Schools responses to Covid-19: The challenges facing schools and pupils in September 2020

Caroline Sharp, Julie Nelson, Megan Lucas, Jenna Julius, Tami McCrone and David Sims

01 September 2020

This research follows an earlier NFER survey of schools’ responses to Covid-19 in May. It focuses on the challenges schools will face from September when they open to all pupils. Jointly funded by Nuffield Foundation and NFER, the study is based on a weighted sample of almost 3,000 school leaders and teachers across over 2,200 mainstream primary and secondary schools in England. The findings were collected between the 8th and 15th July 2020.

Key Findings

Pupils’ learning and the need for catch up

  • Nearly all teachers estimate that their pupils are behind in their curriculum learning, with the average estimate being three months behind. Over half of teachers estimate that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened.
  • Teachers in the most deprived schools are over three times more likely to report that their pupils are four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived schools.
  • Reasons related to the provision of remote learning include: diminishing levels of pupil and parent engagement over time; and a continuing lack of interactive remote teaching approaches.
  • Reasons related to in-school provision for some pupils from June include: a skew of teaching resource to in-school provision to meet the demands of social distancing. This took teaching resources away from pupils based at home; a reduced quality of in-school teaching due to the restrictions of social distancing (almost three quarters of teachers did not feel able to teach to their usual standard); and low levels of pupil attendance, especially among Pupil Premium and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils. The main reasons for low attendance were parental safety concerns.
  • Although many schools were supplying IT equipment to their staff, over a third of teachers were providing their own laptop or computer, and three-fifths either supplied their own camera/video equipment or had no access to this at all. Over one quarter (28 per cent) of pupils had limited access to IT at home. This is a particular issue for schools serving the most deprived pupil populations.
  • Teachers estimate that 44 per cent of their pupils are in need of intensive catch-up support. These estimates are much higher in the most deprived schools and in schools serving the highest proportion of pupils from BAME backgrounds.
  • Senior leaders’ top priorities for September are to provide support for pupils’ emotional and mental health and well-being (81 per cent); to re-engage pupils with learning (64 per cent); and to settle them into school (63 per cent). Academic catch-up activities are most likely to take the form of small-group or one-to-one sessions.

Opening schools safely and supporting the workforce

  • While most senior leaders predict they will find it at least ‘somewhat manageable’ to open to all pupils in September while taking measures to minimise the risk of infection, many identify a need for additional staffing and resources for cleaning, protective equipment and IT.
  • The percentage of teachers and senior leaders intending to leave the profession has reduced by more than half compared to previous estimates. However, schools plan to reduce their initial teacher training (ITT) placements in 2020/21. This is of concern, given the large increase in the number of applications for ITT in 2020.

Implications for government, schools and those that support them

  1. Parents need reassurance that schools are safe. The Government’s national advertising campaign will need to be convincing and may need to continue through the autumn in order to assuage current levels of parental concern.
  2. Schools may need help from local authorities (LAs) and trusts with the management of non-attending pupils.
  3. The Government’s additional funding for catch-up support is welcome, but schools need extra resources for cleaning regimes and for staffing, to ensure social distancing is managed appropriately.
  4. The Government needs to work with school leaders and ITT providers to tackle the challenge of an increase in ITT applications, coupled with a reduction in training places in schools.
  5. When inspections resume, Ofsted may need to modify expectations of schools providing a broad and balanced curriculum while social distancing is in force.
  6. With the exception of pupils working towards examination specifications, catch up needs to be treated as a long-term endeavour rather than a ‘quick fix’.
  7. In future episodes of partial lockdown, ‘blended learning’ must ensure equity for all pupils. Effective remote learning needs to be coupled with high-quality in-school teaching for vulnerable pupils, children of keyworkers, disadvantaged pupils and pupils with unsuitable home learning environments (rather than specific year groups).
  8. Schools need government support to prepare for remote learning in a local lockdown. In particular, they need a clear steer on safeguarding. In the absence of this, many schools will avoid teaching and learning methods involving interaction with pupils.
  9. Schools need to take an evidence-informed approach to preparing for remote learning in a local lockdown. They should consider: having a virtual learning environment (VLE); offering online lessons and other interactive approaches; providing activities that involve consolidating learning; and using strategies to help pupils become independent learners (metacognitive approaches).
  10. The Government plans to provide laptop and hotspot provision for disadvantaged pupils in Years 3-11 and clinically vulnerable pupils in all year groups, in the event of a local lockdown. The dispatch of these devices must be planned for and will need to be almost instantaneous.

Sponsor Details

Nuffield Foundation