Extensions of the school day or shorter summer holidays will only “work well” if they are supported by parents so they do not feel like “punishment”, England’s chief schools inspector has said.
Amanda Spielman highlighted findings that show many parents are sceptical about shortening the summer break, as “children need time with their grandparents” and friends after a year of restrictions.
The Ofsted chief said schools have not been able to “avert an epidemic of demotivated children”, adding that some parents have not had the time to help their children focus on schoolwork during closures.
Her comments came after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that a change to the summer holidays and longer school days are being examined as part of long-term recovery plans for pupils.
This year, secondary schools are being asked to deliver summer schools as part of the Government’s £1.7 billion catch-up programme for children in England who have faced disruption due to the pandemic.
Addressing the conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Ms Spielman warned that attainment gaps could be widened if pupils most in need of help do not turn up for extra classes.
She said: “I also believe that extensions of schooling will work well only if they’re well supported by families so that they don’t feel like a punishment for children or for their parents.”
On calls to shorten the summer holidays, Ms Spielman added: “Parents know that after a year of heavy restrictions, children need time with their grandparents, with their friends, to get out of the house and enjoy themselves again. These are things that will help them learn well in school.
“So we really need to work with the grain. Without parental support the children who most need help may simply not turn up.
“Or if they have to stay longer in the classroom they may switch off and then the extra time could be wasted. That risks widening gaps, not closing them.”
Addressing hundreds of delegates at the union’s virtual conference, England’s chief schools inspector warned against “racing through subjects at pace” so everything is covered but “little is covered well”.
On efforts to help children catch up on missed learning, Ms Spielman said: “So this really is about schools and colleges making intelligent choices, not just cramming everything in.
“What do children and young people absolutely have to know? What are the building blocks that will help them move on to the next stage? What’s less important? And crucially, how does this differ from subject to subject? The approach that works for history might not work for maths.
“Compromises will have to be made, but please don’t assume that from our perspective, superficial but nominally complete is the way to go.”
During the speech to headteachers, Ms Spielman said almost every child, regardless of background, has been affected by school closures.
She said: “Being cooped up for weeks and months on end has piled on the misery for otherwise sociable and active children.
“So many have been bored and lonely and getting very little exercise. Teachers have even reported to us young children losing very basic skills such as using a pencil.”
Ms Spielman added: “With the best will in the world, schools haven’t been able to avert an epidemic of demotivated children.”
On the reopening of schools, she said: “It does feel as though education is on firmer ground this time.
“I’m sure that opening schools was absolutely the right decision for children. They’ve missed out on so much through these repeated lockdowns.”