By Caitlin Brown, Education Manager at the British Science Association 


The run up to a brand-new school year can be an exciting time. School shoes are shiny, pencil cases are full of stationery waiting to be used, and children are excited to see their friends and swap stories about their summers. But this year, things feel a little different. Young people, along with everyone else, have faced severe disruptions since March 2020; school hasn’t been the same for well over a year. Between school closures, home learning, a lack of clarity about returns and bubbles bursting, children haven’t been able to learn in the same way that they usually would. So, what will ‘back to school’ look like this September?

Longer days?

At the time of writing, the UK nations have not made an official announcement about changes to the school day when the new academic year begins. However, there have been discussions in the media about the possibility of an extended school day. In June, The Guardian reported on leaked government proposals to establish a minimum 35-hour week in schools in England, and to add 100 hours of additional schooling. These plans, however, were drawn up by the then-Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins, who has since resigned due to insufficient funds being allocated for an effective education recovery programme.

On 7 July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that extending the school day was “the right thing to do”. This is not an idea that has been met with universal praise; academics at the universities of Kent and Cambridge have questioned whether longer days really are the key to successful learning, citing original research that suggests they are not.

A broad and balanced curriculum?

Although the length and structure of the school day in the context of recovery is still being discussed, the Department for Education has released non-statutory guidelines for educators: Teaching a broad and balanced curriculum for education recovery. The document opens with some general points for all ages and subjects. Teachers are advised to “prioritise teaching missing content that will allow pupils to make sense of later work in the curriculum”, and it also discusses interventions for children who need extra support. “While interventions might suggest increased workload,” the guidelines say, “time spent on them, making sure that pupils catch up, can be a good investment of effort.”

It is inevitable that children’s learning will have been impacted by the pandemic. On average, the move to home-learning impacted children from low socio-economic backgrounds more than those from more privileged backgrounds. But the sense of being ‘behind’ or needing to ‘catch up’ cannot and must not be a burden placed on the shoulders of young people. The psychological impact of a ‘catch up’ narrative could place children under “huge and unnecessary pressure”, Dr Dan O'Hare, Co-chair of the BPS Division of Educational and Child Psychology, told the BBC.

Children’s wellbeing must be prioritised, alongside low-pressure, confidence-building teaching styles. At the British Science Association, this is something we would highly recommend even under more ‘normal’ circumstances.

We have multiple blogs on the importance of mental wellbeing and positive teaching styles that reward effort and passion over test results. During Mental Health Awareness Week, we published a blog including tips for educators on how to create open spaces in schools where young people feel comfortable discussing their feelings; something that may be more necessary than ever in the wake of the pandemic.

In our blog on maths anxiety (a phenomenon where children (and adults) can feel panic when faced with a maths question), we looked at the concept of a ‘growth mindset’. This is the idea that intelligence isn’t static but can be developed, and that effort should be rewarded. Studies have shown that in classrooms where maths is taught with a growth mindset, children flourish and improve. The concept of the growth mindset can be applied to any subject, and a teaching style which puts emphasis on engagement would benefit students. 

Of course, the curriculum matters. We understand there are boxes that must be ticked, specific areas that must be covered. But it is not only curriculum learning that children have missed out on since March 2020. Indeed, the soft skills students develop through being in the classroom with their teachers and peers – communication, teamwork, problem-solving, creative thinking and more – have been even more neglected due to necessary home-schooling and social distancing measures. These skills lay the foundation for more traditional academic learning and can set young people up for life no matter what they go on to pursue.

Quality, not quantity 

Simply extending the school day and trying to cram in curriculum areas will not benefit young people or teachers. If a recovery plan is put in place and the school day is extended, soft skill development should be prioritised alongside designated curriculum learning so that the best interests of children, beyond test results alone, are considered. Our education programme, the CREST Awards, is one way that children can improve their curriculum-based scientific knowledge whilst learning how to work in teams, solve problems and communicate their findings.

This September will be a ‘back to school’ like no other, and it’s important to remember what really matters and what education is about. Facts can always be learned – they’re not going anywhere – but formative experiences that give children life skills, and shape the adults they’re going to be, have a window, and we mustn’t board it shut.