Literacy

Curriculum Considerations for the New Academic Year

As the Summer term comes to a close, so too does perhaps the most challenging term schools have seen for decades. Now the rhetoric has turned towards the full opening of schools in the new academic year and the implications COVID-19 will have on the curriculum.

By Laura Lodge on 15 Jul 2020

As the Summer term comes to a close, so too does perhaps the most challenging term schools have seen for decades. Now the rhetoric has turned towards the full opening of schools in the new academic year and the implications COVID-19 will have on the curriculum. The government’s ‘Catch-Up’ funding adds yet another dimension to this already complicated situation, so what do schools need to consider?

Schools have been working around the clock to plan for September, deciding how best to run class or year group bubbles; staggering start and finish times; how everyone will have access to lunch and breaktimes and much more. Aside from planning and organisational decisions, there are also curriculum choices to be made. The government have made it clear that schools must work to ‘catch-up’ pupils’ missed learning, giving them some flexibility on how to do this, as set out in the guidance for full opening.

“Teach an ambitious and broad curriculum in all subjects from the start of the autumn term, but make use of existing flexibilities to create time to cover the most important missed content: Up to and including key stage 3, prioritisation within subjects of the most important components for progression is likely to be more effective than removing subjects, which pupils may struggle to pick up again later. In particular, schools may consider how all subjects can contribute to the filling of gaps in core knowledge, for example through an emphasis on reading.”

However, many in education are quite rightly asking whether ‘catch-up’ should be the main focus for our curriculum in this trying time. Many argue that children’s wellbeing should be a higher priority than an immediate focus on closing the gaps in academic attainment. Schools are already well on their way developing well-rounded ‘recovery’ curriculums which focus on children’s wellbeing; creating a sense of unity and connection and supporting staff, children and the community to feel safe and secure. Only once this happens, will the focus turn more towards academic outcomes.

To support schools in this endeavour, the school development team have created a suite of planning for a whole school recovery curriculum alongside Chapel Street Primary School. The planning, which uses high-quality picture books centred around wellbeing, whilst reintroducing basic skills for all curriculum areas, includes a range of different resources to explore how to embed a recovery curriculum. Click here to access our recovery curriculum resources.

But what about the curriculum after the initial weeks of full opening? Once all children and staff are back, hopefully all happy and settled, what should schools focus on to support children to close the gaps in their attainment and knowledge?

1. Understand where you and your pupils are up to.

Once children are happy and settled, it is crucial to take time to understand your position, especially with regards to your curriculum. The guidance for full opening states that schools should:

“Plan on the basis of the educational needs of pupils: Curriculum planning should be informed by an assessment of pupils’ starting points and addressing the gaps in their knowledge and skills, in particular making effective use of regular formative assessment (for example, quizzes, observing pupils in class, talking to pupils to assess understanding, scrutiny of pupils’ work) while avoiding the introduction of unnecessary tracking systems.”

Only by viewing a full, holistic picture, can you effectively plan for the future. However assessment does not necessarily mean testing. There are a myriad of ways in which you can assess children accurately without the need for a formal testing process. Teacher observation and assessment, alongside thorough gap analysis, can provide a wealth of useful information. By using observation and conversation rather than testing, children can be put at ease whilst important data and information continues to be gathered.

The suggestions below are just two examples of how this could be done:

  • In Writing for instance, after teaching your first unit, which should focus on a genre that children are already secure in, you could use the children’s pieces of writing to complete a baseline assessment. This is particularly helpful when it involves going back into previous year group curriculum content, highlighting what each child can securely do and pointing out gaps in their knowledge. This can then inform planning and teaching from that point on. Click here to download a baseline writing assessment grid to support you.
  • In Reading, you could consider using an age-appropriate text for each year group, which is pitched at or around the end of the previous year group. For example, a Year 3 class in September could be assessed using an end of Year 2 appropriate text. Children who are not yet fluent at this level could be assessed with an appropriate phonically decodable text. You could then create a short series of questions based around the reading skills the children should be secure in from the previous year group. For example, at the beginning of Year 3 these would be: definition, retrieval, sequencing, inference and prediction. Read our Teaching Reading Skills: Retrieval Blog here

