School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have posed exceptional challenges for teachers, parents and children. Whilst the re-opening of schools will signal a sense of relief to some, the difficulties are by no means over. Putting aside the hurdle of getting everyone back into school safely, there’s the added challenge of planning teaching and learning support for children who have been absent for so long. We’re here to help you – we will look at the evidence around variable home learning environments and potential learning loss, and suggest some next steps to help get learning back on track.
The home learning environment – during lockdown and back to school
During normal times, the home learning environment plays an important role in supporting teaching and learning in school. In March the home learning environment was catapulted to the unexpected and unenviable position of playing a pivotal role in supporting children’s learning outside the classroom. However, there is huge variability in home learning environments, especially considering the current challenges. There are differences in the quality of carer–child interactions, the extent to which children can participate in learning activities and the quality of the learning support and supervision that children can access. There are also disparities in the availability of learning materials – not just electronic devices, which so many families are using to support their children’s education, but also in the availability of books which are vital to support Reading and Language development.
The many challenges facing children and teachers have been widely reported, and it is clear that the home learning experience will be extremely varied. Some children will have had high levels of parental support, ready access to learning materials and achieved up to 4–5 hours teaching daily; others will not have done any structured learning since schools closed in March. The Sutton Trust (April 2020) has identified significant gaps in home learning – 44% of pupils in middle-class homes were reported to spend more than 4 hours per day learning, compared with 33% in socio-economically disadvantaged families. There are also stark differences in the ability to access online learning tools, with children from disadvantaged homes being less likely to have adequate access to electronic device for learning from home. When you consider that these children are also less likely to have access to other learning materials and high-quality support, it is clear that some families will be struggling to keep their children’s learning on track.
From June, some children will start returning to the classroom. However, it is estimated that only 50% of children will return at first, with the remainder still being home-schooled. When children do return, they will have been away from regular schooling for many months. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the ‘summer dip’ whereby children’s learning falls back over the long summer holiday. Although lockdown is not a holiday, and ideally all children will have been learning from home, the reality is that home learning is not the same as being at school.
It is difficult to estimate the impact school closures will have. One thing is certain – the impact on learning will not be comparable for all children. It will also not be equivalent for every element of the curriculum. In a recent research review, Stewart et al (2018) reported that the summer learning loss is greatest in subjects that require factual and procedural knowledge such as Maths and Spelling, compared with Reading. They also note that the summer learning loss appears to be greatest for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with learning difficulties and children for whom English is an additional language.
So, how can we support the varied needs of all pupils?
As primary schools re-open, teachers will need an effective and efficient way to establish what learning has taken place during lockdown as well as what learning has been remembered since before lock down, and in turn what teaching and learning support is needed. It is at times like these that robust and reliable assessments are invaluable. Assessments can help to quickly evaluate progress and pinpoint specific areas of need, which can be used to plan whole-class teaching and tailored individual support. I have to admit to being a real champion of good assessments – I have spent the last 30 years working in educational assessment. Fresh out of university, I regularly used assessments to evaluate children’s Reading and Language skills. I then moved into assessment development and now specialise in developing educational assessments.
Most schools will already use some form of rigorous assessment to provide a baseline measure of attainment and to monitor progress. Carrying out Reading, Maths and Spelling assessments when children return to school will provide useful insights into what learning has taken place over the preceding months. This will help to identify whether learning is still on track, or if it has stagnated or regressed. However, choosing the most appropriate assessment for your purpose is key. Does it provide the detail you need, such as measuring specific skills, so that profiles of strengths and weaknesses can be examined? For example, if a child scores below average on a Maths test, you will want to know why. Is the child struggling with all elements of Maths or are there specific concepts that they find difficult? Even average scores can mask difficulties in some areas that are offset by strengths in other areas. It is this detailed understanding of ‘how’ a child performed that will help to ensure that work is appropriately differentiated and targeted. This is especially important in the current context and will help teachers to understand a pupil’s profile quickly and in detail, enabling them to identify the appropriate support just as quickly.
The Oxford National Curriculum Tests enable schools to accurately assess their pupil’s knowledge and understanding of National Curriculum content from Year 2 to 6. In more normal times, they are an excellent tool for evaluating whether pupils are on track to meet expectations. In the current landscape, however, it is their detailed insights that teachers are likely to find most valuable. The tests cover English (with Reading and GPS) and Maths, and provide question-by-question analysis, which really helps teachers to understand each child’s strengths and weaknesses by curriculum strand, as well as evaluating overall class performance. This comprehensive analysis will help you make valid and trustworthy judgements about the key areas of learning that need to be targeted, pinpoint areas for review and identify what teaching and learning support is needed to get each child to the next stage. This will be particularly useful now when pupil learning will have been variable. Remember, whilst some children will have regressed (perhaps considerably) and you will need to make sure that the work isn’t too difficult, others may have benefitted from the individual attention of home learning and may need to be challenged. Some children will be anxious (not just about the schoolwork). Setting work at the appropriate level of difficulty will help to build confidence and make the most effective use of teaching and learning opportunities while children settle back into school. A rigorous assessment will help you to pitch the teaching and learning appropriately and plan the next steps. For example, is there an urgent need to intervene and teach a missing concept or area of understanding, or is there a way this can be planned in and pre-taught in the coming term?
The impact of school closures won’t be temporary and there is no quick fix to get learning back on track. Teachers are likely to need short- and long-term strategies for dealing with the attainment gaps, and those needs will never have been more urgent or diverse. Good quality assessments can, however, support teachers’ professional judgements and help in transitioning back to normal classroom teaching and supporting each child to progress to the next stage.
Dr Sue Stothard is an independent Educational Assessment Consultant. She has considerable experience and expertise working within the fields of psychology and education, including as a Chartered Psychologist, Researcher and Assessment Developer. Sue has led many projects developing new educational assessments, including nationally standardised Reading tests for Primary and Secondary school pupils and GCSE curriculum-mapped digital assessments.
Our series of Oxford National Curriculum Tests can support you as baseline tests by
- Providing easy to administer tests in Reading, Grammar & Punctuation, Spelling, and Maths developed by subject and assessment experts
- Identifying gaps in their knowledge and skills against the National Curriculum expectations for the previous academic year
- Accessing reliable and comprehensive data to inform your ongoing teaching and learning
Find out more with our full guide here >
Cullinane, C & Montacute, R (April 2020). COVID-19 and Social Mobility. Impact Brief #1: School Shutdown. The Sutton Trust Research Brief.
Stewart, H, Watson, N & Campbell, M (2018). The cost of school holidays for children from low-income families. Childhood, 25, 516–529.