Covid recovery: A broad curriculum for all

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
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Schools must heed the government’s call to teach an ‘ambitious and broad curriculum’ from September. We cannot constrict our focus to core subjects or knowledge, says Deborah Lawson

More than 70 school days have been lost to coronavirus – almost 40 per cent of the academic year – and as we return, en masse, to our schools and colleges in September, there will be a great deal to do to support students, to help them to make sense of it all, and to return them to a world of learning.

But should we try to catch up? Is it even possible? And who will it benefit most?

According to government guidance for full opening (DfE, 2020), schools should “teach an ambitious and broad curriculum in all subjects” and “prioritisation within subjects of the most important components for progression is likely to be more effective than removing subjects”

It adds: “In particular, schools may consider how all subjects can contribute to the filling of gaps in core knowledge, for example through an emphasis on reading.”

“Core knowledge” is a phrase that is open to interpretation. It supposes that there is a thread which runs through the entire curriculum and which all students must know at the end. This is not something which is clearly stated or assessed or measurable, but it is likely to mean a focus on English and maths.

And so, is this “ambitious and broad curriculum” at risk of constriction in favour of “core subjects”? While many would argue that English and maths are subjects vital to unlocking future learning, the role and place of other subjects, including the arts, must also be recognised – not least because of their impact on student mental health and wellbeing.

Students will return having completed different amounts of learning, and schools and academies will have to assess this before they can begin to address any gaps.

In addition, there will be a deep need for students to share their experiences – good and bad – to voice their feelings and to seek to have their concerns addressed. The need to provide mental health support has never been greater, and yet access to professional services has never been more difficult.

More than half of all mental ill health disorders start before the age of 14, with 75 per cent having begun by age 24 (Kessler, 2007). And according to the Local Government Association, there were more than 338,000 children referred to CAMHS in 2017, but less than a third received any form of treatment within the year; around 75 per cent of young people are forced to wait so long that their condition got worse or they were unable to access any treatment at all (LGA, 2020).

So rather than curriculum constriction, maybe what is needed is curriculum expansion to support the recovery of students and meet their needs.

According to education secretary Gavin Williamson, the £650 million universal catch-up fund is designed to “make sure that every young person, no matter their age or where they live, gets the education, opportunities and outcomes they deserve”.

Any constriction now, even legitimised as “catch-up”, is unlikely to allow students to recover all of their missed learning, and actually may disadvantage some by impacting upon subject choices in future GCSE years.

We have an opportunity to reflect and refresh. To consider what needs to change to make the best of our post-Covid world.

A world where Ofsted is a force for positive improvement, working in partnership to hold schools to account and celebrating their successes rather than being hypercritical.

Where staff performance is measured not purely on data and numbers. Where teacher assessment regains its place in public confidence and is valued as a meaningful measure of achievement alongside examinations.

In the future, when we look back – with 2020 vision – what will have emerged from the crisis? We have an opportunity – let's grab it with both hands and make a change for the better, for all.

  • Deborah Lawson is general secretary of Voice.

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Guidance for full opening – schools, July 2, 2020:
  • Kessler et al : Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders. In World Mental Health Survey Initiative, World Health Organisation, World Psychiatry (6), 2007.
  • LGA: CAMHS Facts and Figures, accessed July 2020:


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