The assessment would consist of each child reading aloud a short section of the text to a member of staff, who then engages them in conversation about the text by asking their opinion, before asking the planned questions. This should provide a clear snapshot of the three key strands of reading: enjoyment, decoding and understanding. Click here to download an example baseline reading assessment for Year 3. For children in Reception to Year 3, as well as children who access phonics later in KS2, you should also consider using a specific phonics assessment. This will identify exactly which sounds children can recognise and will provide clear next steps for the teaching of decoding.

2. Prioritise.

Using your assessment to identify gaps and trends in children’s knowledge and attainment is crucial as it is only then that assessment becomes purposeful. Done well, such assessments will support you to plan and prioritise effectively. The guidance for the full opening of schools states that schools should:

“Aim to return to the school’s normal curriculum in all subjects by summer term 2021: Substantial modification to the curriculum may be needed at the start of the year, so teaching time should be prioritised to address significant gaps in pupils’ knowledge with the aim of returning to the school’s normal curriculum content by no later than summer term 2021.”

We all acknowledge that even with high-quality remote learning, children have not had access to the same education as they would have done in any other year. Although children’s wellbeing must be our first priority, we do need to plan how to address children’s academic gaps. We know that our already packed timetables mean that supporting children with their gaps whilst also covering new content will be a huge challenge. We want all children to continue to access a broad and balanced curriculum, so therefore we need to be realistic and prioritise key content across each subject.

To begin this process, we need to know exactly what has been missed and what children have lost in terms of their learning. It is important to ask staff to be clear and honest with what they covered before the COVID-19 pandemic and what was securely learned. Only then can we begin to discuss what may have been lost, and that is when our baseline assessment information can support us further. When we have a clear picture of where we are, we then need to choose what to prioritise in terms of curriculum content.

The Department for Education has published a useful document which sets out the key learning in the Mathematics curriculum. This document forms a clear framework for prioritising which elements of the ‘missed’ curriculum are of most importance and which need to be ‘caught-up’ on quickly.

In terms of English, we need to look at what is essential: what are the foundations which have to be in place before building?

  • For Writing, focusing on transcription including spelling and handwriting; coherence; understanding of basic punctuation and sentence structure is crucial.
  • For Reading, prioritising Reading for Enjoyment first and foremost will support children across every strand of reading. It is also important that attention is paid to securing children’s fluency and decoding, as without this making meaning is impossible. At the same time, focusing on the essential reading for understanding skills of retrieval and word meaning will support children to discuss key details and information within texts. Once children are secure in these skills later in the autumn term, time can be spent reintroducing other more complex reading skills such as inference and prediction.

The same process can be followed by subject leaders across all elements of the curriculum. By prioritising, we can ensure children have secured the necessary knowledge needed on which to build further.

3. Build in additional support for those children who need it.

Inevitably, children have had varied experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some may have flourished from having the time to build independence, however others may have stayed static or struggled with numerous challenges. Using your baseline assessment as well as ongoing assessment for learning, it is key that we identify children who need additional support and intervene swiftly with proven, research-led strategies. In order for children to make best progress, keeping these interventions and those accessing them under regular review is crucial; assessing the impact and adapting plans where needed.

Useful resources to support choosing interventions to suit the needs of all learners can be found on the EEF and Interventions for Literacy websites.

4. Consider carefully how to use additional funding.

The Department for Education recently announced a £1bn funding package to ensure schools can support all pupils “… make up for lost teaching time, with extra support for those who need it most.”

All state-funded primary, secondary and special schools will receive part of a £650m one-off grant to support ‘catch-up’ in the 2020 – 2021 academic year. Whilst schools have the autonomy to spend the bulk of the funding as they see fit, the guidance states that "For pupils with complex needs, we strongly encourage schools to spend this funding on catch-up support to address their individual needs.”

