You are here:

new on 23 June 2020
Ref: 40566
School types: All · School phases: All

Some pupils have lost more learning time than others during coronavirus and have fallen more behind than the rest. Curriculum experts Mary Myatt and Tom Sherrington share their key guiding principles for helping these pupils catch up.

The government has announced a £1-billion catch-up package and a separate National Tutoring Programme to help make up for lost learning. See a summary of what we know here - we'll update this article as soon as we know more details.

This article focuses on those pupils who have significant gaps in their knowledge when they return to school and how to fill those gaps quickly. While all children will have some gaps, most pupils will get back on track after a few weeks of consolidation - for advice on how to consolidate your curriculum for all pupils, read this article. Disadvantaged pupils will face specific challenges - read this to find out how best to support them. 

We wrote this article with help from Mary Myatt, an education adviser and curriculum expert, and Tom Sherrington, an education consultant and former headteacher. Find out more about them at the bottom of this article. 

Identify the pupils likely to have the biggest gaps in knowledge

Even before pupils come back to school, you can start identifying those who've lost the most learning time and are likely to have the biggest gaps. This is something you may already be aware of as a senior leadership team. If not, talk to your teachers, designated safeguarding lead (DSL), special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) and pastoral team to find out.

Don't assume that all pupils you've identified will have significant gaps, or that they'll be the only ones who do

Look for pupils who:

  • Have missed a lot of work, or haven't been engaging with or accessing remote learning (talk to your teachers, or whoever’s been overseeing remote learning)
  • Don’t have access to the technology needed, or whose home lives make home learning difficult
  • Are vulnerable or have EHC plans, so learning from home may have been challenging (talk to your DSL/SENCO)
  • Have experienced difficult family circumstances, such as a bereavement, that may have got in the way of their learning (find out how to create a register to identify these pupils in our article on supporting pupil mental health during school reopening)

Don't assume that all of these pupils will have significant gaps, or that they'll be the only ones who do. You won't know this for sure until you're able to assess where the gaps are - but it's a good idea to start the term with a list of pupils to keep a close eye on.

Use low-stakes assessment in lessons to see if your predictions were right

When pupils return, you'll need to find out where the gaps are in the key concepts and knowledge you've decided to reteach for all pupils (find out how to decide on your key knowledge here). But before you do this or start teaching your curriculum again, make sure your pupils are emotionally settled and feel secure at school

While you're looking for gaps in knowledge among all pupils, make sure teachers are also assessing who has significant gaps. This means:

  • Pupils who have more gaps in their knowledge and skills than others (if all pupils have significant gaps, the teacher should just adjust their normal planning to account for this)
  • Pupils who are unlikely to catch up with the consolidation lessons you've planned for all pupils (trust your teacher's professional judgement on this - they'll be able to tell you)

Don't present pupils with written tests as soon as they come back to school 

Don't present pupils with written tests as soon as they come back to school, and don't expect staff to carry out formal assessments. Instead, ask teachers to carry out some low-stakes quizzing and low-threat knowledge checks during lessons to find out what pupils can remember and where they have gaps. Depending on the subject, these could take the form of:

  • A quick quiz at the back of exercise books, e.g. 10 minutes to write down everything you can remember about the cold war
  • Multiple choice questions in a Google Form
  • Discursive pair work, e.g. read the textbook for 10 minutes, then can you tell you partner the 10 features you read about?
  • Checking knowledge through discussion, e.g. can they explain a concept in their own words?

When you have a clear idea of which pupils have significant gaps, and where their gaps are, you can start to put the measures in place to help them catch up. 

Guiding principles for effective catch-up from Mary Myatt and Tom Sherrington

Your catch-up approach will vary depending on the needs of your pupils and your school's context. Apply these guiding principles to whatever catch-up you're providing:

  • It should be intense and time-limited: you want pupils to fill in the gaps as quickly as possible so they can start doing the same work as their peers. Don't think of this support as long-term. Ideally, catch-up will finish by the time other pupils have finished consolidating the learning they missed

Catch-up should focus on key knowledge and concepts; the content shouldn't be wildly different to consolidation teaching

  • Work with your SENCO on this: it's likely they'll have experience of arranging this kind of catch-up and looking at how effective it's been, and they'll have a good idea of what has and hasn't worked for your pupils in the past
  • It should focus on key knowledge and concepts: use knowledge organisers (or your school's equivalent) for catch-up teaching and quizzing, so that pupils are taught the most important things they need to know
  • Target your teaching at filling pupils' specific gaps: adapt catch-up in light of what you learn about where pupils gaps are, and keep low-stakes quizzing going during the process
  • Staff who deliver this catch-up should be well-trained: high-quality teaching and modelling is key - ideally catch-up should be run by someone who's been trained to carry out these kind of interventions. This could be support staff, but it'll more likely be an experienced teacher
  • Make sure pupils experience success early on: whatever you put in place, pupils need to feel that what they're doing is making a difference - this will motivate them to continue
  • Give pupils the opportunity to practise what they're learning and show that they understand: remember that just telling them something doesn't mean they've learnt it (find out more in Tom's blog post on the #1 problem/weakness in teaching and how to address it)
  • Avoid adding to teacher workload: the content of catch-up teaching and consolidation teaching shouldn't be wildly different as you're just teaching and modelling in more depth (unless you're using a specific programme). Don't encourage teachers to create separate schemes of work or resources (see below)
  • When pupils finish catch-up, provide 'pre-teaching' and 'post-teaching': if pupils have been in separate intervention groups, make sure they're prepared to re-enter the classroom. Provide some pre-teaching on the topic a lesson is going to cover before the lesson, and post-teaching support afterwards to make sure they've understood

