skip to Main Content

Catching up after school closure: the need for cognitive stimulation

It is now clear that most pupils won’t return to school until September, so will have lost 4 months’ schooling – two-fifths of a school year. Even if schools return to more or less normal operation and there are no further spikes of infection, both of which are uncertain, this is a considerable loss of learning. There is also mounting evidence that the education of disadvantaged children is suffering much worse than that of others. The EEF is concerned that these children’s recent progress could be reversed as a direct result of Covid-19 school closures.

At the worst we may be approaching a situation comparable to Israel in the 1950s and 60s where Jewish immigrant children from North Africa and the Middle East were typically three years behind those from Europe and North America in their education. Reuven Feuerstein and his co-workers developed a programme which enabled these children to catch up so completely that, by their entry into compulsory military service (for both sexes, of course), they performed as well if not better than others. This experience may be relevant in the Covid-19 crisis.

Loss of learning during closure

Research by the Sutton Trust in the second week of school closure found that it had very different impact in relation to pupils’ social class – The survey found that, at independent schools, 51 per cent of primary pupils and 57 per cent of secondary pupils accessed online lessons every day compared with 30 per cent of middle class pupils and 16 per cent of working class pupils in state schools.

These inequalities in school provision and the home environment affected the quantity and quality of work produced by pupils.  50% of teachers in independent schools reported they were receiving more than three quarters of work back. This compared with 27% in the most advantaged state schools and only 8% in the least advantaged state schools.

These findings have been confirmed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in its report published on 18th May – The survey found that higher income parents are much more likely than the less well-off to report that their child’s school provides online classes and access to online videoconferencing with teachers. Parents of 64% of secondary pupils in state schools from the richest households report being offered active help from schools, such as online teaching, compared with 47% from the poorest fifth of families. 82% of secondary school pupils attending private school are offered active help, with 79% being provided with online classes.

The IFS also found that children from better-off families are spending 30% more time on home learning than are those from poorer families and that better-off students have access to more resources for home learning. More than half (58%) of primary school students from the least well-off families do not have access to their own study space.

Both the Sutton Trust and the IFS report similar causes for the social differences. Pupils from better-off families have a better home set-up for distance learning and their parents are more able to support them. Pupils from poorer families are less likely to have suitable equipment (a Government scheme for providing laptops for these children isn’t due to begin until June) or adults who can support their learning.

The IFS also reports “higher-income parents report being more willing for their child to go back to school. This risks a situation where the children struggling the most to cope with home learning remain at home while their better-off classmates are back in the classroom.”

This situation risks both increasing the number of disadvantaged pupils and entrenching disadvantage in those already experiencing difficulties.

Difficulties of catching up

There has been tentative discussion of catch-up classes in schools during the summer holiday, but these would present problems of staff costs and securing attendance by pupils most in need of the classes.

Even if school life returns to normal in September, the situation will be unprecedented in that staff will need to teach the school’s 2020/21 curriculum and, at the same time, the last term of the 2019/20 curriculum which has been covered very variably both by what schools have been able to offer online and by individual pupils’ participation.

In practice, in September schools will need to assess their pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the 2019/20 curriculum as a baseline for catch-up. Inevitably pupils who have participated less in online work during closure will perform less well and the assessment will necessarily lead to differentiated catch-up work with pupils grouped according to perceived attainment in the assessment.

In secondary schools with setting, the groups will probably reflect existing attainment groups quite closely. In primary schools and secondary schools with mixed-attainment teaching, there will be pressure to create separate attainment groups for catch-up purposes. The self-fulfilling prophecies of attainment grouping will then take effect with perceived lower attaining groups taught a more limited curriculum at a slower pace.

The likely effect of this is that, without targeted intervention, pupils who participated less well in online teaching during closure will be permanently disadvantaged. They will probably be relatively poor learners who were making good or reasonable progress through regular full-time schooling which has been seriously disrupted. If phased, part-time or online learning have to be introduced in September or reintroduced for safety reasons because of future infection spikes, their education will be further disrupted with damaging results. In effect, disadvantage will be entrenched for these pupils.

