Covid-19 Curriculum Watch 4: Curriculum choices and the pandemic

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26 August 2020

This is the fourth blog in our series in which we have been cataloguing the educational responses of the different UK nations to the current pandemic. Blog 1 covered national planning for school closure and reopening, Blog 2 focused on assessment arrangements, and Blog 3 looked at learning support and access. In this final blog we are looking at curriculum issues. As face-to-face and blended learning restarts for most learners across the UK, we want to look at how curriculum policy and practice in the different nations is being affected by the pandemic.

There are variations around the return to school dates across the UK. Scottish schools reopened in mid-August, while the other nations plan to return to school sometime between late August and early September. These variations mean that policy decision-making and guidance across the nations is at different stages of development as we compile information for this blog. The complexity and uncertainty around Covid, and what returning to school will look like, has also meant that in many cases documentation and guidance has been evolving. 

We see a number of curriculum policy issues that are common to the four nations. One of these is how curriculum decision-making is distributed between central government, local authorities and individual schools. This reflects the importance of responsive decision-making during the rapidly changing public health landscape of the pandemic. There are also common cross-national considerations around what the focus of the immediate post-lockdown curriculum should be. Balancing learner wellbeing and recovering ‘lost’ learning are two elements that influence curriculum decision-making, but that are possibly in tension with each other. 

Theme 1: centralisation and flexibility

Schools in England are planning to re-open in full in the autumn term for all year groups. Government guidance has emphasised the need for schools to minimise social mixing, while also delivering a curriculum that is broad and balanced, especially at the secondary level. Government guidance has outlined key principles on curriculum planning, stipulating that the curriculum is to remain ‘broad and ambitious’, with learners taught a wide range of subjects and maintaining choices for further study and employment. Schools are advised to continue to build their capacity to teach remotely where needed, with remote education to align as closely as possible with in-school provision. Flexibility is encouraged up to Key Stage 3, but with a recommendation to avoid dropping subjects altogether. It is anticipated that schools will implement a curriculum that is less flexible for Key Stages 4 and 5 given the requirements of qualification specifications. Many local authorities have issued their own guidance to schools, outlining basic strategies to assess and address ‘lost’ learning while also considering student wellbeing following the return to school.

The Scottish Government has labelled the school reopening period as ‘the Recovery Phase’, during which national guidance proposes a minimalist, core learning approach to curriculum content. Beyond these broad guidelines, the Scottish Government devolves most of the curriculum decision-making responsibility, stating that curriculum preparation would be carried out locally by Early Learning Centres, primary and secondary schools, and partnership colleges. In essence, the policy approach adopted by the Scottish Government ensures that local authorities and schools have a significant role in policy enactment, reflecting their closeness to learners, families, and communities. This is seen in local responses. For example, Glasgow Council have created a Framework for Recovery, Resilience and Re-connection. This framework includes additional guidance on which areas of the curriculum should be delivered, and outlines the areas of decision-making that are further devolved to schools.

Following the advice of the Technical Advisory Group, the Welsh government has announced that all children will return to school fulltime in September. There will be two weeks of ‘flexibility’ to allow schools to focus on priority year groups, such as those taking exams or starting at secondary school, with all students required to return by 14th September. Through the Coronavirus Act 2020, the Welsh government temporarily suspended the basic curriculum requirements for schools to allow flexibility in adapting learning. This is due to be reviewed. The Welsh Government have also given guidance about learning in schools and other education settings for the new school year. Schools are expected to adapt their curriculum, being flexible and responsive to the changing circumstances and have contingency plans to account for possible future outbreaks.

Schools in Northern Ireland will continue using the statutory curriculum, with the Northern Ireland Department of Education offering guidance on Curriculum Planning for the 2020/21 school year as part of a broader Education Restart Programme. Schools are asked to adapt to the current context whilst still meeting the spirit of the Northern Ireland curriculum, which is intended to be non-prescriptive and flexible in ordinary circumstances. Originally, return to school guidance discussed how blended learning was expected to continue for some time, with guidance given about the proportion of time which should be spent on in-school learning. This has since been revised, with all children expected to return to normal patterns of attendance from the 31st August. Updated guidance outlines how schools will need to consider how best to deliver their curriculum whilst reducing virus transmission and implementing mitigation measures. Schools are expected to have contingency plans to deliver their curriculum if a return to blended learning becomes necessary. 

