My pupils have been badly set back by the pandemic. ‘Catch-up’ lessons aren’t what they need | Anonymous

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Last week, while watching an outdated DVD about “growing and changing” with my year 2 class, a child in the programme blew out their birthday candles and shared slices of the cake with their friends. Outrage in the classroom ensued. “Miss, was that before corona? That’s disgusting!”

Birthday parties are a small part of what young children have missed over the past two years. Since the first lockdown began, children have missed months of classroom learning, play dates, drama groups and football practice. Recent findings from Ofsted show the pandemic has delayed the social skills of young children – with some unable to understand facial expressions as a result. These will surprise no teacher. There have been no national lockdowns or two-week “bubble” closures during this academic year, and this relative consistency has been wonderful. But being back at school has also given staff a clearer understanding of how the pandemic has affected children’s development.

The recent reports from Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, resonate with what I’ve seen among younger children at my school. The early years non-statutory curriculum is based on the principle that all areas of learning are connected. It places greater emphasis on communication and social and physical development than the curriculum of older year groups, where progress is defined in a more traditionally academic sense. So it’s unsurprising that children who have missed months of nursery and reception – school years that teach them how to play cooperatively with others and voice their needs or ideas – are now showing gaps in these foundational skills.

In my school, some children are now struggling to articulate what they need or want, answer simple questions or follow short instructions. This has a knock-on effect on their social skills. Those who haven’t had much practice taking turns in conversation or sharing with others find playing and using school resources difficult. Many children have missed out on physical development opportunities; it has been eye-opening to witness four- and five-year-olds choosing to crawl down the corridor into the toilets rather than walk.

My school emphasises a relational approach to education, which recognises that children learn best when they feel safe, secure and stable. I am seeing anxiety in the pupils I teach, which manifests in different ways – aches and pains, reluctance to enter the classroom in the mornings, unwillingness to try new things – all of which affect their ability to function in the classroom. Class teachers and teaching assistants are so important in promoting feelings of security in young children. Every time one of us is off sick with Covid-19, it has a knock-on effect on the children we teach.

I often wonder whether abrupt school closures during the lockdowns of the past two years, which gave little time for school staff or families to emotionally prepare children for dramatic changes, have left a lasting impression on children’s sense that they can rely on school as a constant in their lives. It is really sad to think about those children who lack stability in their home lives, and what impact these sudden closures would have had on them.

Teachers identified many of the issues raised in the recent Ofsted findings early during the pandemic. Educational specialists called for a “summer of play” in 2021, and Kevin Courtney of the NEU spoke about the need to give schools flexibility in organising the curriculum to support children’s emotional needs in 2020. So it seems misguided that the Department for Education has chosen to focus more on lost academic learning than the missed social, physical, communication and emotional development of children. Neither the National Tutoring Programme, the assessing of children through SATs after a two-year hiatus or the enforcement of minimum classroom hours will address these issues.

Children are resilient by nature. Along with the anxiety and fear that have surrounded Covid-19, they have dealt with the pandemic with humour and creativity. It has been interesting to see how my students have portrayed the pandemic in their games, stories and drawings. Many have adjusted to living through a pandemic better than some of the adults I know. While this school year has been tiring for children (my year 2s have never had an uninterrupted period of education as long as this one), I can already see the powerful part that time and consistency will play in children’s development after lockdown.

All school staff want the best for the children they serve, although their visions of what “the best” looks like will be different. I feel lucky that my school has not imposed some of the directives I’ve heard others have received, such as setting after-school “catch-up” sessions for children as young as six years old, or mock SATs for the first week back in September 2021. At the school where I teach, leaders have accepted that filling gaps in learning is a long-term, ongoing project that will require collaboration and communication between staff working across different age groups for years to come.

Last academic year, working in year 1, I built more time into the school day for play and investigation, and allowed children opportunities to develop the social, physical, communication and emotional skills they had missed out on after a broken year of reception. Although we endured more lockdowns and class-bubble closures that year, I am now working with the same children in year 2 and believe the extra time dedicated to these fundamental learning skills and behaviours has had a long-term impact that I don’t think additional classroom hours or statutory assessments would have achieved. Perhaps one of the key lessons from the pandemic is that the government and primary schools should take more inspiration from the early years curriculum – with its emphasis on communication, and social and physical learning – and value these fundamental areas of development alongside academic attainment.

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