Public tests and examinations

The primary school tests (Early Years, phonics, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2) and secondary phase examinations (chiefly GCSE and A Level) have been suspended for 2020 and, in most cases, will be replaced with teacher-assessed results, moderated against previous years’ outcomes by the Standards and Testing Authority and Ofqual. For catch-up purposes, it will be highly relevant whether they are set in 2021 and, if so, to what standard.

It’s worth distinguishing between the functions of the primary tests and the secondary examinations. The primary tests’ chief function is school accountability – no child’s future depends on the outcome of any of the tests. There is also no element of international comparability; England is the only country to use such a battery of primary tests on a national basis with results of the Key Stage tests published.

There would therefore be no disadvantage to pupils in setting the primary tests in 2021 at the same standard as in 2019. It would be accepted that, overall, pupils will perform less well than in 2019 and this could be a useful measure of the loss of learning caused by Covid-19.

GCSEs and A Levels are also school accountability measures but, more important, they are measures of individual students’ learning which, for many, are gateways to further and higher education. There seem to be four possible ways forward:

(1) Abandon these examinations in 2021 and rely again on teacher assessment. This seems least likely unless there is an international agreement to do so – and this seems unlikely because many countries in Europe and the Far East have controlled Covid-19 better than Britain. If most, perhaps all, major advanced countries resume examinations in 2021 (including Ireland and perhaps the three devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the UK Government is unlikely to abandon them again because this would admit publicly that England has harmed the education of its young people more than elsewhere.

(2) Agreement by the Examination Boards and Ofqual to reduce the content of the exam specifications to allow coverage in less time. But this would be highly complex and would operate unfairly in that schools don’t teach content in the same sequence, so some will already have taught material that is dropped.

(3) The exams are set at the same standard as 2019 but marked more leniently so that the proportions of grades in each subject are similar to 2018 and 2019. The differences in mark ranges would need to be published to provide transparency and Progress 8 would need to be abandoned for 2021, but these are technical matters. The disadvantages would be that 2021 would be known indefinitely as ‘the easy year’ with grades worth less than in other years; comparability of standards between years would be interrupted; and a complex decision would be needed on how quickly to return to 2019 standards in examinations after 2021.

(4) The exams are set and marked at the same standard as in 2019. This would provide an objective measure of the loss of learning in Key Stages 4 and 5, but would allow accurate year-on-year comparability of standards, avoiding the need for a decision on how quickly to return to 2019 standards in examinations after 2021. Universities and colleges would need to adjust their entry requirements but, in fact, with the likely loss foreign students and a report that 20 per cent of students intend to defer university entry for at least a year – – entry requirements are likely to be lowered in any case.

For catching up after closure, it would be prudent for primary schools to assume that the tests will be set in 2021 at the same standard as in 2019 and for secondary schools to plan for (3) or (4), with (4) perhaps the more likely. Catching up after closure will need to be approached in this context.

How can we prevent permanent disadvantage?

Reopening schools in September with a large proportion of significantly disadvantaged children is reminiscent of the situation faced by the new State of Israel in the 1950s and 60s. Under its ‘law of return’ Israel welcomed large numbers of Jewish immigrants, but found that the children of those from North Africa and the Middle East did much worse in school than those from Europe and North America. They were typically three years behind in their education and were subsequently much less successful as young adults competing for jobs.

Israel was committed to educational equality for its immigrants and invested heavily in research on remediation. Reuven Feuerstein led a substantial team of clinical and educational psychologists, many with experience of treating children traumatised by the Holocaust, to tackle this problem. They decided to avoid school subjects as areas of past failure and devised a separate programme called Instrumental Enrichment (IE). This was designed to change, over a period of two or more years, the disadvantaged students’ concept of themselves as learners, their motivation and their ability to process information.

The IE course was primarily designed for young adolescents. It consisted of thirteen sequences, each with 12 to 24 activities (instruments), intended to be taught for five hours per week over two years in parallel with the normal curriculum. An essential feature of the IE instruments is that they involve little use of language and therefore have the appearance of logic puzzles and non-verbal reasoning problems – see e.g. The reason for this is that the pupils’ mother tongue was usually Arabic and they were simultaneously having to learn Modern Hebrew (Ivrit) as the language of their new country (Feuerstein et al 1980).

