Learning Lost: Build Back Better, or Not?


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Is our government’s intention to recover learning lost research-informed or ill-founded?

Almost two months after the Department for Education announced an expert ‘learning lost’ group, we are still waiting on who and what the plan is for our disadvantaged children.

With all the learning lost and a recovery curriculum rhetoric, we know the majority of our children will bounce back, with vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils needing a lot more care and attention.

Undesirable intentions?

A new paper that identifies a number of undesirable outcomes (Zhao, 2021) is important reading for policymakers.

“This [learning lost] trap comes with a large amount of data and with sophisticated projection methods. It presents a stunningly grim picture for education and it invites educators and policymakers to make wrong decisions and invest in wrong things.”

‘Build Back Better’ is one of those political campaigns that sounds all very romantic. What’s not to like about wanting to make things better?

Attention-grabbing headlines

In England, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported: “that pupils who have lost six months of normal schooling could lose approximately £40,000 each in income over their lifetime.”

Amanda Spielman (HMCI, Ofsted) is quoted as saying “one day of national school closure works out at about 40,000 child years of education in total.”

Mere speculation.

We all want pupils back to school. Most of us want disadvantage pupils to receive additional support, but sadly, not everyone in our community does…

Zhao writes, “these estimates have caught the attention of policymakers and educators. Governments, school leaders, and teachers are all concerned about the learning loss students may experience due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After all, schools have been seriously disrupted, as have students and their families.”

Is it a policy trap?

Our concerns as teachers are part and parcel of our job. We want to help young people to succeed. Learning lost speculation is to be expected, but our politicians “could end up investing in unproductive educational efforts.”

We have already observed where unnecessary spending has been used on resources throughout lockdown. Concerns cited are:

  • More standardised assessment
  • These tests would miss other “important aspects of learning”
  • When scores are published, our government and Ofsted will focus on “what was assessed”
  • Additional and unnecessary pressure on pupils to be tested during a pandemic
  • Tests will not evaluate everything; “the loss is different for different students”

More importantly, learning cannot be “remediated without sacrificing in other areas is not realistic” and I am reassured by the conclusion of this paper having spent 25 years in the classroom – there’s nothing few politicians have on my classroom experience.

Teachers know best…

We should encourage teachers to use their professional judgement to work with each and every student teach whatever is necessary rather than what is expected by the government and to build relationships with all students.

  • Keep families engaged
  • Encourage student voice to inform school policies and decision-making.

Of course, additional funding will help, but our teachers and support staff will lead the drive in recovery learning. We know “students are not passive recipients but active creators of learning” and for those of you who have observed a number of higher-performing schools on your travels, you will know student voice matters.

Learning lost doesn’t need to be so ‘knee-jerk’ or so pessimistic.

Yong Zhao, Build Back Better, March 2021


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