A holistic approach to catching up on lost learning

Dr Freyja Fischer
Friday, March 5, 2021

Schools begin to return on Monday. That’ll feel like progress towards getting back to normal for many families.

We also have a £700m catch up package, which includes a one-off £302 million “Recovery Premium” for primary and secondary schools to support disadvantaged pupils. This is a positive signal from government that it understands extra resources are needed. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are some questions about the scale of this new support. The Education Policy Institute chief executive said that the money pledged “is not enough to support pupils to catch up on their learning and to provide wellbeing activities for pupils of all ages”. 

She added: “The new Recovery Premium is a step in the right direction, but £6,000 for the average primary school and £22,000 for the average secondary is much too modest to make a serious difference.” 

Beyond this, questions should also be asked about whether it is designed to address the right set of problems. Tutoring, as part of the catch up, is a step forward and is welcome. However, this new funding so far has overlooked mental health, which has important links to attainment. Without additional support for pupils’ wellbeing, this welcome investment in catch-up learning may be undermined from the outset. 

Children’s mental health cannot be overlooked  

Mental health support in schools is something parents are supportive of. Parents after the first lockdown were concerned about the influence of lockdown on their children’s mental health and how children will adapt once they are back at school. This is still likely to be the case.  

Data from children and young people complements parents’ views. That data, too, gives reason to be concerned. The NHS Digital survey “The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England” provides a good indication of respondents’ mental health status, it found 81-91 per cent of young people defined as having a probable mental health disorder by one of the measures used in this survey meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.  

The proportion of young people with a probable mental disorder increased by five percentage points since the 2017 survey. The data also indicates that a sizeable percentage of young people who would under normal circumstances have a possible mental disorder, now have a probable mental disorder. This is likely due to the additional stress and adversity put on them and their families during the pandemic. 

The earlier mental health problems manifest, the more likely they are to persist into adulthood. Children and young people cannot concentrate on progressing academically when they are in poor mental health – mental health and academic success go hand in hand.  

On the less severe end of the scale – just considering wellbeing, not mental health problems – having the skills to deal with one’s own and others’ emotions and navigate relationships successfully, are associated with academic success, too. This is the core of why developing social-emotional skills is important.   

What children need to face the future 

Thinking about funding, the important thing to remember is that neither social-emotional skills development nor mental health support is the fluff around the edges of hard academic achievement. Wellbeing and mental health are measurable, and both can be supported with evidence-based interventions.  

While we all, and children especially, long for an outing to the zoo, swimming pool, or museum, these excursions on their own do not support children’s social-emotional development or their mental health. Neither do catch-up programmes focusing on academic achievement alone. 

All children, and particularly disadvantaged students, benefit from learning how to navigate feelings and relationships. These skills protect them from developing mental health disorders. Schools are in a unique position to reach all children and don’t need to buy-in specialist support for teaching social-emotional skills to all children.  

Research has shown that teachers are most effective in teaching these skills to children. A variety of evidence-based programmes support the development of social-emotional skills. These can be found on the EIF Guidebook and in a separate list for primary schools

However, for children who already have mental health problems, this universal approach will not be enough. They need targeted and specialist support that is embedded in comprehensive systems and services.  

It is therefore essential that any further catch up programmes for children: 

  • are evidence-based

  • target social-emotional skills together with academic attainment

  • offer pathways to refer children with existing mental health problems who might not have received the support they needed or have not been identified during the last year to more specialised support offers.    

Too much of a focus only on academic achievement as school catch up is rolled out is likely to leave many children behind. We need to consider a more holistic approach to learning to help all children in the Covid recovery phase.

Dr Freyja Fischer is researcher at the Early Intervention Foundation.

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