You can use a tailor-made programme

There's nothing wrong with using a ready-made programme for this kind of catch-up, but you've got to be confident that it's going to be effective:

  • Don't reinvent the wheel: if you have a catch-up scheme of work or programme that's been effective for your pupils before, use it
  • Look for programmes that focus on direct instruction: Mary recommends the expressive writing programme for primary schools to help pupils make fast, effective progress
  • Use strategies that are well thought through and have a proven impact: Mary recommends Parklands Primary School's maths programme for proven fast results
  • Your school's own context is key: talk to schools that have a similar intake to yours and ask what programmes they've found to be effective

Catch-up can take place in class

Effective catch-up can be in separate intervention groups, or it can happen in the classroom, alongside pupils who are consolidating their learning. This can work as long as:

  • Teachers have small class sizes (between 15 and 20 pupils)
  • Only a small number of pupils (3 to 5) need catch-up
  • Other pupils are able and old enough to work independently 

While other pupils are working on an independent task, the teacher can work closely with small groups, or on a one-to-one basis.

Teachers should aim to "teach to the top": all pupils should complete the same, high-level work, focused on the same key knowledge - the only difference is that the catch-up group aren't going into the same depth as the rest of the class.

Run after-school or lunchtime lessons

Consider this if:

  • You want to give pupils extra time to catch up (or you think they need this extra time)
  • You want teachers to carry out these interventions, and it's the only time they're free to do it
  • You have staff who are happy to run sessions at these times

These lessons should be:

  • Learning-focused and well-planned (extra time in school on its own won't be effective)
  • Aligned with learning that's going on during the rest of the day, not an add-on. Pupils should feel like it's an extension of the classroom and expectations are the same, and they shouldn't see it as a "fall-back" option
  • Focused on independent study, if age-appropriate: you're looking to replicate the positive home-environment other pupils might have when parents supervise their homework 
  • Age-appropriate: pupils younger than year 5 probably won't be able to cope with an extended day

Consider one-on-one or small group tutoring

Evidence shows that such tutoring can effectively support pupils who have fallen behind.

From autumn 2020, the National Tutoring Programme should support you with funding, and if you're in a disadvantaged area, provide you with 'coaches' (full-time trained graduates). Find out more about the government's catch-up package here.

To make sure tuition is effective it should:

  • Be one-to-one or in small groups (up to 5 pupils)
  • Be intensive: focused around key concepts, and take place over a short period of time
  • Targeted at pupils' specific needs - tutors should know exactly where pupils have gaps, or be involved in low-stakes quizzing
  • Be carried out by tutors who are well trained and supported by teachers, with regular communication happening between teachers, tutors and parents
  • Aligned with learning that's happening in the classroom (as with after-school or lunchtime lessons) 

Please note: mentions of specific catch-up programmes do not constitute an endorsement from The Key.


Mary Myatt is an education adviser, writer and speaker. She trained as an RE teacher and has also taught English, history, maths and Latin. A former local authority adviser and inspector, she works in schools talking to pupils, teachers and leaders about learning, leadership and the curriculum. She maintains that there are no quick fixes and that great outcomes for pupils are not achieved through tick boxes. Her latest book is Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence. Follow her on twitter at @MaryMyatt.

Tom Sherrington is well known in the UK as a prolific blogger and former headteacher and now an education consultant and author. He writes the popular blog and has published The Learning Rainforest, Great Teaching in Real Classrooms and Rosenshine's Principles In Action. With 30 years' experience as a physics and maths teacher and school leader, Tom now travels the world delivering CPD for teachers and schools leaders as well as providing consultancy support on curriculum, assessment and improving the quality of teaching. Follow him on twitter at @teacherhead.

Thanks to Sam Strickland, principal at The Duston School, for sharing his September catch-up plans with us.

The EEF, Small group tuition evidence summary


More from The Key


2020/21 Safeguarding INSET pack.

Amidst your ongoing planning for school reintegration and recovery, you’re also likely thinking ahead to your September INSET day. Safeguarding Training Centre has the resources you need.


Evidence-led training courses that make it easy to upskill staff, anytime, anywhere.

CPD Toolkit is the most effective way to virtually deliver evidence-led training and support the professional development of your staff. Downloadable courses and online 5-minute summaries provide flexibility for training, whether staff are participating as skeleton staff in-school, via video call or individually at their own pace.

The Key has taken great care in publishing this article. However, some of the article's content and information may come from or link to third party sources whose quality, relevance, accuracy, completeness, currency and reliability we do not guarantee. Accordingly, we will not be held liable for any use of or reliance placed on this article's content or the links or downloads it provides. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.