When the schools in England reopened earlier this month, many children and young people had faced almost a year of learning disruption. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has warned that these school closures are likely to reverse progress made in the last decade since 2011 to close the education attainment gap.

EEF is continuing to monitor the impact of those closures, and recent findings suggest that primary-age pupils have significantly lower achievement in both reading and maths as a likely result of missed learning. In addition, there is a large and concerning attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils.

But we must be careful in the language we choose to talk about this. I agree with Peter Hyman, the co-director of Big Education, who argues we shouldn’t talk about a ‘lost generation’. Instead, we should take this opportunity to reimagine school for our children. I’ve seen it myself at the school gates when taking my young son back to school again. There is real excitement about being in the classroom and reconnecting. Of course, the levels of excitement vary, and we do need to look at closing the attainment gap. But let’s make sure that this is also a time filled with enjoyment and not just focussed on ‘catch up’.

Some have suggested 4-6 weeks of compulsory teaching over the summer holidays. As a parent I feel conflicted. Families need time off. And our teachers need a break too. I would like my son to see his grandparents in the Netherlands again if we can. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer a summer programme.

Last year, the City of London Academies Trust, which I chair, provided a two-week summer programme to our year 5 and year 10 students to give them an opportunity to re-engage with school and learning, and to allow teachers to gain some insight into the level of learning loss they had experienced over the school closure.

Our trust supports over 7,400 students across 10 schools in the London boroughs of Hackney, Islington, Newham and Southwark. The additional summer provision was fully funded by an emergency allocation from our Sponsor, the City of London Corporation.

Each school provided a slightly different menu of activities, but all were asked to provide pastoral support as well as addressing any core gaps in English, mathematics, and science. Crucially the programme also included sports and social activities.

In total 345 students attended the provision for at last 90% of the sessions, an uptake rate of around 40% (with a slightly higher uptake among pupil premium students). Of course, last year the anxiety around attending school was still very high with a range of mixed messages over the summer period, and many families were away in August taking holidays in the UK or abroad.

Five key points we’ve taken away from our programme last year are:

  1. Let schools organise with their own staff (they know best what works, and what doesn’t)
  2. Cover core curriculum plus sports and creative activities specifically targeted at key year groups
  3. Provide free lunch and snacks
  4. 2-week programme (not 6 weeks) prior to re-opening with one week off before term re-starts in September
  5. Think about the admin (comms, marketing to encourage take up, chase parents and carers, monitor attendance during programme and measure success/impact)

Our analysis showed that the programme had a universally positive effect. Notably two schools showed a significant gain of over 4 grades within their best 8 subjects (0.42 and 0.45), but even the poorest gain at 0.14 means that students who attended the summer provision have made more than one grade more in progress than the average. But ongoing support is essential to support students, especially now that pupils have faced several further months of disruption.

Indeed, the newly appointed education recovery tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, recently told the cross-party education committee that ‘catch up’ isn’t really the language he is using: “It’s much more about recovery over time. Catch-up is part of it but that is not going to be enough”, adding that “We have to be bold and ambitious.”. The recovery needs to be long term, sustained and far-reaching.

His comments came days after the prime minister announced an additional £400m for the government’s catch-up programme, on top of the £1.3bn previously announced, including additional funding for summer schools.

Collins told MPs the “summer package” was a good start. “But it’s not a recovery plan. We need to go much further, with a more fundamental and long-term piece of work.”

I agree. Our experience at the City of London Academies shows that although catch-up has a part to play in our recovery plan, catch-up alone is not going to be enough. We need a sustained approach and financial support.  It’s important that young people get a broad and balanced curriculum, including arts, culture, and PE lessons.

And yes, holidays.