Education Recovery Plans - Time For A Rethink?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 9 February 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; Coronavirus; Remote Learning

There is a growing realisation that this pandemic has changed realities in the world of education.  Previously untenable measures like remote learning have been introduced nationally and a radical adjustment to learning styles has had to take place, especially involving the role of technology and home schooling in children’s lives.

Radical changes are happening too in our examination systems and schools are taking primacy in assessing pupils. Rather than seeing this as a problem, we should take the opportunity to review the role of examinations in the key transition points in children’s career and listen more carefully to educational writers like Professor Dylan Rhys Wiliams who specialises in assessment for learning approaches and professional development of teachers.  ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist Stephen Rollett refers to his work in his guidance on how to organise educational recovery for children after the latest lockdown. He stresses that Wiliams warns against falling into the trap of looking for summative assessment to identify gaps on which to base judgements rather than focusing on formative processes to support learning.  He feels that his ‘responsive teaching’ theories have never been more important than at the current time. He urges teachers to be adaptive and responsive to the learning needs of children rather than just testing to see what they don’t know.  

National Education Union Northern Ireland Director Mark Langhammer has recently commented on the need for a rethink on our examinations.

“As its name suggests, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, first introduced in 1988 to replace “O” Levels, has outgrown its original role. A certificate designed to serve as a final record of achievement for those who once left school at 16 now has little or no meaning when all pupils stay on until 18.”

NEU has therefore proposed that during the Covid period GCSE examinations be suspended and the opportunity used to pilot a ‘Transition Year’ similar to that in the Republic of Ireland. Their proposals reference the work of former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson who, in 2004 led a review that proposed an overarching diploma to replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications.

Existing mixed ability teaching will be especially difficult too, where underachievement disparities in classrooms, made worse by social disadvantage or ability differences, has been added to by school closures. The widening achievement gap begs the question about whether children should therefore be grouped in classes by age or by curriculum need?

Rod Grant, headmaster at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh writing in the TES argues powerfully however that moving away from mixed ability teaching approaches would create even greater problems;

Grouping children by ability creates self-confidence issues for those who find themselves in the “bottom” group, over-confidence in those in the “top” group and a middle group that is often ignored by the teacher because he or she is much more concerned with ensuring challenge for the brightest and support for the weakest.”

He also states that recent evidence indicates that ability grouping alone does not raise standards, and in some cases can actually lower them. He argues that this practice can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development. He quotes a study, conducted by University of Nottingham, back in 2002, which concluded that the practice of ability group seating in primary school arrangements should be questioned.

So if classroom arrangements can’t be altered, what restorative approaches are open to schools to address this coming underachievement “tsunami”?

New Zealand researcher and academic John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, found that class size mattered much less than other factors.  He wrote that other measures such as improving teacher effectiveness and higher parental involvement had more of an effect upon learning than the number of pupils in a class. The Pisa international tables confirm this view also suggesting that small class sizes do not necessarily create high-performing education systems. Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, which runs the Pisa research writes that while teachers, parents and policy-makers favour small classes as the key to better education Pisa results actually show no relationship between class size and learning outcomes.

Given that public spending will probably be back to austerity levels after the pandemic it is a reality that it will be too expensive to reduce class sizes as schools would have to recruit more teachers. The countries at the top of the Pisa tables spend money on better quality teachers – for example by offering competitive salaries, investing in professional development and managing teacher workload – rather than on making classrooms smaller.

Returning to ASCL’s Curriculum and Inspection Specialist Stephen Rollett’s published guidance for schools in May 2020 on addressing the gaps in learning caused by school closures, it is useful to look then at some practical cost effective steps.  Being careful about how we frame the conversation about learning deficits in classroom is important Stephen Rollett suggests. Children can pick up quickly on negative language and damage to confidence could unintentionally be done in identifying “gaps” and problems. He suggests that a starting point must be the identification of what pupils do/don’t know. This does not necessarily mean an intensive round of testing and assessments he argues, but rather low-stakes quizzes, small group conversations and good old Q&A to establish baseline knowledge. While there is urgency in finding out where children are, it shouldn’t translate into high stakes testing. Logically he points out that there will be common areas of the curriculum that pupils have understood well, or poorly and these should be identified at a whole class level. Teachers also need to prioritise the key concepts and topics that matter most and concentrate on those.

These ideas will not be news to experienced, skilled teachers but they are a useful checklist against which to measure classroom plans for our longed for “return to normal”. The new partnership with parents, who have had much more involvement in their children’s learning has potential to help with underachievement if it is maintained and refined by schools.


This article is correct at 09/02/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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