A question of time? Priorities and considerations for the ‘catch-up’ funding

Written by: Jon Gibson & Ben Slater | Published:
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The Covid catch-up funding should not be used simply to create more ‘time’ for schooling, but should be used to make the most of the time we have and to get students to a place where they can re-engage with their learning. Jon Gibson and Ben Slater explain


This is an academic year that no-one could have predicted and school leaders are at yet another crossroads: while the second wave of the virus begins to take hold, schools must decide how to spend the £650m Covid-19 “catch-up” funding (DfE, 2020).

Over this last period, there has been a sharp focus on the amount of time that most students have not attended formal schooling on site. Some estimates put this at 38 per cent of the last academic year (Mulcahy, Menzies & Shaw, 2020).

The sum total of the time that children spend in school represents that school’s “season of influence” to improve the child’s life-chances. It is natural therefore to look at substituting this lost time. Is it the best bet however for bridging the perceived “learning deficit”?


What is being offered by the DfE?

A combination of universal and targeted additional funding per head is available at different rates for different settings. This £650m “catch-up premium” exists expressly to support children to catch-up with previous lost teaching, although how this is done is at the discretion of school leaders who can “spend their funding in the best way for their cohort and circumstances”. The DfE has also invested £350m into its National Tutoring Programme (NTP), which has also published best practice advice on tutoring practice in schools (NTP, 2020). For more details on the NTP, see the recent article by its director Robbie Coleman for SecEd (2020).


The reshaping of learning

The impact of Covid-19 has been to split the majority of school populations into at least two: those physically attending site and those accessing learning some other way. This has skewed learning design away from traditionally collaborative experiences towards independently accessible ones.

This has also been felt to some degree in the on-site provision as teachers manage groups or bubbles that are “together alone”, distanced from adults, from each other and from the rest of the school population.

Learning in this way can have the following risks:

  • Lots of depth, lots of breadth: Disengagement through “overwhelm”.
  • Lots of depth, little breadth: Disengagement through monotony.
  • Little depth, lots of breadth: Disengagement through stagnation.
  • Little depth, little breadth: Disengagement through irrelevance.

Add to that the reduced capacity to challenge wrong assumptions within a teacher-child dynamic and learning can be a construct that is ready to fall. This all assumes that learning is built on level ground. As we have been reminded all too sharply, the means to learn in each household is very different and will have changed with each week of adapted schooling.

Lockdown experiences: The challenges faced by students during lockdown and when remote learning will vary dramatically – but all will have the potential to affect teaching and learning in the coming months


A question of time

So, to come back to this idea of using our catch-up programmes to substitute this lost learning time. Time for educators represents many different facets of learning design. Any catch-up approach will need to consider this:

  • What are the time requirements for this learning sequence, schema, course?
  • How much time do I have with this class?
  • How much time does each individual receive in terms of adult guidance?
  • What does this adult guidance consist of?
  • How much time is spent in peer or group learning?
  • How much time is spent ineffectively?
  • How do we know what an effective use of time looks like?
  • How much time can we spend on the interesting questions that the children raise?
  • How much time is spent on independent work?
  • How much time is spent on learning outside of the lesson?


A look at the research

To begin to answer these questions we must consider what the research can tell us. For example, many of the early proposals to “catch-up” revolve around “out-of-hours” provision at weekends, during school holidays and by extending school days.

But how different will that be to what children are offered now? How different will that be to what children choose to engage with now? In terms of research evidence, we can look at what we know about summer schools and what makes them effective – or not.

The Centre for Education and Youth notes that effects for traditional and experiential summer programmes are inconclusive. It notes that intensity of programme, deployment of qualified staff, group size, access to one-to-one tuition and explicit instruction of well specified skills were all key aspects of more impactful programmes.

In a report published in May, it recommends that any summer programmes being implemented post-lockdown are seen as part of a larger continuum – across demographics, across hard and soft skills and across key transition points. There are clear lessons here for our approaches to catch-up this term and beyond (Mulcahy, Menzies & Shaw, 2020).

The evidence also shows us that time does not proportionally equate to progress and is not equally effective across the demographic. In an article last year, Paul von Hippel revisited his previous research on summer learning loss and questioned its outcomes (von Heppel, 2019).

He concludes that learning slows rather than is lost during the summer. He notes that holiday programmes can be used to shrink achievement gaps but that these are the gaps that are present from the first day of formal schooling – not necessarily gaps that occur due to lost learning time once at school.

Even the Education Endowment Foundation cannot ignore that the data on this question does not make a solid case for simply increasing learning time (EEF, 2020a & 2020b).

The EEF suggests that single strategy catch-up is unlikely to be effective. However, schools should also avoid “initiative overload” as well.

Its research summaries conclude that settings should look at how to create ways in which the elements of good teaching (clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback, for example) are present in the teaching strategy. This is more important than the mode of delivery.

Also important, the EEF says, are strategies for maximising safe attendance and clearly defining loss of learning and loss of fluency in order to better focus the interventions.

Elsewhere, the National Youth Agency notes that vulnerable young people are becoming more detached from their schools. In addition, millions of young people have had emerging needs triggered or existing needs amplified by the current crisis.

Separation from school for many has meant separation from services, parent support, guaranteed food, social networks as well as learning opportunities. Having an invitation to an open school is different from having an exit strategy from lockdown. While the report refers to a pre-summer scenario, much is still relevant (NYA, 2020).


Where next?

So, as a school leader, what do you do? Provide time with external tutors? Provide time with volunteering (and very tired) staff? With no guarantees of reach or take-up? It should be noted that one of the key messages from the National Tutoring Programme is that tutoring should happen during the school day. This very much circles round to a consideration of “best use of existing time” rather than “creating additional time”.

Is the funding, therefore, really a question of time? Or is the funding an opportunity to work on getting students to the best place possible to engage with learning in whatever mode we deliver it? We can’t influence everything, but we can influence:

  • The best use of smaller groupings and one-to-one in school.
  • The technological equity of our households.
  • The confidence of adults at home to promote learning; they are, after all, the child’s first and enduring educators (as described in the Early Learning Goals).
  • Access to food.
  • Access to support for trauma.
  • Access to housing advice.

This current pandemic has not finished its course. There is no guarantee that a new pandemic will not beset us. We can build an online platform. We can build a programme of tutoring. Let us not forget one thing. We can build a community that faces adversity better than before. That is time well spent.


  • Jon Gibson is director and lead consultant at Backdrop Education Services. He is a former teacher, an experienced SENCO and a senior leader in mainstream and special schools.
  • Ben Slater is founder and lead consultant at Fiveways Devon. He is a former teacher, an experienced head, governor, mentor and mental health instructor. He is a chaplain at an Exeter school and runs mental health training for the Diocese of Exeter.


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