Theme 2: knowledge, skills, and ‘catch up’

In England, there are concerns that the pandemic will serve to widen the attainment gap between poorer students and their peers, despite progress being made towards reducing the gap since 2011. Our previous blog on learning resources during lockdown highlighted that disadvantaged students were more likely to disengage from education during the pandemic, there is therefore a sense that the scale of ‘lost’ learning is extensive. Government guidance suggests the effective use of regular formative assessment (quizzes, talking to learners to assess understanding, and close scrutiny of work) to establish learners’ starting points. The Department for Education (DfE) advises schools who are considering revisions to their curriculum in the academic year 2020-21 to emphasise core skills in reading (up to and including Key Stage 3), and prioritisation within subjects of the most important components for progression. For learners in Key Stages 1 and 2, emphasis is to be placed on good progress in the ‘essentials’ (reading, increasing vocabulary, writing and maths). Similarly, it is anticipated that it will be necessary for learners in Year 7 to address gaps in English and maths by teaching key skills from the Key Stage 2 curriculum. In June, the government announced a £1 billion ‘Covid catch-up’ fund, with £350 million of that sum going towards tutoring.

The Scottish national guidance on curriculum preparation for the Covid-19 recovery phase focuses on a learning core of literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, which is similar to the focus in Wales. At the secondary level this extends to include access to learning in a wider range of curriculum areas. National guidelines also include guidance on learners’ expected time in school, with an aim that learners should be in school for a minimum of 11 hours. To support this aim the Scottish Government has pledged £100 million over two years to help children recover any lost ground and to deal with teacher recruitment. Beyond the generic national guidance, local authorities in Scotland are providing detailed curriculum implementation support to schools with advice on planning, timetabling, and the most appropriate location for different areas of learning. For example, Glasgow Council guidance encourages schools to offer as broad a curriculum as possible (noting the developmental gains of participation in sports whilst also noting the lack of local authority extra-curricular provision such as swimming and music provision), and to plan to cover priority learning areas to prepare for exams at the later (Senior Phase) stages of secondary education.

In Wales there are ambitions to continue to raise standards, to maximise learning with minimum disruption, and to close attainment gaps. The guidance on returning to learning in the autumn term sets out key priorities. In terms of curriculum, the guidance emphasises the importance of ‘literacy, numeracy and digital competence’ across the curriculum and ‘broad and balanced learning experiences’. Schools are also able to draw from the National Literacy and Numeracy Frameworks, and the Digital Competence Framework, and they also make frequent references that schools may wish to draw from the new Curriculum for Wales (which has been recently published and is due to be implemented in schools from September 2022) as they work to develop their plans for learning in the autumn term. The Education Minister announced that £29 million would be available to recruit additional teachers to provide extra support for disadvantaged and vulnerable learners, and those at crucial points in their education such as those in Years 11, 12 and 13. 

The Northern Ireland curriculum planning guidance was issued prior to the decision for all children to return to school and includes guidance on planning the curriculum in the context of blended and remote learning, which is now less relevant. The guidance cautions against any desire to focus on catching up on knowledge content, and instead advises schools to ensure that there is a balance of knowledge, understanding and skills. The guidance also emphasises that missed content is not a long-term problem if learners are well supported in their learning. There is acknowledgement that missed knowledge content is more challenging where students have public examinations, and further guidance on this is planned although it is not yet clear when this will be published. 

