Avoiding the “Catch up Narrative” in Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 19 March 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Coronavirus; School Return; Easing of Restrictions

The Department of Education has issued guidance to schools to help deal with the issues of potential lost learning across the pupil population in Northern Ireland during the pandemic.  It accepts the reality that the long-term effect of the current unprecedented disruption on learning is difficult to estimate and that children in the same class will have had very different home experiences during the period of remote learning and require different remedies.

"We equally recognise that the 'catch-up' narrative can place unnecessary pressure and anxiety on children."

Pupils may be able to be given information and knowledge relatively easily to make up for curriculum content which they have missed, but it is the developmental shortfall which will be more problematic to address.  The guidance recommends that schools needed to support children to "reconnect socially, build positive relationships and engage enthusiastically with learning".

"The vision is for a balanced day where children are ready to learn and feel able to re-connect."

The important point is stressed that children may have experienced different types of problems and disadvantages during the pandemic, including for example, deteriorating relationships with their peers. Reduced physical activity may also have had an impact on their health and fitness and therefore at least two hours per week of physical education (PE) and outdoor activity should have a "central role" for pupils. 

So How Do We Find Out What Individual Children Need and Provide Appropriate Support?

The Children’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland, Koulla Yiasouma, speaking on Radio Ulster’s Nolan show recently pushed back firmly Stephen Nolan’s argument that bringing pupils into school over the summer break to “catch up” was a reasonable suggestion. She rightly pointed out that we cannot just assume that all children need the same help and that force feeding them facts can fix the problem.  Mental health charity Young Minds warns that it can be hard to know how children and young people will be feeling and coping as they return to school, so it can be useful to focus on two elements.

The first is to help pupils acknowledge feelings and learn to express their emotions, have them accepted and realise that they are not alone. My own experience of working as a pastoral care teacher was that young people and adults too can have a limited emotional vocabulary – especially here in Northern Ireland and therefore struggle to articulate feelings and deal effectively with them. This is sadly evidenced by the appallingly high suicide and self-harm rates among our young people. So, helping pupils talk about how they are feeling and developing the skills to properly identify the root causes of negative emotions would be important.

Young Minds offer very useful tips about how to help young people with these types of issues if you follow this link:

For example, they offer advice on combating social anxiety which can make even everyday activities like going to school or seeing friends difficult.  They suggest one particularly useful exercise if a pupil is not ready to speak to someone yet. Get the child to write a letter to themselves explaining how they are feeling and why. The pupil should be encouraged to be as open and truthful as they can be. Then, a few days later, they could read it back and imagine that someone else had written it and think about how they would help them.

Another useful tip recommended by Young Minds ishelping pupils to find something like a hobby or an activity that they are really passionate about. Finding an interest to focus on gives them something to look forward to when they get home from school or at the weekend. It can make the school day easier as if they feel uncomfortable at school, they know that there will be something good happening later.

The second element suggested by Young Minds is that pupils can be helped to develop a sense of hope and resilience in the future. Again there are great ideas and resources on the website about how to talk to children about resilience and coping with the current challenges.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of ASCL has commented on the report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) on catch up plans for schools across the UK, warning that more funding needs to be put into catch-up support in schools as we come out of the coronavirus pandemic. He articulates the anxieties of school leaders when he says that the investment so far announced is simply not enough to meet the scale of the challenge caused by a year of disruption to the education of millions of children. Sadly, once again as with the shameful pay offer to NHS staff, it may take genuine public anger to force the government to reprioritise financial decisions in the public services.
Geoff Barton has rightly challenged the government’s underwhelming proposals, by stating that;

“schools don’t need policy gimmicks, such as proposals rumoured in the media to be under consideration in England for extended school days and a longer summer term. What schools need is sufficient funding to be able to provide high-quality, targeted support for the pupils who have fallen behind”. 

His comments chime perfectly with the views of The Children’s Commissioner already mentioned and he also questions the “ quick fix “ proposals of bringing children in for extra classes during the summer break. There is a much bigger problem that needs addressing than some missed lessons and awful though it has been, this interruption in normal life has given us an opportunity to look afresh at the way our education system is structured and funded.

We can see much more clearly now how the attainment gap between children in different socio-economic circumstances has arisen and we have a chance to address it by focussing on the needs of individual children and properly resourcing the classroom support workforce to remedy it. Just as the terrible strain on the Health Service brought about reorganisations unthinkable in normal times this is a moment to pause and think!


This article is correct at 19/03/2021

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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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