Post-pandemic recovery is at the centre of discussion across the education sphere and has gravitated towards a key question: how can policymakers ensure students – especially those taking GCSEs and A-levels - are not disadvantaged by learning loss resulting from school closures over the past two years?

A report from the independent research group Education Policy Institute (EPI) in June found that learning loss was an issue in English - and particularly maths - with a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged pupils.[1]

Several politicians and commentators have since championed proposals calling for the temporary extension of the school day to tackle the effects of learning loss on academic achievement.[2]

However, the proposal faces several challenges in relation to effectiveness and impact, teacher morale and retention as well as whether proposals are justified by the evidence.

Effectiveness and impact

Extending the school-day assumes that pupils will academically benefit from additional teaching time. This presupposes that pupils will be engaged to learn through longer hours and additional studying time.

For this reason, it is unclear whether extending the school day will have a proportionate effect on academic achievement.

Previous research has refuted the link between school length and attainment, highlighting that student engagement and concentration declines as the school day progresses.[3]

As such, alongside consideration of extending the school-day, policymakers may wish to consider other initiatives to increase attainment by revisiting and restructuring teaching provision during existing school hours. This could include: reducing the subjects studied per day to allow for greater participation in extracurricular activities, renegotiating how content is taught to different attainment groups and targeting interventions for primary school pupils exhibiting below-average attainment - all of which have links to improved academic performance.[4]

The Teacher Role

Lengthening the school day is an intuitive response to the problem of learning loss - increasing pupils’ contact with teachers and affording more time for staff to teach specifications in-depth and at a higher level in order to bring students up to speed with their learning.

However, whilst longer hours can be beneficial, the evidence has yet to establish a causal link between academic attainment and school-day duration.[5] Of the several case studies that have exhibited signs of a positive relationship between the two, results are shown to be contingent on a host of situational factors – in particular, the quality of teaching and staff preparedness to engage in ‘extra-role’ behaviour.[6]

As such, proposals to extend the school day should consider teachers’ perspectives. There is a trade-off between potentially increasing attainment and indirectly risking another attainment barrier: decreasing the number of high-quality teaching professionals.

Teacher retention is a longstanding challenge for the school system - in 2019, the proportion of teachers staying in the profession for five-years fell to under two thirds- down from three quarters in 2013.[7] Moreover, one of the key factors motivating teachers’ departures has been the long work hours and a poor work-life balance.[8]

As such, an extension of the school day, even if implemented as a temporary measure, may lower the number of teachers choosing to remain or enter the profession, ultimately undermining efforts to tackle learning loss.

Summer 2022 exam changes

Concerns around lost learning are understandably highest for those set to be awarded GCSE, AS-levels and A-levels in summer 2022.

In evaluating school day extension as mitigation for lost learning, it is therefore important to underscore the changes that are already being made.

The government’s decision to implement changes to assessments in summer 2022 – mostly comprising increased optionality and advance information of topics – directly accommodates the exceptional circumstances for students who will imminently sit for their GCSE qualifications.[9] Ofqual has also decided that 2022 will be a transition year for grading standards: national grade outcomes will reflect a midway point between outcomes in 2021 and 2019. Therefore, students sitting exams in 2022 will not be held to the same performance standards as those in 2019.[10]

Through such policy responses, major sources of concern around lost learning are already being addressed.

Learning Loss: A Self-Rectifying Problem?

Finally, it is worthwhile to review the evidence on learning loss resulting from the pandemic and its anticipated long-term impact.

Data from the EPI identified that the time between Covid-19 lockdowns – when pupils returned to lessons in schools - had reversed the total learning loss.[xi] Faith in the possibility that learning loss will be a self-rectifying has similarly been spearheaded by Ofsted, who argued that classroom returns will further help to redress the problems of anxiety, depression and social isolation.[12]

A lack of data studying students’ attainment during and following the national lockdowns also means that it is too premature to infer relationships and confidently identify links between pupils’ academic performance and the pandemic. Even if attainment does decline, it is important to control for previous performance trends that has seen attainment fluctuate. For example, higher attainment in the Autumn terms as well as small attainment differences between the summer term and the beginning of the following academic year.[13]

The same logic applies to the recent publication of the National Reference Test scores, which explored the regression in pupils’ maths attainment.[14] These results corroborate a link between learning loss and lower attainment, but are only representative of the pandemic’s short term effect on learning.

Overall, the proposal to extend the school day to address Covid-19 learning loss has several pros and cons. Whilst the previous successes of school day extensions should be credited, it is equally important to consider how it could drive changes that create additional challenges: such as fewer teachers and lower quality teaching. It is also important to note the possibility that learning loss may rectify itself as pupils and teachers return to the classroom.

[1] Education Policy Institute and Department for Education. (2021). Understanding progress in the 2020/2021 academic year [Report].

[2] Lough, C. (2021, February 17). "Longer school day backed by former minister". Tes Magazine.

[3] Aronson, J., Zimmerman, J., & Carlos, L. (1999). Improving Student Achievement by Extending School: Is It Just a Matter of Time?

[4] Povey, H. (2013). A pedagogy for attainment for all. In Debates in mathematics education (pp. 153-164). Routledge; Broh, B. A. (2002). Linking extracurricular programming to academic achievement: Who benefits and why?. Sociology of education, 69-95; Holmes, W., & Dowker, A. (2013). Catch up numeracy: a targeted intervention for children who are low-attaining in mathematics. Research in Mathematics Education, 15(3), 249-265.

[5] Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Allen, A. B. (2010). Extending the school day or school year: A systematic review of research (1985–2009). Review of educational research80(3), 401-436.

[6] Somech, A., & Drach-Zahavy, A. (2000). Understanding extra-role behavior in schools: The relationships between job satisfaction, sense of efficacy, and teachers’ extra-role behavior. Teaching and Teacher Education16(5-6), 649-659.

[7] Fullard, F. & Zuccollo, J. (2021) Local pay and teacher retention in England. [Report].  p.3.

[8] Weale, S. 2021, April 8. “One in three teachers plan to quit, says National Education survey”. The Guardian.

[9] Ofqual and the Department for Education. (2021, July 12). Proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A Levels in 2021: Consultation Outcomes.

[10] Ofqual & Saxton, Dr J. (2021, September 30). Ofqual’s approach to grading exams and assessment in summer 2022 and autumn 2021.

[11] Education Policy Institute and Department for Education. (2021). Understanding progress in the 2020/2021 academic year.

[12] Ofsted. (2021, December 7). Ofsted Annual Report: We must do all we can to make sure this generation is not denied its opportunities.

[13] Department for Education. (2021). Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year.  [Interim Findings Report]. pp. 18-20.

[14] Ofqual. (2021, December 9). National Reference Tests Results Digest 2021.