Imagine the scene. Young people already disengaged from education, living in inadequate and/or impoverished housing – bereft of personal computers and home-learning equipment – are told to attend school during the summer holidays to “catch up”.
As they trudge their reluctant way to school, they pass their peers – their more affluent, academically capable friends as they make their way to the local park to play or socialise together. Or maybe these more fortunate friends of the “Catch Up Kids” are going out on a family trip to the seaside or a museum or the cinema.
Imagine a young person on a Saturday morning going off to school whilst their friends are gathering to go bowling or swimming or shopping or off to a football match.
Imagine a young child with learning difficulties who desperately wants some free time – time to express themselves in playtime – learning how to socially interact, to share, to empathise – only to find that as soon as they’ve finished their lunch they’re expected to return to the classroom to “catch up” on the learning they couldn’t cope with in the morning session of school.
In narrowing the gap, in playing catch up, there’s the potential for further polarisation, indeed alienation. There’s the expense of other learning experiences and the development of important social and emotional skills – the core skills such as communication, collaboration, empathy, intuition and improvisation – that the CBI reported on 8 years ago and are as vital for work and careers in the 21st century as academic capabilities.
What if these children and young people have other skills and interests that aren’t necessarily covered in either the National Curriculum or their catch-up lessons – like a talent for music or painting or working out the mechanics of a car engine?
What exactly is the purpose of “catch up”?
Before we send reluctant learners of a contrived and tightly controlled curriculum back to school, we desperately need to review and confirm our aims for this business of catch up and whether by doing what may appear to be the right thing is, in effect, accentuating, perpetuating and widening the very gap that we’re aiming to eliminate – by depriving them of other areas and aspects of learning.
We reiterate once more that we fundamentally agree that all children and young people should be afforded the learning opportunities to make them fully literate, to be competent with the mathematics needed in daily life and to be computer savvy. We need to enable children and young people to recognise this fact for themselves – for them to understand that without these crucial skills their lives are likely to be more problematic. We also need children and young people to know that sometimes in life you have to do things that you don’t necessarily want to.
But is an imposed and to them a seemingly punitive approach to learning through “catch up” an appropriate way forward to engage these youngsters whilst their counterparts head off to self-educate rather than be schooled in their free time?
We’re not advocating a free-for-all but we are suggesting that a more personalised approach to learning and “catch up” might be the way to engage youngsters already disaffected by the constraints of a) the existing curriculum and b) the methodology of schooling.
Are we expecting these youngsters to “catch up” because we have to get the knowledge into their heads in order to pass a high stakes standardised test or are we truly thinking about their individual learning needs? And indeed their social and emotional needs.
This is a tricky situation. It’s evident that many youngsters have missed out on some important learning but this all returns us to the fundamental aims of education, and to the frequent failure to consider the other core skills required for life that come from learning beyond the classroom.
We also have to consider why many of these young people have chosen not to engage in formal schooling during the Covid pandemic even when they’ve been given the opportunities to do so. It’s not mere laziness that makes them reluctant to go to school. There’s a strong possibility that they can’t see the purpose in being trained how to write an essay for examination boards or they may be brain-dulled by an element of the curriculum that they see as irrelevant. (And if these elements aren’t irrelevant, we need to work out a better way of demonstrating their value to these youngsters).
There’s also another issue that we need to consider before we demand these children and young people attend “catch up” lessons, and in many ways, this applies to all learners.
During this stressful time, children and young people have been confronted with death on a daily basis (in some instances). Many are in bereavement and even if they haven’t lost friends or family members, death has been around us all for months now in unprecedented magnitude. Our children and young people are not miraculously exempt from this. When you literally have matters of life and death in your everyday lives, this needs to be discussed, considered and contextualised as far as a return to schooling. Many of the children and young people expected to return to school are far from ready for formal, standardised learning. Again, before launching into demands for catch up sessions, we must consider the purpose of learning and students’ readiness to learn.
This week, many education commentators, including Fiona Millar on Shelagh Fogarty’s LBC programme, advocated – in all sincerity – catch up sessions and also a “holiday” from testing, performance tables and Ofsted inspections.
We don’t just need a break from these educational constraints. They need to go – permanently – and the money saved from their abolition channelled directly back into schools to develop formative, informal and school-based summative assessment – as well as significant sums set aside to facilitate personalised learning.
We must use this pause in schooling as an opportunity to reshape and reinvigorate learning, and to reflect on the purpose of schooling. During this epidemic we’ve seen focused, creative, individualised home-learning and flipped classroom opportunities for many. (Regrettably we’ve also seen a massive distribution of unimaginative, unstimulating, uncreative and often unnecessary worksheets.)
Catch up is far from limited to individuals. We need our entire education system to “catch up” with the needs of 21st century education and preparation for life in a challenging world. Schools must respond to the needs of individuals and acknowledge their learning interests and their all-round potential – which may not equate with the model of schooling on offer.
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