Each activity was delivered in three phases – input, elaboration and output – each involving discussion designed to develop pupils’ awareness of themselves as learners:

the different cognitive functions appearing in the input, elaboration – or problem solving – and output phases become part of the everyday metacognitive discussion between teacher and student and between student and student when thinking about their own strategies of problem solving … IE aims to provide the necessary mental tools putting students in a position where they have to construct for themselves the higher level thinking required. This could be described as meta-constructivism – the construction by the learner of learning strategies (Adey and Shayer 1994).

The programme was rigorously evaluated with controlled trials and found to be effective. More significantly, two years after the intervention the students entered compulsory military training in the Israeli Army. On a test of general intelligence for all recruits derived from the American Army Alpha test, the IE group performed better than many others. Although they had typically been three years behind when entering school, they were now equal with others, for example, in promotion prospects.

Feuerstein’s IE was also used in the early 1980s by Mervyn Mehl who taught first-year Physics to medical students at the University of the Western Cape, at that time a wholly black university under apartheid. Owing to under-resourced education in black high schools, 50 per cent of first-year medical students regularly dropped out through failing their Physics course. Mehl devised an IE course closely modelled on Feuerstein’s work but designed to be delivered in one year. At the end of the year the failure rate was reduced to zero. There was a convenient control in that about half the students were taught in Afrikaans and half in English. IE was used with the English-medium students only; the failure rate for the Afrikaans-medium students remained unchanged (Mehl 1985; Adey and Shayer 1994).

As Mehl demonstrated, IE can be effective over a shorter period. A crucial difference was language. Mehl’s students had been taught in English-medium high schools, so were not having simultaneously to learn a new language as in Israel.

Feuerstein’s IE was highly successful for the purpose for which it was developed – raising the attainment of large numbers of educationally disadvantaged learners. A significant feature of the programme was that, although it generally didn’t raise attainment immediately, evidently because of difficulties of accessing the mainstream curriculum while learning a new language, IE learners’ ability continued to develop after their participation in the programme had ended. Their ability continued to rise on all the tests they took, including Army Entrance and for further and higher education so that, as adults, they suffered no disadvantage compared with the general population (Rand et al 1981). The work of Feuerstein and his colleagues is permanent evidence of what can be achieved by government commitment to raising the attainment of disadvantaged learners.

IE’s limitations and its successor

IE has been used experimentally in settings in the USA, UK and elsewhere with positive effects on attainment, but hasn’t been adopted widely. This is partly because it is seen as a remediation programme intended for a minority of pupils and partly because of its deliberate separation from school subjects. Schools and education systems have been reluctant to devote significant resources to a programme apparently relevant only to disadvantaged pupils and without direct relevance to the rest of the curriculum.

These issues were addressed by Adey and Shayer in the 1980s. Michael Shayer was one of the leaders of the Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science project (1974 – 1980), a large-scale government-funded project on how to improve the teaching of these subjects across the whole ability range in comprehensive schools. Shayer investigated IE closely and, with Philip Adey, developed a new programme which overcame its limitations; they called it Cognitive Acceleration (CA). Like IE, CA was based on research by Vygotsky and Piaget – it trained learners how to understand their own cognitive (thinking) processes and use them more effectively. Unlike IE, CA related directly to school subjects and, not being designed for immigrant children learning a new language, used open questions in English rather than diagrammatic problems.

In essence Adey and Shayer took the ten cognitive schemas underlying scientific understanding identified by Inhelder and Piaget (proportionality, compensation, variables, etc) and devised 30 lessons to help pupils to develop these schemas. The lessons were all designed on the same pattern involving five ‘pillars’: concrete preparation, social construction, cognitive conflict, metacognition and bridging.

The programme – Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) – proved very successful in the 1980s to 2000s before being squeezed out of schools’ curriculums by Ofsted’s requirement of frequent assessment for progress tracking. CASE typically raised attainment by 1 to 2 GCSE grades across the full ability range ( ; Adey and Shayer 1994; Shayer and Adey 2002). This effect has been confirmed in more than 20 international trials – CA programmes in Mathematics and English have subsequently been developed, also with full suites of lessons for primary and secondary schools – ; – together with KS3 lessons in Drama, Music and Visual Art (Alty and Pout 2006; Evans et al 2006; Leighton and Quinn 2006).

