Lost learning recovery: Evidence does not support extending the school day or year

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Some of the ‘superficially attractive’ ideas being considered for how we can help pupils’ to recover lost learning are simply not supported by the evidence of what works, despairing school leaders have said. Pete Henshaw reports


The rumour-mill has been in full swing over exactly how the government will help young people “catch-up” on learning lost during the pandemic.

The government’s newly appointed education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins – the former chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – said this week that “all ideas were on the table”.

School leaders have urged the government to listen to the experts and have said that speculation is “misconceived and unhelpful”.

It comes after the national media carried reports that ministers are tempted by plans to lengthen the summer term into August, when proper classroom ventilation and outdoor learning are easier.

This plan would, it has been reported, see holidays during the colder months being extended to act as a fire break in case coronavirus resurges next winter.

Further speculation has put forward ideas such as lengthening the school day or even repeating entire school years in order to provide more time to tackle gaps in students’ learning.

However, in a video address to members of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on Tuesday, February 9, general secretary Geoff Barton pointed out that these approaches are ranked as low impact and high cost by the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which summarises evidence for a wide range of education interventions.

  • On extending school time, either the school day or year or via targeted before and after-school programmes, the toolkit says that it is a low impact approach for moderate cost, leading to just two months’ additional progress across the year.
  • On summer schools, the impact is low (two months’ additional progress) for moderate cost.
  • On repeating the school year, the impact is negative (four months’ less progress) for very high cost.

Mr Barton pointed out that many of the high impact strategies listed by the toolkit – feedback (an additional eight months’ progress), metacognition (seven months), reading comprehension (six months), peer tutoring (five months), collaborative learning (five months) – boil down to high-quality teaching and actually cost relatively little.

Referring to the speculation in the national media, he told members: “Largely what you have got is people who have not worked in schools telling those of us who have worked in schools what we ought to be doing.

“If you look at the EEF, when you look at the evidence for repeating a year, the evidence for extending school time, the evidence for summer schools, those are way down on the list for the impact they have even if you compare that with the cost – some of those are relatively high cost and have relatively low impact.

“What are the things that make the biggest impact? Attending to early years teaching – good quality early years teaching, building those skills socially as well as in reading and literacy more broadly.

“Feedback – that’s what teachers do in the classroom all the time. Things like peer tutoring, young people teaching other young people – the kind of thing you can do in a normal classroom rather than after school.”

It should also be pointed out that the EEF is government-funded and schools across England have been encouraged to use the Teaching and Learning Toolkit as a basis for taking decisions about how to spend the Pupil Premium.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is due to set out more details during the week of February 22 about how pupils will recover their lost learning as well as when schools will re-open to all pupils.

Mr Barton is concerned that we might see a number of “policy gimmicks”. Responding to the rumours this week, he added: “The speculation about extending the school day and summer term to help children catch-up with lost learning is misconceived and unhelpful.

“Many schools already run after-school activities and holiday clubs but this is totally different from a blanket requirement to grind out more hours of learning from tired children with the likelihood of diminishing returns.

“The essential element of catch-up support is quality rather than quantity, and schools are very good at identifying learning needs and putting in place the appropriate support.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Research evidence shows that there are better methods to help pupils than lengthening the school day. The government must filter out loud calls for superficially attractive schemes and listen to the experts.”

Sir Kevan, a former teacher, has been appointed to develop a long-term plan to help pupils recover their lost learning “over the course of this Parliament”, including overseeing the government’s £1.3bn lost learning recovery funding, which includes the National Tutoring Programme.

Sir Kevan will be focusing on issues such as curriculum content and quantity of teaching time and, speaking to the BBC this week, he said that all ideas would be considered.

He said: “I don’t think it’s a time to rule things in or out … in the short-term however we are going to have to think hard about the learning time available for children. They’ve missed a lot of time and we are going to have to quickly get new opportunities for those children to catch-up.

“If you're going to secondary school in the next couple of years, it's vital you're reading at the level you will need. We need to step in to support children in some of these critical areas of learning.

"We need to think about the extra hours not only for learning, but for children to be together, to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama because these are critical areas.”

Mr Brook is hopeful that Sir Kevan’s background with the EEF will mean that he adopts an evidence-based approach to his new role.

He explained: “During Sir Kevan’s time at the EEF, it became a valuable source of information about ‘what works’ in education. The EEF’s evidence has shown that when it comes to accelerating pupil progress, there are other steps you can take that have significantly more impact than simply lengthening the school day.

“We look forward to working with Sir Kevan on identifying a long-term strategy, based in evidence, which values extra-curricular activity and personal development alongside academic recovery.”

In his address to members, Mr Barton said that the media speculation was “a diversion from what the evidence says”. He added: “The evidence says let’s get our young people in a planned, phased way back into our schools and colleges … then please let’s let teachers teach. And let’s take a broader view of catch-up – social skills as well.”


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