kids scootering to school
kids scootering to school

Are ‘catch-up’ summer schools a good idea for children?

Summer schools may be run to help kids catch up with missed learning. Education and parenting experts tell Lisa Salmon whether it’s a good idea.

Lisa Salmon
Wednesday 24 February 2021 14:50

Instead of plodding through the last term of school knowing they have a long, hopefully hot, relaxing summer to look forward to, many pupils could be asked to attend summer school instead this year.

As pandemic restrictions from last March mean many pupils have lost around half a school year in face-to-face learning, the government has pledged an extra £400 million for schools to provide summer classes for pupils who need them most, such as incoming Year 7s.

It will be up to schools to decide if they want to run summer schools, how much of the summer they’ll run for, and which pupils will be invited to attend.

But is going to school over the summer holidays really such a good idea? Here’s what the experts say…

The education expert

Dr Amelia Roberts, deputy director of the  UCL Centre for Inclusive Education, says it would be best if schools controlled the money so they could decide what’s best for their pupils. “Summer schools might be great for some children, but we have to think about their wellbeing and emotional health as well,” she warns. “If a child is stuck in summer school on a beautiful sunny day when their friends are out doing something amazing, that would be very counterproductive. It’s all about nuance and subtlety, knowing pupils, and not having a one-size fits all approach.”

Roberts says schools might decide summer holidays need to be left alone completely so children and young people can catch-up with their friends. Instead, schools could invest in teaching assistants, specific interventions, or counselling services, she suggests.

“If schools had the flexibility, they’d be able to address need as it arose,” she says. “There’s an obsession with lost curriculum – a study that came out a couple of weeks ago said children would lose around £40,000 in earnings because of the loss in the curriculum, but I think it’s a mistake to say, ‘You’ve lost this amount of the curriculum, therefore this amount needs to be pushed back on you’. It may be that some pupils have learned well at home.

“We need to be thinking about wellbeing and what the next steps are, not about rushing to cover a certain amount of content, because that’s putting the wrong type of pressure on schools, pupils and families.”

Another potential problem with summer schools is that they could interfere with family holidays, she points out. “You could get a two-tier system where some children get to go away on holiday this summer, but some have to do the summer school because they’re felt to be more behind than others. So it could be stigmatising.”

The government has suggested Year 7s, who are moving from primary to secondary school, might particularly benefit from going to summer school. Roberts says research suggests Year 7s are more likely to do well if they feel connected with their teachers and have a sense of belonging in their new school. “Summer school might do that for some pupils, but it might have the opposite effect,” she says.

Pupils who have exams next year might benefit from extra schooling in particular skills-based areas, such as maths or literacy, she says, and a child with dyslexia, for example, might need a few weeks catching up on their reading skills. “But they might not as well,” she says. “There’s not been enough mention of wellbeing and mental health – we’re back to the obsession of making sure pupils have covered all the curriculum, but we don’t seem to be looking at children holistically and really making sense of what a particular pupil needs in a particular school.

“I’m not saying summer school isn’t the right thing for some children, but it’s just that it shouldn’t be a blanket thing.”

The educational psychologist

Consulting with parents and making sure staff have basic training in mental health issues are key parts of any summer school provision, says educational psychologist Kairen Cullen, who stresses that summer lessons shouldn’t blindly concentrate on catching up on lost learning without addressing children’s wellbeing too.

“My focus is on children’s social and emotional wellbeing,” she says. “Anything that helps that has got to be positive, but it’s got to be good quality and link with parents. I’d recommend that staff have some basic training in mental health awareness, and good resources and links to follow-up on any issues. There should also be consultation with parents on summer schools.”

Cullen says it’s unlikely that any summer schools will last throughout the summer holidays, which will mean families can go on holiday – if pandemic travel restrictions have been lifted enough – at a time school’s not on.

“With enough notice parents can plan around it if they want to go on holiday,” she says, “and I’m sure they’re not thinking either/or, they want both – they want to help their youngsters as much as they can go some way to ameliorating the negative effects of the school closures, but they also want them to have a good time with the family, and a holiday is very much part of that. It’s about planning and communication with parents.”

And she stresses that just because children have missed out on schooling, it doesn’t mean they haven’t been learning anything at all.

“Okay, schools have been shut and pupils have missed out on the formal curriculum, but learning goes on anyway,” she points out. “Children haven’t been ‘not learning’ for the last year, they’ve just been learning other stuff.

It’s not helpful to think they’ve missed all this curriculum time and teacher input – that’s just what’s happened, it’s their reality and they’ve been unfortunate enough to be the generation that experienced it. Then again, they may look back and think there were things they got from it – we just don’t know yet.”

The parent-teacher expert

Parents’ overriding concern about the school closures has, of course, been the effect on their child’s learning, as well as their mental health, says John Jolly, CEO of Parentkind which represents parent teacher associations (PTAs).

“When it comes to catch-up, many parents, especially those of children in exam cohorts, will be anxious about missed learning, and they will want their child to have the best outcomes,” he says. “But at the same time, many parents will have holiday plans for their families this summer.”

Jolly says remote learning could help as many families as possible take advantage of any summer learning initiatives, and adds: “Catch-up plans should be finalised in consultation with parents, targeting those children most in need, and with regard for children’s mental health so pupils and their families aren’t over-burdened.”