To provide schools with support on choosing appropriate interventions, the DfE have endorsed the EEF’s ‘COVID-19 Support Guide for Schools’.

The guide explores possible approaches to supporting pupils including:

  • Teaching and whole-school strategies such as supporting great teaching; pupil assessment and feedback and transition support.
  • Targeted approaches such as one to one and small group tuition; intervention programmes and extended school time.
  • Wider strategies such as supporting parents and carers; access to technology and summer support.

In addition to the one-off grant, the DfE are also rolling out the National Tutoring Programme which is designed to “… deliver proven and successful tuition to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people, accelerating their academic progress and preventing the gap between them and their more affluent peers widening.”

Guidance has been published for September, however it is important for schools to start planning beforehand. By using your assessment information and discussions about prioritising strands of the curriculum, you can gather useful insights into where catch up funding may make the most meaningful difference. Identifying key groups or particular trends in learning and school life will provide you with possible avenues for exploration. Above all, schools need to do what is right for them and their cohorts of children. For some this may take the form of additional phonics intervention groups led by a trained member of staff; for others it could be used to support attendance. Whatever you choose to use the funding for, having a clear rationale and way of tracking its impact will be key. For advice and support on catch-up funding and how to make the most of the grant for your pupils, please email laura.lodge@oneeducation.co.uk.

5. Keep wellbeing at the forefront of your approach.

Even after the initial weeks of full opening, the wellbeing of children, parents and staff must remain paramount. The pandemic has resulted in a whole host of new ways of being and has the capacity to affect many of us both now and in the future. From September 2020, the new Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education curriculum becomes statutory in all schools. A major strand of the curriculum is ‘Physical Health and Mental Wellbeing’ with primary schools expected to teach “… the characteristics of good physical health and mental wellbeing" and that “… mental wellbeing is a normal part of daily life, in the same way as physical health.”

Secondary schools meanwhile are expected to “… enable pupils to understand how their bodies are changing, how they are feeling and why, to further develop the language that they use to talk about their bodies, health and emotions and to understand why terms associated with mental and physical health difficulties should not be used pejoratively. This knowledge should enable pupils to understand where normal variations in emotions and physical complaints end and health and wellbeing issues begin.”

During any academic year, teaching these subjects is crucial, but it is especially so this year. We must provide children with the knowledge and understanding to manage their emotions; to know how to seek help and much more. We must support them to live in today’s complex world with its many challenges, but also its many rewards.

Our brand new multi-disciplinary wellbeing service, One Wellbeing is due to be launched in September. This new service brings together the expertise across One Education to support schools in their approach to wellbeing. For more information, or to register your interest in One Wellbeing, please visit our website for further information.

6. Be proud of your achievements.

This year we have faced our greatest challenge in decades. Every educator, every school and every setting has worked incredibly hard to offer the very best education for children under such circumstances. Schools have stayed open, caring for children on-site whilst simultaneously arranging high-quality input for those at home. Staff quickly became used to virtual working; using any time off-site to plan ahead. Leaders led and continue to lead, brilliantly, steering their ship through risk assessments, plans for wider opening, bubbles and so much more. What you may not have had time to do is to feel proud.

Please do take time to feel pride in your achievements, noting all of the fantastic things you have done this academic year. You may not have completed the actions on your action plan, or perhaps focused on what you aimed to focus on - you have done so much more. COVID-19 may not yet be finished with us, and we may still have hurdles to get over, but take that pride forward and own your many achievements – it will sustain you in the times ahead.

Although we cannot be certain what the future may bring, what we do know is that the educational landscape is in a period of flux. Whilst children are inherently resilient, we must adapt our practice in order to support them to do more than ‘catch-up’. This crisis can be a chance for real change, not just in our own individual settings but across education, we just have to take the chance.

For more information about developing a recovery curriculum or our wider support, please email laura.lodge@oneeducation.co.uk

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