Research School Network: Addressing the Catch Up Conundrum Marc Rowland explores some principles that should be guiding our work as we support pupils on their return to school.


Addressing the Catch Up Conundrum

Marc Rowland explores some principles that should be guiding our work as we support pupils on their return to school.

by Unity Research School
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Addressing the Catch Up Conundrum

Working with schools within the Unity Schools Partnership, together with other RSN members including Durrington Research School, USP adviser for improving outcomes for disadvantaged learners Marc Rowland explores some principles that should be guiding our work as we support pupils on their return to school.

There is SO much noise in the system about how we respond to the challenges of partial school closures.

I think there are some key principles that we need to adopt to ensure that pupils don’t become the Covid cohort. The biggest risk, as I see it, is that [as a system] we try to do too much, too soon. This could mean we exacerbate the challenges that Covid 19 has brought us. As with issues arising from long term disadvantage, it is not big structural changes that will address these challenges. Structural changes may lay the platform but it’s what happens in the classroom that matters most.

The following principles, born out of work focussing on long term disadvantage, may help:

  1. Strategies to negate the impact of Covid 19 should be intertwined with those to tackle long term disadvantage.
  2. Everyone needs to be responsible for the response to Covid 19; everyone needs to understand the strategy and their role within it.
  3. Studies suggest that our most disadvantaged pupils have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These pupils were often not experiencing a level playing field before the pandemic.
  4. The most effective strategies for addressing disadvantage post-pandemic are the same of those pre-pandemic: in particular inclusive teaching and focussing on improving pupils as learners through literacy and self-regulation skills. These should be built on afoundation of strong pastoral care.
  5. Teachers and support staff need to be at the heart of the response. If they are not, everything we do in response will be built on sand. Teacher agency will be key.
  6. We need to tackle the macro issues arising for the pandemic, and indeed from long term disadvantage, by focussing on the micro issues. Again – what happens in the classroom matters most.
  7. Academic intervention (e.g. tutoring through the National Tutoring Programme) or Pastoral support (e.g. summer schools to support the 3Rs below). Caroline Spalding from Bemrose School in Derby has spoken clearly and pragmatically about how these can supplement a sharp focus in the classroom.
  8. At a school level, we can support our teachers through high quality diagnostic assessment to identify areas that need the most focus. Alex Quigley writes about this here:
  9. Identifying pupil need, rather than being driven by superficial labels such as Pupil Premium or vulnerable’, is inherently problematic. Poorly identified pupil need leads to poorly identified activity which lead to weaker outcomes for pupils. It leads to a Jackson Pollock approach to addressing disadvantage. It leads to late intervention, stress and anxiety.
  10. Teacher voice should be at the heart of our response. Observations of pupils’ learning behaviours, their social interactions, their response to greater levels of structure and routine, their response to being around their peers again.
  11. Coming back in to school for all may be overwhelmingly positive for most, but not for all pupils. Our response to Covid 19 needs to plan for all, not most or some.
  12. Pupil talk and a focus on oral language is key, both in terms of academic achievement and belonging in the classroom; making sure that all pupils have their voices heard – but also listening to the experiences of pupils over the past months. Particularly those that may struggle more with communication and language.
  13. Evidence based pastoral and wellbeing support such as the Incredible years, Place2B or the recommendations in the EEF’s Social and Emotional Learning guidance report. Effective pastoral approaches are inextricably linked to pupils’ experiences in the classroom.
  14. Part of this, for me, has to be the joy of being read to; not on zoom, in person. I think it’s one of the greatest privileges of the classroom. One of the best ways we can address long term disadvantage, and the impact of Covid 19 is to ensure pupils read well and value reading. It’s more difficult to expect pupils to do this if we don’t value it enough ourselves. I think it’s an intervention for the times.
  15. It is critical that pupils and families do not feel like they are being punished for things they have little control or influence over. This includes those that exerienced the most difficulty with home learning.
  16. To quote my colleagues from Edith Borthwick Special School in Essex:​‘The least dangerous assumption is that they [pupils] can do it!​’
Three Rs

Replace the​‘catch up’ narrative

The 3 Rs: Restoration, Relationships, Responsiveness

Restoration into school life.

- Clear boundaries and routines
- Clear behaviour expectations
- Building self-confidence and esteem
- Transition tends to be more difficult for the most vulnerable

Securing Relationships

- Between teachers and pupils

Looping may be an effective and timely strategy to adopt, if it fits with school context:

- Between pupils and their peers
- Between school and families

Cassie Young, part of the Durrington Research School​‘Characteristics of Deprivation’ programme writes brilliantly about working with families here, as part of a long term school improvement approach:

Responsiveness to need

- Diagnostic and formative assessment
- Motivation
- Memory
- Self-regulation
- Literacy – the closest thing we have to a golden ticket on this!
- Curriculum equity (and ensure that some pupils do not experience over intervention’. The EEF school planning guide may help with this).
- Academic and pastoral intervention

  • 17. The three Rs should be accessible and interpretable to everyone in the school community: whether a senior leader, a subject leader, a phase leader, an early career teacher or support staff. They can apply to strategic governance too.
  • 18. There are some super resources available to support the three Rs, almost an overwhelming amount, but I would thoroughly comment those from the British Psychological Society, first brought to my attention by Megan Dixon:
  • 19. I don’t think the 3Rs approach is something to do instead of working to maximise the attainment of all our pupils, particularly the most disadvantaged pupils. It’s something to consider because of the need to maximise attainment – which creates better life chances and life choices for all.

Marc Rowland
Pupil Premium and Vulnerable Learners Adviser
Unity Schools Partnership

I am grateful to the following for their ideas and thinking that have informed this blog:

Marc Rowland’s webinar for HISP Research School Meeting the Needs of Disadvantaged Pupils During and Post-Pandemic’ is available at

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