to have the greatest impact with pupil premium funding.”

The paper reflected recent reports published by Ofsted and the Sutton Trust, highlighting that too many disadvantaged pupils who do very well early on later fail to meet their potential in their GCSEs. In this difficult year for schools perhaps it could be a useful checklist for addressing the learning shortfall of pupils as schools reopen.  The advice centres on interviews with senior leaders from more and less successful primary, secondary and special schools and found that those which are more successful in promoting high attainment have a number of things in common.  

More successful schools have an ethos of high attainment for all pupils.  They avoid stereotyping disadvantaged pupils by referring to them as a group, never assuming that all disadvantaged pupils face similar barriers or have less potential to succeed – so a careful review of each underachiever’s needs is recommended.

Next on the list is a focus on good attendance/ mitigating loss of learning time. More successful schools have set up response systems to address this with staff working with families to address any barriers they face in getting their children’s learning back on track.  Hopefully, this will not be such a problem post lockdown but the link to families will be important in reinforcing recovery programmes.

Classroom disruption could be a side effect of pupil inability to cope, so refresher training for staff in behaviour management may be required. Skilled pastoral intervention to help pupils in need of additional emotional or social support, including working with their families may also be warranted.

Setting realistic expectations for improvement is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks in addressing chronic underachievement. Monitoring performance, tailoring teaching and support to suit individual pupils and sharing best practice are obviously good ideas with a focus on providing targeted support for under-performing pupils during curriculum time (as well as providing learning support outside school hours). The best examples quoted in the research advocated seeking out strategies best suited to addressing individual needs, rather than simply fitting pupils into existing support strategies.

Devolving as much responsibility as possible to frontline staff and deploying the best teachers to work with pupils who need the most support seems a useful suggestion. Equally, ensuring that teaching assistants (TAs), are well trained in these strategies in supporting pupils’ learning as well as in specific learning interventions, so that they can provide effective support to individual pupils or small groups is obviously sensible.

Dr Noel Purdy, Director of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement at Stranmillis University College Belfast, writing in June 2020 agrees with these points when he highlights the need for learning support and in particular more funded classroom assistants stating that;

“Providing additional focused learning support without additional funding will simply not be possible …and that,
“for those children who have been engaged in little or no home learning since 23 March, the challenges of re-entering the educational system cannot be overestimated.”

He concludes with a strong plea to government,

“Is this not the moment to invest in educational recovery, to facilitate the purchase of the latest technology (hardware, software, internet access, printers) to enable effective blended learning, to support the efforts of schools to upskill staff through high-quality professional development, and to provide learning support to those in danger of being educationally as well as socially ‘left behind’? There is no quick fix, no silver bullet. Bridging the lockdown learning gap will require vision, courage, tenacity, skill and investment. It is time to get started”

These comments combined with the NFER research underline the urgency and importance of Peter Weir’s timely intervention.


This article is correct at 04/11/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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