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'Focus on children's emotional wellbeing' says West Berkshire headteacher

Andy Higgs: 'It's not all about academic catch-up'

A WEST Berkshire headteacher has called for a focus on children’s social and emotional wellbeing and development over the coming months.

Reports in the national media recently said discussions were ongoing for either lengthening the school day or extending the school summer term in an effort to make up for lost learning during the coronavirus pandemic, with £1.3bn of funding made available in England for catch-up programmes.

However, the chairman of the West Berkshire Primary Headteachers Association, Andy Higgs, said it was more important to concentrate on children’s mental health than their academic learning after 11 months of being in and out of school.

Mr Higgs, who is also headteacher at Bucklebury Primary School, said: “An extended period of uninterrupted schooling in person in the classroom will make the world of difference to children and their attainment.

“But what children need more than specific knowledge that they may have missed out on, which they can catch up on I’m certain, is their social and emotional development they’ve missed out on by not mixing with their peers.

“That’s the thing that schools are thinking particularly carefully about, and I hesitate when I hear discussion about academic catch-up only.

“If that’s what the catch-up programme becomes, then I think it’s a significant error.”

To help with children’s mental well-being in schools, Mr Higgs suggested more of the school day could be allocated to social time – such as an afternoon break – and that schools should be proactive in providing opportunities for children to be social.

Schools could also make use of West Berkshire Council’s emotional literacy support assistants (ELSAs) who, Mr Higgs said, could be proactively used to address problems that arise.

However, with children already feeling fatigued from remote learning, Mr Higgs said that extending the school day or summer term was likely not the solution.

He said: “The challenge with extending or doing more is that it doesn’t make the child any less tired.

“We see at the end of every term that the intensity of school life, not only academic but emotionally, takes its toll.

“The rhythm of a school year – and the balance that it’s given by the 38 weeks and the 13 weeks off – is really valuable.

“If we rushed to significantly extend the school day or summer term into August, we would once again fall into the trap of reacting to deal with what’s in front of us, in the short term way, and we’d face over time significant unintended consequences.”

Ben Bond, headteacher The Clere secondary school in Burghclere, agreed, saying extending the summer term and potentially having longer holidays at half term or Christmas would be “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

He said: “There will be a need to engage with children once they’re back in the classroom and really hammer home where any learning gaps have been widened or created.

“I don’t know what the appetite of parents would be in terms of running the terms for longer.

“The discussion I’ve read was that would be at the expense of autumn term time, so you’d essentially have two weeks more in the summer and an extra week off for half-term or Christmas, which has its own downfalls as well – you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“I think it’s unhelpful that the national speculation is played out in the media without schools being involved in some of the conversations, because parents pick up on this stuff.

“I think there’s work we could do catching children up maybe in after-school sessions – we’ve got money from the Government to support that.

“We’ve got children on site who are behind on their online learning and we’ve invited adults in to take part in on-site sessions, so that’s already happening.”

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