This website collects a number of cookies from its users for improving your overall experience of the site.

Research School Network: The ​‘catch-up’ conundrum Where does the evidence suggest we look for solutions?

The ​‘catch-up’ conundrum

Where does the evidence suggest we look for solutions?

by Blackpool Research School
on the

Simon Cox is a secondary mathematics teacher and director of Blackpool Research School.

Whatever your preferred news outlets, you can’t avoid the talk of catch up’ in the media currently. While we may disagree with the language used, the focus is understandable: many parents, schools, and children are concerned about the likely impact of partial school closures that, even in the best-case scenario, will have resulted in children spending 75 days away from school. For the majority of children, it is likely to be much longer.

While evidence to support the idea of learning loss’ was initially based upon estimates (‘School closures are likely to reverse progress made to narrow the gap in the last decade’: EEF, 2020), recent research gives more concrete concern. A report from EEF and NFER suggests that Key Stage 1 children were, on average, two months behind where they usually are in maths and reading and that the disadvantage gap has widened from 5 months to 7 months (‘Impact of school closures on attainment in Key Stage 1’: EEF, 2021). And given that this research took place prior to Autumn term bubble bursts’ and the January lockdown, the real picture is likely to be worse.

What are the possible responses, and what does the evidence say?

Intuition tells us that, given the loss of learning time, a sensible priority upon full reopening would be to extend the time we give to supporting those pupils most in need. However, it is always important for us to check our instincts against the broader evidence base and EEF’s teaching and learning toolkit is a good place to start. Although there are a number of strands which consider extending school time, the evidence for the effectiveness of this is mixed and the impact not as significant as our instincts might expect.


Summer schools are well-researched and are possibly the best bet’ here given the evidence of efficacy. But they are challenging and expensive to do well, and evidence shows us that intensive, well-resourced summer schools involving small-group tuition by experienced teachers are likely to have the most impact. There are clearly other considerations here, not least of which is the impact on teachers of losing holiday time after one of the most challenging years any of us can ever remember.

Extending school time – either through longer school years or longer school days – shows a similar impact, although it should be said that gains are not consistent across studies. Sessions clearly linked to the curriculum and possible also focusing on developing personal and social skills can be effective, but come with their own challenges, with studies showing the difficulty of attracting and retaining secondary-age pupils to additional sessions in particular.

Repeating a year seems like a non-starter, with evidence showing that this has been harmful to progress in the past. Of course, this evidence comes from very different situations to that which we now find ourselves in and often from outside the UK, meaning that perhaps it shouldn’t be completely written off as an idea.

Small group

Targeted support seems to be our best bet’. Tutoring, whether one-to-one or in small groups, shows consistently high impact and new evidence suggests that tutoring delivered remotely can also be effective if done well. The quality of tutoring here is key and we know that alignment with a school’s curriculum, liaison between tutors and class teachers, and consideration of what pupils are missing in order to take part in sessions are all important.

The situation, and any likely solution, is complex and it seems likely that the use of multiple approaches over a significant period of time is likely to be the most effective strategy to take. Schools know best what works for their pupils and families, and we know from experience that it is unlikely that a one size fits all’ approach will be effective. One thing is certain: a national focus and significant investment in schools will be needed.

More from the Blackpool Research School

Show all news