Back to school after COVID – advice for parents

Published: 01 Mar 21

Homeschooling, remote learning, and lockdown restrictions have been the normality for most of us since Christmas.

However, with infection and death rates (though still painfully high) dropping and the number of people receiving vaccinations increasing at an impressive rate - schools across the UK are opening up once again.

The question many have now is: what impact has this lockdown had on our children's education? And what can we do to mitigate the damage?

In this blog, we will outline the latest updates on each country's back-to-school approach, provide guidance on what this means for your child's education, and give you some ideas on how you can help your child.


Update since the 22nd February announcements

  • England back-to-school details:
    In England, schools will open fully on 8th March. SATs, GCSEs and A-Levels have been cancelled. GCSE and A level grades will be awarded by teacher assessments based on internal school tests, course work and school work.
  • Scotland back-to-school details:
    Scotland will have a staggered return to school that started on Monday 22nd February, starting with Primary and secondary students with practical work to complete for qualifications. Others will wait until at least 15th March.
  • Wales back-to-school details:
    Wales started with EYFS and Key Stage 1 plus secondary vocational course students on Monday 22nd but will review before phasing in other year groups. GCSE and A levels are also cancelled.
  • Northern Ireland back-to-school details:
    In Northern Ireland, children aged four to seven will go back to school on 8th March, with older students taking qualifications returning on 22nd March.

The practicalities of returning to school

After many short winter days and long winter nights (though it may have felt the other way round) of learning at home, it will soon be time for many primary and secondary students to return to school finally.

For some students, whatever their age, being at home will have been a safe-haven, a relaxed place away from the hustle and bustle of school life. This situation may be particularly true for those with learning or physical difficulties who find life more comfortable at home. For others, it will have been a long and tedious experience, separated from their friend and the variety of interactions and experiences they have at school.

Regardless, returning to school after this prolonged period will come with some challenges for the whole family.

So how can you, as a parent or guardian, help?

Get back into the routine in advance:

Going back to the school routine may come as a physical, mental, and emotional shock if they don't ready themselves.

  • Do they have what they physically need?
    First of all, there are the practicalities. For example, does your son or daughter have all the right equipment: pens, pencils, calculators, school exercise books/textbooks needed for school? Do we know if it is a week A or Week B timetable as this will obviously impact on requirements? Do you know where the school uniform and school shoes are - and do they still fit? Do you have the right food and drink in for snacks or packed lunches?
  • Are they up to date with their work?
    Are all assignments completed? Best not to leave this to the night before. Do they understand the work they have been asked to do? If not, plan who they can ask for help at school.
  • Are they in the right routine?
    Also, students will likely have to get up earlier than they have been for a while, especially teenagers. A good idea may be to start waking them up at the usual school day time a few days before they go back to school, so they are in the right 'time zone' and don't feel jet-lagged all day.

Get your child emotionally prepared:

Your child, whatever their age, may be excited or nervous about going back to school.

  • Have a back-to-school chat and keep checking in once back in school.
    Do talk to your child, whatever age, and ask them how they feel. If they have serious concerns, talk through these with them and, if necessary, do let the form teacher or class teacher be aware of any concerns. Once they have gone back to school, the obvious question to ask is, "How was your day"? This may result in a smile or a non-committal grunt of OK, but if there are any problems or issues, best to deal with them early.
  • Set expectations on activities, routines and classes, so they are not shocked – help them be emotionally prepared.
    Some activities, routines, and classes may be the same at school, while some may be different as the school may have revised the way they operate. Again students should be made aware that this may be the case so they are not unduly unsettled by any changes. For younger students, establish clearly who will be taking them to school and who will be picking them up and at what time.
  • Ensure they reconnect with friends in advance (and you too).
    After a prolonged absence from friends, encourage your child to reconnect with friends (and the same for you with other parents), perhaps via social media or parents' social media.

