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Covid catch-up initiative ends amid concern over gaps in children’s learning – The Irish Times


A €50 million Government initiative to make up for schooling lost due to the pandemic has ended, despite ongoing concern among parents and experts over gaps in pupils’ learning.

Every school received additional teaching hours last year to provide targeted support to students who needed it most following Covid-19 closures and ongoing disruption to education.

The Department of Education has confirmed that the initiative – known as the Covid Learning and Supports Scheme (Class) – is not being extended into the current school year.

Many parents are alarmed over gaps in their children’s learning and worry that they are lagging behind, according to a Barnardos survey.

Schools closed twice for extended periods during the height of the pandemic and teachers reported higher levels of absenteeism and lower levels of engagement during the last academic year.

Education experts say far more funding is needed over a longer period of time to address gaps in children’s learning, while many schools say they were unable to access additional teaching hours last year due to teacher shortages.

Unused hours

A spokesman for the department said the question of rolling over unused hours from the scheme is “still being reviewed” and a further update will issue to schools.

He said the initiative was intended as a one-off scheme for the 2021/2022 school year and that other initiatives such as summer programmes were targeted at young people most at risk. He said there were also more than 14,000 special education teachers who support the additional learning needs of pupils in mainstream primary and post-primary schools.

The extent of learning loss in Irish schools has yet to be formally established. However, a majority of international studies indicate that losses equivalent to nearly a half year’s worth of learning have occurred since the pandemic.

Prof Paul Downes, director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at DCU’s Institute of Education, questioned whether there was any evidence available on pupils’ academic performance in Ireland to justify ending the scheme.

“What is the evidence base for the decision and what is the strategy? Or is this just a cost-cutting exercise? Can we be assured that there is not an ongoing need in terms of reading and maths losses that occurred?” he said.

Prof Judith Harford of UCD’s school of education said the decision not to continue the scheme will have a “profound impact on students”, particularly those who have suffered the most as a result of Covid-19.

Vulnerable pupils

“The last two years have demonstrated that our most vulnerable students have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This decision will have significant ramifications for Deis schools in particular,” she said.

Separately, campaigners have warned of potential disruption to classes and vulnerable pupils over the coming year due to the recent withdrawal of short-term substitution cover.

During the pandemic, the Department of Education funded substitute cover where a teacher or special needs assistant was absent on leave, so as to avoid mixing of pupils between “pods”. However, this has been withdrawn on foot of a recent circular to schools.

Inclusion Ireland, which represents children with intellectual disabilities, warned that the move could result in learning-support teachers being asked to cover last-minute gaps in mainstream classes.

“Covid-19 has not gone away and children with disabilities cannot be impacted again by decisions like these. We call for a review of this decision without delay,” the group said.

A spokesman for the department said, as there was no longer a requirement for physical distancing in schools, there has been a return to the normal terms and conditions in relation to substitute cover.

He added that Covid-19 grants – worth about €50 million – continue to be paid to schools to maintain cleaning and hygiene, while additional posts have also been allocated to the primary substitute teacher supply panels in areas where there are significant challenges in sourcing substitutes.

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