The Catch-up Narrative: What Not to Say During the Classroom Return

The Catch-up Narrative: What Not to Say During the Classroom Return

We’ve said it a million times… “Good luck with the match/show/appointment. Just make sure you catch up on whatever’s missed.” Such an innocuous phrase that has never before been questioned, so why are people getting their knickers in a twist about this catch-up narrative now?

The catch-up narrative

Because – as with everything language-related – context is key.

Whisper it but, unless the student being implored to catch up were a borderline GCSE student, it probably never made much difference whether they completed that extra worksheet sent home or not. Now, however, the need to CATCH UP is being shouted at every child and young adult from Reception to Year 13.

Lockdown has rather upped the ante on catching up! There is a National Catch-Up Programme that has become the business of government, with funding being thrown at it. Given the current Education Secretary’s track record, no wonder some school leaders have shrunk from the term, to the extent that there has even been talk of banning it in the classroom.

Now, no word should be unsayable because that way censorship lies but sensitivities should be heeded. Let’s be pragmatic about the pragmatics, we are indeed playing catch-up. Even in the best-case scenario, where teachers have innovated and students have laboured intensively from their bedrooms, much quality teaching time has been missed over the past year. The problem with placing excessive emphasis on catching up is that it assumes a deficit model: the focus is on what is not known rather than what is, which seems a natural enough stance but which risks adverse effects.

GCSE catch up

If you ask students what they’ve missed since schools were first forced to close last March, the answers are unlikely to be how to calculate velocity or the first of Luther’s Theses. In the grand scheme of things, some academic shortfall is to be expected and should only matter in as much as it affects those who’ve missed out. The successes of refugees who’ve missed huge chunks of formal education prove that learning does not stop and start at the school gates so let’s not obsess about cramming the curriculum into a short space of time that would be better served by prioritising wellbeing than ratcheting up the anxieties around assessment. 

In this context, the utterance “catch up” heaps pressure on teachers and students alike. At GCSE and A Level it is resented because it is unrealistic – there simply isn’t the time to catch up. When something becomes dirty, the instinct is to clean it up, make it good again. Sometimes, though, it’s better to just accept that things get messy. If we fixate on dotting every i and crossing every t of the curriculum then “catch-up” risks going from a dirty word to a toxic term that infests a whole generation who, through no fault of their own, face years ahead of being told they’re behind. And making children feel substandard is never going to help them catch up…

Our previous post on harmful language can be found here. Don’t forget to subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.

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