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Advice for parents: FAQs on COVID-19 and primary education

These FAQs aim to support and advise parents of primary school age children.

School closures during lockdown have caused considerable disruption and anxiety for many parents. These FAQs draw on findings from our research project* which tracked primary schools’ responses to the COVID crisis during 2020, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. 

The purpose of these FAQs is to support and advise parents of primary school age children, in acknowledgement that the crisis is not over yet. Two way communication between home and school is always important for a child’s education, but has been particularly crucial during this COVID crisis.

In these FAQs we suggest how parents and schools can build on what has already been learnt in extraordinary circumstances, and use this to move forward together.

*The research project, ‘A duty of care and a duty to teach: educational priorities in response to the COVID-19 crisis’, used teacher surveys, interviews and documentary analysis. Funder: UKRI/ESRC Rapid Response to COVID-19 Call, project no. ES/V00414X/1. Researchers: PI: Gemma Moss. Co-Is: Alice Bradbury, Sam Duncan, Sinead Harmey and Rachael Levy. 

The effects of disrupted learning on primary school children

Q1. COVID-19 has disrupted education – what are the likely impacts on my child?

We know from our research that schools had to adapt their teaching plans very quickly last year, and that family circumstances also varied hugely, including the possibility of accessing teaching materials online (Moss et al, 2020). All of this means that children will be returning to school with very different experiences of the period of disruption. 

Many parents may be concerned that their child has ‘forgotten’ aspects of their learning over the period of school closure. We know that some children are also concerned about learning loss.

However, our review of the research evidence on the impact of unplanned and extended school closures on learning (Harmey and Moss, 2020) reveals a more reassuring message:

  • Resuming normal classroom teaching and routines can help children remember what they thought they had forgotten
  • Some children may have gained from time at home – particularly through access to books, a chance to spend more time reading, as well as lots of opportunities to talk with and be listened to by those around them.
  • Over time teachers will be able to assess who is really struggling in particular areas and offer support.
  • Very little of the primary school curriculum is 'time-critical' – many concepts will be revisited in each year, with plenty of opportunities to catch up.
Q2. How quickly should I expect my child to ‘catch up’?

Our research shows that many schools are prioritising a settling-in period at first (Moss et al 2020), giving pupils a chance to:

  • re-familiarise themselves with school routines
  • rebuild their friendship groups, and 
  • consolidate their learning before moving on to new topics.

Teachers will use their professional skills to assess all of the children in their class and identify what children understand well and what they will need to work more on. Although some schools may be using formal testing straightaway, our review of the research evidence suggests this is not necessary. 

As one teacher explained: ‘we can monitor progression and “catch-up” without the need to formally test…which might not actually show more than the child’s current ability to cope with a test’. 

A settling in period will allow gaps in children’s learning to repair through normal classroom teaching. Evidence from other comparable periods of disruption to schooling (Harmey and Moss, 2020) recommends adjusting the pace of teaching when schools first return, so that children can reconnect with normal learning routines. This will benefit them more than rushing to catch up straight away (International Literacy Centre, 2020a). 

As children settle back in, teachers can take account of children’s differing needs as part of whole class teaching. They are highly trained in assessing pupils within this context. Discuss with the school if you think your child may still need more support after they’ve had time to settle back in and consolidate prior learning. 

Q3. I’ve got children in Year 2 and Year 6. Should I expect SATs tests to go ahead as normal this year?

All tests in primary schools were suspended in 2020, and children in Year 6 left for secondary school without taking their SATs tests. So far, government plans are for KS1 and KS2 SATs, the Phonics Screening check in Year 1, the Multiplication Times Table test in Year 4 and extra Phonics Screening Checks in Year 2, in autumn and in summer, to go ahead. We strongly recommend that all statutory tests should be suspended this year. (International Literacy Centre, 2020b).

This is because schooling may continue to be disrupted, with different impacts in different communities. Sticking rigidly to a test timetable which requires all children to show what they have learnt at the same point in the year may push schools into prioritising teaching a narrow set of skills for test purposes only, rather than devising a broader curriculum with greater benefits for children’s learning. 

Suspending SATs will not interfere with children’s learning, or make them less likely to master the skills they need. It will stop schools from being distracted during what may be a challenging year ahead, with on-going disruption and the need to support learning in other ways. We are urging the government to suspend SATs. We know that a lot of teachers, headteachers and system leaders agree. 

On returning to school

Q4. My child is nervous about going back to school and finds being back in the classroom overwhelming. Who should I tell?

If you have particular concerns for your child’s wellbeing, perhaps due to family circumstances and how COVID-19 has affected close family members, then do let your child’s teacher know.

Our findings demonstrate that teachers are equally concerned about your child’s well-being as they are about their education (Moss et al, 2020). At the start of lockdown, 72% of primary teachers reported that ‘checking how families are coping in terms of mental health, welfare, food’ was their top priority. 

In planning for this year, our findings show that teachers are prioritising pupil wellbeing, and see this as going hand in hand with purposeful learning (ILC, 2020 a). Teachers recognise that learning routines support pupil wellbeing and pupil wellbeing acts as a necessary foundation for learning. 

Q5. My school is doing things very differently from a school not far away. Should I be concerned?

We know from our research that COVID-19 has affected each school differently (Moss et al, 2020). Health impacts on staff, children and families will be different, as are the longer term economic impacts of COVID -19 on the local community. The stresses and strains that the pandemic is causing will affect children differently too. 

Each school will want to balance its duty of care to its pupils and families with its duty to teach. We expect their priorities to reflect their local context.

We are encouraging schools to plan for a broad curriculum in the first instance, which may run at a different pace than before. Our review of the literature on schools’ recovery from periods of disruption elsewhere shows that this is important, as is taking the time to reflect on what has happened with parents and children, so that things can get back on an even keel (Harmey and Moss, 2020).

Learning at home

Q6. What can I do to support my child’s learning at home?

Our project found that over the lockdown period teachers valued feedback from parents on the tasks they set, including on what was and wasn’t working (and why) (International Literacy Centre, 2020a). Teachers found this helped them adapt their approach so that the tasks set worked better at home.

Teachers set a wide range of different tasks for children to undertake while they were learning at home. They valued families talking with their children about a range of topics and listening to what they had to say, as well as encouraging them to read and write (Moss et al, 2020). All these activities can support children’s wider development when happening as part of other household tasks, such as cooking or looking after pets.

Allowing your child to see you using written and spoken language in different ways is a great way to model how important, and diverse, language and literacy is in our lives. If you use them in the home, other languages, as well as English, can be just as important.

We know that not all families have easy access to WiFi, digital devices or enough space at home to make online learning straightforward, or even possible. Ask your school for help in accessing a range of reading materials to keep children engaged and interested during any future lockdown. Reading widely is a good way of getting through.

Q7. How can I stay in touch with my child’s school?

Schools continue to have to deal with an uncertain situation. Our research has shown how vital it is to keep good lines of communication open between parents and the school (Moss et al, 2020).

Do keep talking to your school and your children’s teachers about your child’s learning; and also about your child’s general well-being – using whatever channels your school has recommended. Our research confirms that it is very important that teachers and parents/carers work together as closely as they can to find the best ways forward in this unprecedented situation.

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