The effect of the pandemic on learning

Primary students falling behind on English and Maths

Results for Primary age pupils were much better, but The Education Endowment Foundation found that the performance of young children in English and Maths dropped significantly last spring, with six and seven-year-olds two months behind their peer group of previous years.

The Commission on School reform in an updated report (see The Evening Standard) warns that students will need eight extra hours of tuition a week for the next two years, or five hours a week for three years, to make up for lessons lost during the COVID lockdown.

What can you do to support a Primary school student?

GCSE students are struggling to focus and prepare

A study by the non-profit organisation ImpactEd, reported in The Times, found that those taking (or were due to take) their GCSEs this summer were the most anxious and had struggled the most with home learning, with girls most worried about going back to school. GCSE pupils were also the least engaged with learning, often not understanding the work set and unable to get support for their work.

The cancellation of the summer exams and a lack of clarity over what will replace them have also left students feeling demotivated regarding online lessons as background noise (Exams Done Right). We now know that students will not have to sit so-called mini-exams set by the exam boards, but these will be available for schools to use and are likely to become part of the basis on which final exam grades are determined.

What can you do to support a GCSE student?

  • Ask how they feel.
  • Understand their curriculum and how they will be assessed.
  • Be aware that content coverage, not just the grade awarded, is very important for any subject that is to be studied at A Level.
  • Focus on their emotional well-being; many are suffering from stress and burnout.
  • Emphasise the positives and the longer-term hope for the future, including academically such as A levels and also the anticipated relaxation of lockdown restrictions.
  • Consider a GCSE tutor who specialises in your child's subjects and exam boards.

What can you do to support an A Level student?

  • Ask how they feel.
  • Understand their curriculum and how they will be assessed. The major Exam Boards are AQA, Pearson/Edexcel, OCR and WJEC.
  • Be aware that content coverage, not just the grade awarded, is very important for any subject that is to be studied or required at a higher level.
  • Focus on their emotional well-being; many are suffering from stress and burnout.
  • Emphasise the positives and the longer-term hope for the future, including academically such as A levels and also the anticipated relaxation of lockdown restrictions.
  • Consider an A Level tutor who specialises in your child's subjects and exam boards.

What about Homeschooled students?

Ofqual published the following on 25th February:

If you are a private candidate studying independently, you will need to work with a school or college, or another exam centre, to provide evidence in line with the sort of evidence that other students will produce. You should receive your grade at the same time as other candidates. The Department for Education is working to make sure there are enough centres available, without it costing more than it normally would, and will publish more on this shortly.


...But students are resilient, and there is hope

The president of the Association of School and College Leaders, Richard Sheriff, has warned against stigmatising the current crop of students as the "COVID Generation" and damaged as a result - as reported in The Times.

He points out that many have learnt new skills (as have many teachers and tutors): resilience, independence and an increased awareness of how to live in and communicate with the new world around them.

It could also be that the way we have carried out education for decades has had its time, i.e. putting children into one large building; students all arriving at and leaving school simultaneously; students being taught in groups of thirty. Individual learning is very possibly the way forward.

The way forward

Assuming there are no major hiccups, the government has mapped out a phased return to normality over the next few months. However, they have acknowledged that many students will need to catch up on learning missed over the last year. Proposals include:

  • Summer Schools for Secondary School students, though who would staff them and would students actually attend are two unanswered questions.
  • Repeating the School Year, though this is impractical on a large scale and the benefits are contested.
  • Extending the school day by extra lessons or after school clubs. The reality is that many teachers do this unofficially, but again would the students who need this the most attend?
  • Increased well-being support, especially for disadvantaged pupils
  • One-to-one tuition, know to be a proven way of helping children catch up. Weekly tuition sessions can help a student make up three to six months of academic learning, especially literacy and numeracy amongst Primary age pupils. The National Tutoring Programme has helped, though the effectiveness of the mostly online tutoring, often carried out by university students, has been questioned by the scheme's proposer, Prof Lee Elliot Major.
  • Teachers To Your Home offers quality face-to-face or online tuition carried out by professionals.