Theme 3: wellbeing and the recovery curriculum

In England, government guidance acknowledges the impact of the pandemic on learner mental health and wellbeing. It is anticipated that there will be a need to train teachers working with special needs learners to support them with their return to school after a long absence. Government guidance includes suggestions for free online teacher resources that contain materials on peer support, stress, trauma and bereavement. More broadly, stakeholder debate around a ‘recovery curriculum’ has focused on the need to acknowledge the loss experienced by learners due to lockdown, such as cancelled exams and the loss of social interaction with peers. Many of these argue that a focus on recovering lost knowledge is incompatible with the process of recovery regarding students’ mental health and wellbeing. In other words, recovery is less about lesson planning to tackle the issue of lost knowledge, and more about ‘recovery conversations’ with students, teachers and educators.

The Scottish national guidance has a clear emphasis on learners’ health and wellbeing, with this being one of the core areas of focus for schools. Beyond this generic guidance, local authorities are providing more specific support to teachers. For example, documentation from Aberdeen and Glasgow local authorities show how they are putting wellbeing to the fore. The advice from Glasgow emphasises the need to help learners to ‘reconnect’ with education and with other learners, and this shares commonalities with the ‘recovery conversations’ developed in England and Northern Ireland. This advice suggests that schools should plan activities which will provide opportunities for children to explore their experience of lockdown as an important part of engaging with their school, with their teachers, and with their classmates. The guidance also includes information on timescales: suggesting that reconnection work should be a short-term approach for the first week or for a maximum of two weeks of learning.

Throughout the pandemic the Welsh Government has maintained that a top priority for education is wellbeing and health. More generally, the new Curriculum for Wales seeks to embed health and wellbeing at the core of the curriculum, considering it a key aspect of curriculum even in ordinary circumstances. The Government’s return to school guidance discusses how wellbeing is a pre-requisite for learning and that learners must be ‘content, safe and secure’ for effective learning to occur. They discuss mental, emotional, physical and social well-being with an emphasis on the importance of outdoor learning and play for all ages. They also highlight that if remote learning occurs again for some or all children, regular ‘check ins’ will be crucial for monitoring learners’ wellbeing. The Welsh Government also shared the ‘Reconnection to Recovery and Resilience programme’, which was created by Embark Federation for schools in Derbyshire and has received international attention. Local authorities have also been providing guidance for schools; for instance, the Carmarthenshire Healthy Schools Team sent a resource list to schools focusing on wellbeing. 

In Northern Ireland, learner and education workforce wellbeing are one of the priorities of the Education Restart Programme, as outlined in a letter from the Education Minister, Peter Weir. The Curriculum Planning guidance highlights the importance of the language used when discussing the return to education, and that schools should be aware that references to ‘catch up’ and ‘lost time’ may exacerbate student anxiety. The guidance talks about the importance of ‘recovery conversations’ to give students space to talk about Covid related experiences and thoughts, whilst also ensuring that there is space in the curriculum away from this. The National Children’s Bureau goes further, suggesting that children should return to the point of education from which they left, being given space to reconnect and recover lost learning rather than being rushed into the next phase of education. 

Final comments

With schools and colleges re-opening for the 2020 autumn term across the four UK nations we see the development and implementation of curriculum policy being prone to rapid adaptation. As each nation looks to balance the focus of learning activity around recovery (wellbeing) and catch up (core learning), there is a need to support educators so that they can respond to quick changes in circumstances. We can see that this contextual flexibility relies – to varying degrees across the nations – on the input of local authorities to support the implementation of national guidance at school and college level. 

The rapid policy shifts that we have captured in our series of four blogs reminds us of the interconnectedness of education. One policy change in the education system influences other components in ways that might (or might not) be expected. The pandemic has undoubtedly led to simultaneous policy change, with such change influencing other policies and sometimes leading to unforeseen consequences. It is possible that the attention surrounding recent, rapid, and high-profile changes in examinations policy have deflected attention from policy development in other areas. This may partially explain why some areas of curriculum policy are still in formation so close to school re-opening dates. 

If you are interested in contacting our team around any of the issues discussed in this blog, or if you want to suggest topics for our future blogs, please get in touch with us

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