Children put under more pressure due to ‘catch-up’ narrative, psychologists warn

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Children are being put under a “huge” pressure due to the narrative that pupils need to catch up with lost learning, educational psychologists have warned.

Young people should be supported through socialisation and play if the Government decides to extend the amount of time that they spend in school, the British Psychological Society (BPS) has urged.

The Prime Minister has appointed Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner to oversee the Government’s catch-up programme for children whose learning has been disrupted by Covid-19.

Educational psychologists are urging the Government to reconsider its focus on the idea that children and young people need to “catch up” on their education following school closures due to the pandemic.

Instead, they argue that supporting the wellbeing needs of all children should be a priority.

“Whatever a child or young person’s circumstances, we can’t assume that the right thing to support their recovery and wellbeing is for them to be in lessons for longer each day.”

Dr Dan O’Hare

The plea comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to set out his “road map” for easing the lockdown in England on Monday, with the aim of first reopening schools.

Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the BPS’ division of educational and child psychology, said: “It’s absolutely understandable that parents and caregivers are concerned that children have been missing out on many aspects of their formal education over the past year.

“However, the notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone.”

The Government is said to be considering a number of options – including summer schools, extended school days and shorter summer holidays – as part of its catch-up plans for pupils who have missed out.

But educational psychologists are instead advocating for a phased return to regular schooling, combined with a quality-over-quantity approach to learning.

Dr O’Hare told the PA media news agency: “The pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life and it’s unrealistic to expect children who have lived through this disruption to settle down into additional formal learning after the experiences they’ve had.

“Formal lessons must of course continue, but we shouldn’t simply expect children and young people to pick up where they’ve left off and ‘catch up’ immediately on any gaps in their learning.

“This places huge and unnecessary pressure on children who have been through an extraordinary and potentially stressful time.”

Dr O’Hare said creating the time and space for children to express themselves through play is a “useful tool” to help them process what’s been happening.

“Whatever a child or young person’s circumstances, we can’t assume that the right thing to support their recovery and wellbeing is for them to be in lessons for longer each day,” he added.

Sir Kevan has previously said extra hours for sport, music and drama – alongside additional time for academic study – will be needed to help children catch up following months of disruption.

Last week, Tory MP Rob Halfon, the chairman of the Education Select Committee, said catch-up should “not just be about algebra and Shakespeare” as children’s mental health had become “fragile”.

Mr Halfon said an extension of the school day – for physical activity, mental health support and tuition – would support children’s “broader recovery”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know the pandemic has had an impact on many children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and that’s why we are working to fully reopen schools as soon as possible.

“Our guidance has emphasised the importance of pastoral support both in school and as part of remote provision and included advice and support on mental wellbeing.

“The £650m catch-up premium funding can be used for pastoral support activity where needed to support reengagement and recovery.

“To support children returning to schools, our £8 million Wellbeing for Education Return programme funds local expert support for education staff to respond to emotional and mental health pressures some children and young people may be facing.”

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