A A DECADE BEFORE Bowling Park Primary was one of the worst performing schools in England. Its district south of Bradford is one of the poorest in England. One fifth of the pupils are Roma, who tend to perform worse in school than any other group. But a turnaround that began in 2008 dragged test scores up to the national average. The progress of students from 7 to 11 is more important than almost anywhere else.
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Covid-19 has hit hard, says school principal Matthew Langley. Large families and small homes have contributed to the spread of the virus. Some students spent a quarter of the last school year isolating themselves, in addition to two months of distance learning at the start of the pandemic, when all classrooms in England were closed. “It’s like we’ve hit a brick wall,” says Langley, “and now we have to go back. “
As children return to school after summer vacation, the effects of the closures of the past two years worry school principals and the government. A recent study suggests that in March, elementary school students were about two months behind in reading and more than three months behind in math. It also offered grounds for optimism: during the relatively uninterrupted period of last fall, students began to make up for some of their earlier losses. But the averages mask large variations. Almost all schools, says Sammy Wright, a member of a government advisory group on social mobility, will have 5-10% of children who have been “devastated” by the disruption.
Lack of sports, school trips and other character-building activities affected the confidence of underprivileged students, Langley said. And the pandemic has amplified the kinds of daily difficulties that distract them from their studies. Across the country, the number of people poor enough to qualify for free meals rose 20.6% in the year to January. Even under normal circumstances, disadvantaged children waste more time than others because of common problems such as toothaches, says Mark Mon-Williams of the Bradford Institute for Health Research. These will have worsened as services were cut or suspended during the closures.
The government has promised schools additional funding equal to around £ 310 ($ 427) per pupil. That’s just over a month of spending in 2020 on a program that subsidized people to eat out. In June, Sir Kevan Collins, a former teacher and head of the council hired to advise the government on its catch-up strategy, resigned when he learned that only a tenth of the £ 15bn in additional funding he had requested would be made available.
Sir Kevan had wanted to increase school spending by around 10% over the next three years, with more than half to be used to add half an hour to the standard school day. The idea was to devote time to confidence-building activities, such as sports, music and drama, which risk being squeezed out as schools scramble to catch up with the basics. Overtime would have been mandatory, as volunteer activities are more likely to be ignored by those who need it most. In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said more money could be announced later this year. But the Treasury, faced with a post-pandemic black hole in the budget, would be less enthusiastic.
One reason is that many education researchers doubt that longer school days do much to improve outcomes, at least in normal times. They tend to recommend better use of existing time, especially because it’s cheaper. Many teachers and school leaders, meanwhile, fear that a heavier workload will not fully translate into additional pay. Rather, they argue for programs for students with the greatest learning deficits, as well as the freedom for each school to develop its own plans. In the Netherlands, where the catch-up money is more generous by £ 2,500 per pupil, the government has given guidance on how much to spend, but has not set firm rules.
In Bradford, Langley worries that a lot of the catch-up talk has focused on “short-term solutions” to support test results. Covid-19 disrupted schooling much longer than expected; its after-effects will also persist. He has no doubts that Bowling Park will surpass the damage caused by the pandemic. “But it won’t be in two or three years. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Back to basics”