The English CA programme (Let’s Think in English) has become particularly successful and is currently used by some 350 schools in England and Wales as well as in Switzerland, Poland, Brazil, Hong Kong and Vietnam. It has some 20 age-appropriate lessons for each of Years 1/2, 3/4 and 5/6 together with 30+ for K3 and 20+ for GCSE, each using fiction, non-fiction, poetry or film. Samples of the English lessons are available at

Catching up after lockdown

Cognitive Acceleration (CA) would be particularly helpful in catching up after closure for three reasons

• CA raises attainment by all pupils but especially of the disadvantaged. As Feuerstein showed, intensive systematic focus on improving pupils’ cognitive abilities has long-term effects on their attainment. But CA lessons are designed to be used with whole classes rather than smaller groups of pupils with special needs. In this way all pupils’ abilities rise, but disadvantaged pupils make the greatest progress.

In six schools in Hampshire, each with two KS3 CA classes, all the students made an average of 41.5 per cent greater progress than two parallel non-CA classes, but the pupils on Free School Meals in these classes made 58.3 per cent greater progress – An International School in Switzerland used the Australian Council for Educational Research tests (similar to the PISA tests) with Year 6 before and after a year’s use of Let’s Think in English, with these gains (effect sizes):

  Mathematical Literacy Reading Narrative Writing Expository Writing
All pupils 0.27 0.30 0.12 0.42
Least able quartile 0.61 0.42 0.46 0.67

Again, the least able achieved the greatest gains, though the overall results compared to the performance on the same tests by the top 14 International Baccalaureate schools –

• CA lessons are designed to be used fortnightly – 30 lessons over two years. This is helpful when schools have a great deal of other work to cover. Nothing is gained by using the lessons more frequently and, in fact, the gap between them provides opportunities for metacognition. Some schools using the English programme have a ‘metacog wall’ in the classroom – a large sheet of sugar paper on which pupils are welcome to put comments or queries about the CA lesson on post-it notes in the two weeks following the lesson. After the early lessons there are few notes, but in a while there are many, providing the focus for discussion before the next CA lesson.

• Professional development and quality assurance. Teachers need guidance and practice in delivering lessons of this kind and the CA programmes provide this. For example, Let’s Think in English (LTE) provides initial training and three subsequent support visits – The LTE lessons are free but, to ensure effective delivery, are only available with the training and support package. This costs less than three pupil premiums and the cost can be shared between several schools if they are trained and supported together.

It is hoped that a reconsideration of Feuerstein’s response to systemic educational disadvantage and Cognitive Acceleration as its successor will be helpful in this current unprecedented situation.

26th May 2020


Adey, P., Shayer, M. and Yates, C (1989) – Thinking Science: Student and Teachers’ materials for the CASE intervention. London: Macmillan

Adey, P and Shayer, M (1994) – Really Raising Standards: Cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London: Routledge.

Alty, S and Pout, L (2006) – Think ahead! developing thinking through drama 11 – 14. London: GL Assessment.

Evans, W, Petrie, J and McLoughlin, H (2006) – Think ahead! developing thinking through music 11 – 14. London: GL Assessment.

Feuerstein, R, Rand, Y, Hoffman, M and Miller, M (1980) – Instrumental Enrichment: Intervention Programme for Cognitive Modifiability. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Johnson, D, Adhami, M, Shayer, M, Hodgen, J, Hafeez, R and Dubben, S (2002) – Primary CAME Thinking Maths : the lessons for the primary cognitive acceleration in mathematics education (CAME) project in Year 5 and Year 6. London : Nelson Thornes.

Leighton, N and Quinn, A-M (2006) – Think ahead! developing thinking through visual arts 11 – 14. London: GL Assessment.

Mehl, M (1985) – The cognitive difficulties of first year physics students at the University of the Western Cape and various compensatory programmes. PhD thesis, University of Cape Town.

Rand, Y, Mintzker, R, Hoffman, M B and Friedlander, Y (1981) – The Instrumental Enrichment programme: immediate and long-term effects. In Mittler, P (ed) Frontiers of Knowledge: Mental Retardation, Vol 1. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Robertson, A and Adey, P (2004) – Let’s Think through Science! 8 & 9. London: GL Assessment.

Shayer, M and Adey, P (eds) (2002) – Learning Intelligence: Cognitive Acceleration Across the Curriculum 5 to 15 years. Buckingham: Open University Press.

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *