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4 June 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:57pm

How to help children return to school after lockdown

A "one-size-fits-all" approach won't work. Policymakers must look to evidence to support pupils in making up for lost time.

By Claudine Bowyer-Crane

Coronavirus has meant that children in the UK have undergone months of home schooling, and for many this is likely to continue. With lockdown now easing, schools have begun to reopen, but not for all children or all year groups. Many risk falling further behind in their education, which will put them at greater risk of poor educational outcomes going forward. How can children best be supported when they do go back to school?

A report from the Education Endowment Foundation suggests that the lockdown will have wiped out any progress made in recent years on closing the gaps faced by the disadvantaged. At a round table held by the Commons Education Committee on Wednesday, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warned that not all pupils will return to school before September, with many losing up to six months of education. These missing months could permanently affect the life chances of many from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The impact this extended break will have on development in reading and language is of particular concern. While resources abound for parents to support their children through the lockdown, the pressure of juggling work with caring responsibilities, financial worries and health worries means that the level of input children have received will vary greatly. Programmes with a firm foundation in research evidence are crucial in helping children most at risk of language and literacy difficulties on their return to school.

Working with colleagues at the universities of Oxford and Sheffield, I have been involved in designing and evaluating programmes such as these for children at the early stages of learning to read. Using randomised controlled trials, we have amassed evidence that early intervention by trained teaching assistants can successfully support children’s reading and language development. Our work led to the publication of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, a 20-week programme for primary school pupils who show weakness in oral language skills and are therefore at risk of having difficulty with reading. According to a recent EEF evaluation, children following our programme made three months of additional progress in oral language and two months of additional progress in word reading compared to children who did not receive the intervention. Evidence-based programmes such as this should form an important component of the support for children when they return to school.

But the majority of this work was carried out with children for whom English is a first language. These children bring existing language experience to the process of learning to read.  What is less clear is how to provide the right support for the growing population of UK primary school pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL). For them, English may not be the primary language spoken at home. The level of English-language proficiency in this group of children will vary, with some having fluent English-language skills and others having little or no exposure to English prior to starting school. Government statistics indicate that a higher percentage of children identified as having English as a second language perform poorly on statutory assessments, particularly at the early stages of schooling. While this gap is reported to close over time, studies suggest that some children remain vulnerable and may still underperform at secondary school. English proficiency is a key factor in determining progress.

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Children with English as a second language lack evidence-based initiatives to support them. But as our population becomes ever more diverse, it is vital that all children receive the support they need in school.

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A “one-size-fits-all” approach is not appropriate. For example, using our well-established model of training teaching assistants to deliver in-school support, we designed and evaluated an oral language intervention for use with children learning English as a second language and their monolingual peers. While we were able to demonstrate that the approach used in our previous studies worked in developing vocabulary among children learning EAL, this did not transfer to other areas of language or have any other sustained effects. In contrast, positive results were found in the previously mentioned EEF evaluation, with children learning EAL who received intervention making three months of additional progress in language skills, compared to those not on the programme. However, much more work is needed to find out what works best for this group of children.

The key message here is that what works for some children – or in some schools– may not work for all. At the round table on Wednesday, Natalie Perera from the Education Policy Institute called for the pupil premium – introduced in 2011 to helps schools improve the attainment of disadvantaged children – to be doubled. This would allow schools to identify the most appropriate interventions for their pupils.  In 2019/20, around 2 million children were eligible for the £2.41bn additional funding provided by this scheme. This number may well increase with the financial instability facing many families as a result of the pandemic. As such, this represents a significant but essential financial commitment on the part of the government. 

Alongside this additional funding however, it will be vital for researchers, policymakers and teachers to work together to ensure that the needs of the child are at the centre of decision-making and that no child is short-changed because of a lack of evidence or lack of resources.

Claudine Bowyer-Crane is Associate Research Director for Employment and Social Policy at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

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