Running on empty: why the school community needs a break this summer more than ever

Nicola West Jones
Our recent survey of school leaders, which found that only 18% of schools were planning to run provision during the summer holidays, comes as no surprise. In my role as Head of Market research, I have heard countless stories in interviews with school leaders over the last 16 months, that they and their teaching staff are running on empty. This was already the case as they limped to the finish line of last year’s summer holiday.  A year on, having worked around bubbles, remote learning, testing, new assessment rules and a new, dominant variant, the tank has completely run dry for our teaching profession. 

Where workload has increased, mental health issues have followed, with a recent NASUWT survey showing that 8 in 10 teachers feel their job has adversely affected their mental health in the last 12 months. The summer holidays, while not the “6 weeks of sitting on a beach” that some people would like to believe teachers experience, is an essential opportunity for staff to catch their breath (as well as sorting out their classroom and supplies, planning for next year and, with exam year staff, dealing with grades and outcomes).

Teacher wellbeing is cited by staff as one of the main reasons for not laying on any summer school-type provision suggested by the government.

But in addition, school leaders told us that the wellbeing of pupils is also a big factor. Much has been made of how much pupils have “lost” during the pandemic, and while this may be true as measured by assessment data, or topics that have been covered with a video rather than a practical experiment, most pupils will not feel that they’ve spent the last year and a bit twiddling their thumbs. They’ve “shown up”, they’ve completed the tasks set for them and they’ve battled on, often without support, or with the “wrong support” (parents: we’re not judging you; you did your best too).

The issue is, “Teaching and learning” has been turned on its head, and in many cases the output (the learning) has been below par. While teachers did their level best to provide an online equivalent to what pupils would be doing in school, the usual pedagogical approaches, such as differentiation, or assessment for learning, were drastically reduced in a Teams or Google Classroom environment. This is not the fault of the pupils. It is not down to laziness on their part, or a lack of will from their teachers. And Headteachers have similarly taken that attitude – despite a lower-than-normal output, the same, if not greater, effort has been put in, and the pupils, like their teachers, need their summer to recover, and reset for September.

So, if schools are not using the 6 weeks ahead of them, what are they doing instead to close the gap?

The option of extending the school day has been mooted by ministers, however three quarters of the Heads in our survey told us that they are unable to do that – with lack of budget a massive factor (54% believe the Covid-19 catch-up fund is not sufficient to support successful pupil catch-up in their school).

With additional time in the holidays, and additional time after the normal school day, both off the table, the only real alternative is to pack in that additional learning during the school day itself. However, 43% told us that one of the main barriers to that is lack of time in the school day, which is already jam-packed. Yet, under the new(ish) Ofsted Inspection Framework, making sure the school is offering a broad and balanced curriculum is key. As such, the school that decides to sideline the history, the design and technology, the PE and the arts, in favour of catching-up in other subjects, is not only leaving themselves badly exposed at their next inspection for a downgrade, but is woefully letting down its students in preparing them for their future. And Heads seem fully aware of this.

Our survey found that the most common way to support pupils to catch-up, is by running extra small-group teaching sessions during term time, lead by their own staff (chosen by 73% of respondents).

In other words, having a near-time grip on assessment data to know exactly which pupils need support on what and then taking them off for short periods to work with skilled practitioners and peers working at the same level, to close the gap. 

At least, this is the dream. It takes sophisticated assessment systems, skilled analysis, and a heap of money to cover the additional skilled practitioners and the space for them to work in. And that money, as Kevan Collins, our one-time Catch-up Tsar, found out, is in very short supply. The answer is, there is no easy answer, and schools are going to be grappling with this for many years to come. 

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