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Beyond "recovery": 10 dos and don’ts for primary schools

Dr Keith Watson, NACE Associate

Whilst primary schools share some of the general issues faced by all phases following the pandemic, there are specific aspects that need to considered for more able primary pupils. Research on the impact of the pandemic is still in its infancy and inevitably still speculative; while other catastrophic events such as the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, are referred to, the pandemic is on a far greater scale and the full impact will take time to emerge.

What, at this stage, should primary school leaders and practitioners focus on to ensure more able learners’ needs are met?

1. Do: focus on rebuilding relationships

When pupils return to school the sense of community will need to be re-established and relationships will be central to this process. Pupils will need to feel safe and secure in school and the return to routines and robust systems will help with this. Not all more able pupils will have had the same experience both in terms of learning and home life. As always, creating a supportive learning environment will be vital.

2. Do: provide opportunities for reflection and rediscovery

All pupils need the opportunity to tell their lockdown stories and more able pupils should be encouraged to do so using their talents – whether written, artistically, through dance or other means. How best can they express their feelings over what has happened? This will allow them to come to terms with their experiences through reflection but also allow thoughts to turn positively to the future. In this sense they will be able to rediscover themselves and focus on their hopes for the future.

3. Do: use positive language

A key question (as they sing in Hamilton) is “What did I miss?” What are the gaps in learning and what is the school plan for transitioning back into learning generally and then with specific groups? We need to be careful of negative language; even terms like “catch up” and “recovery” risk suggesting we will never make up for lost time. Despite the challenge, we need to show our pupils and parents how positive we are as teachers about their future.

4. Do: find out where your pupils are

Each school will want some form of baseline assessment early in the year, whether using tests or more informal methods. Be ready to reassure more able pupils who perhaps do not achieve their normal very high scores on any testing. For more able pupils a mature dialogue should happen using pupil self-assessment alongside any data collected. Of course, each child is different and it is crucial that teachers know the individual needs of the pupils.

5. Don’t: overlook the more able

There is a danger here of the unintended consequence. The priority is likely to be given to pupils who have fallen even further below national expectation and this could lead to teachers having to divert even more time, energy and focus to these pupils at the expense of giving attention to more able pupils who may be deemed not to be a priority. More able pupils must not be neglected in this way due to assumptions that they are “fine” in terms of emotions and learning. They need to be engaged in purposeful learning and challenged as always.

6. Don’t: narrow your curriculum

Mary Myatt has previously talked of the “disciplined pursuit of doing less” and the pandemic is leading to consideration of the essential curriculum content that needs to be learned now. It may force schools to be even clearer on key learning, but we need to be careful of even greater narrowing of the curriculum, especially to test criteria. The spectre of “measurement-driven instruction” is always with us, particularly for Year 6.

7. Do: focus on building learners’ confidence

Pupils need to be settled and ready for learning, but this is often achieved through purposeful tasks. Providing more able pupils with the chance to work successfully on their favourite subjects as soon as possible can build confidence. It may be that pupils who are able across the curriculum have subjects where they fear having fallen behind more than in others. Perhaps they are very strong in both English and maths but worry about not excelling in the latter, and therefore feel concerned that they have fallen behind. It is important to gauge their feelings across the curriculum, perhaps through them RAG rating their confidence; this could then lead to individual dialogue between teacher and pupil regarding how to rebuild confidence or revisit areas where they perceive the learning is weaker. Learning is never linear; this needs to be acknowledged and pupils reassured.

8. Do: review your writing plan for the year

Teachers will be mindful of the challenges of achieving the criteria for greater depth, particularly in relation to the writing. It will be important to review the normal writing plan for the year to see that the key tasks are still appropriate and timed correctly. What does the writing journey look like throughout the year to achieve greater depth and will the normal milestones be compromised? The opportunity to experiment with their writing is essential for more able pupils, so when will this happen? Teachers in all year groups must not panic about the demanding standards needed, but instead remember they have the year to help their pupils achieve those standards, even if current attainment has dipped.

9. Do: review and adapt teaching and learning methods

The methods of teaching more able pupils will also have to be considered in the changed learning environment. Collaborative group work may be more challenging with pupils often sitting in rows and also having less close proximity to their teacher. A group of more able pupils crouched around sugar paper designing the best science experiment since the days of Newton may not currently be possible. But dialogue remains vital and time still needs to be made for it despite restrictions on classroom operations.

10. Do: remain optimistic and ambitious

We must remain optimistic for our more able pupils. We must not shy away from the opportunities to go beyond the curriculum to encourage and develop talents. More able pupils need to have the space to show themselves at their best. The primary curriculum provides so many opportunities for more able pupils to push the boundaries in the learning beyond the narrow confines of subject areas. This can be energising. The London School of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) proudly declares its students to be:

  • Creators
  • Innovators
  • Collaborators
  • Storytellers
  • Engineers
  • Artists
  • Actors

We can also add athletes and many more to this list. More able pupils need to develop their metacognition and seeing themselves in some of these roles can inspire and motivate them. Remember though, creativity can’t be taught in a vacuum. It needs content so that the creativity can be encouraged.

Given that the “recovery curriculum” may spend a lot of time re-establishing a mental health equilibrium and helping those with large gaps in knowledge to “catch up”, it may be that those more able pupils who are ready for it can be given license by teachers to experiment more with the curriculum, have more independence and get to apply their learning more widely.

Not merely recovering, but rebounding and reigniting with energy, vigour and a celebration of talents.

Not yet a NACE member? Starting at just £95 +VAT per year, NACE membership is available for schools (covering all staff), SCITT providers, TSAs, trusts and clusters. Bringing together school leaders and practitioners across England, Wales and internationally, our members have access to advice, practical resources and CPD to support the review and improvement of provision for more able learners within a context of challenge and high standards for all. Find out more and join today!

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