‘The Great Summer Reset’: An IPPO policy note on how best to support children’s emotional recovery

children play in summer

Building on our two roundtable discussions on how the wellbeing of schoolchildren has been affected by COVID-19, this policy note offers seven guiding principles that we believe should underpin the UK’s approach to supporting children this summer – with the focus on recovery and reconnection rather than academic catch-up

Jenny Bird and Florence Greatrix

Millions of UK schoolchildren have faced severe challenges over the last year as a result of COVID-19. As well as the academic demands posed by lockdown and widespread home schooling, the fundamentals of their emotional and physical development have been deeply affected: from playing and socialising with friends to taking part in team sports and all manner of cultural and artistic events.

An active debate is now underway regarding what academic ‘catch-up’ should look like. To inform this debate, the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) has undertaken a detailed workstream – including commissioning a number of evidence papers and hosting two roundtable discussions in February and March 2021, involving policymakers, academics, and education and mental health experts from all four UK nations.

Based on these discussions and reviews of evidence from around the world, there is a clear consensus that it would be wrong to focus efforts too heavily on pure academic achievement. In particular, we suggest that the 2021 summer holidays must offer children – in particular, those from vulnerable communities and more deprived backgrounds – the chance for a ‘reset’ in all aspects of their lives. Supporting emotional recovery over the summer will be a precondition for many children being able to learn successfully in school settings from the autumn onwards.

As a result of this work, IPPO can offer decision-makers in all parts of the UK detailed guidance on the benefits that summer programmes would offer schoolchildren and their families; how such programmes could be designed and structured to reach those most in need; as well as providing links to many leading experts and the necessary resources to put programmes into action.

As a starting point, this document presents seven guiding principles that we believe could underpin the UK’s approach to supporting its children this summer.

1. A ‘summer reset’ should be a national priority

Support for rebuilding the emotional wellbeing of schoolchildren during and beyond the pandemic should be signalled at the highest level in each UK nation. It is critical to publicly recognise the mental and physical toll that lockdowns and school closures have taken, and to talk about how the summer holidays could – with the right support in place – provide a ‘reset button’ on the school year and an opportunity for emotional recovery. Signalling that this is a national priority should encourage widespread engagement among local and national media, businesses, civil society and the public sector.

2. Summer programmes should not look like school

Rather than looking or feeling like term-time school, summer support programmes need to offer a menu of choices that suit many different ages, cultures and interests – from sports and music to arts and fun of all kinds. The more these programmes can encourage children to be outdoors and experiencing nature, the better. They should include attention to nutrition and diet, and help children with the sleep routines that will (in time) also be crucial for better learning.

3. The programmes should be locally-led …

Given the urgent nature of the challenge, programmes will have to be run locally – for example, by community organisations, schools and local authorities who already understand what can be done quickly and who can mobilise local enthusiasm. Fortunately, there are already thousands of good programmes to build on, many of them run by charities and community groups.

4. … but nationally supported

However, there also needs to be national support, including with funding. Other key supports could include some national branding and communication; shared support for training up volunteers and others delivering the programmes, since these will be at a larger scale than ever before; and common approaches to issues such as insurance that can be a big barrier to action (for example, with governments providing the insurance).

5. They should be open to all children, but focused on the most disadvantaged

COVID-19 has hit particular groups of children hardest, including those living with unstable families and in cramped homes, or who are coping with existing mental health challenges. It’s vital these children are not stigmatised, so summer programmes must be open to all. However, extra efforts must be made to attract and engage the most disadvantaged members of all communities – something many youth workers understand well – who are also likely to be in most need of support.

6. Programmes must closely involve parents and volunteers

To deliver these summer programmes fast and at scale, providers – whether schools, charities, or local authorities – will need to recruit thousands of volunteers, including parents. And they should aim to involve parents in the activities too – whether by simply offering them a cup of tea, or through activities such as sports or arts that they can take part in alongside their children. To ensure the activities are highly valued without charging for them, one option would be for local areas to offer parents a voucher for each child offering access to, say, 10 accredited activities over the summer holiday period.

In terms of voluntary support, many artists and musicians have been out of work for the last year and could be a good source of help. Other groups such as Initial Teacher Training (ITT) students could also be recruited to reduce the burden on teachers, many of whom are exhausted (which would also reduce the need for additional DBS checks).

7. A ‘plan B’ is also needed, in case of further lockdown restrictions

While everyone hopes children will be able to spend plenty of time with other children this summer, continuing restrictions may make that hard. So there needs to be a ‘plan B’ for online provisions in case of some form of summer lockdown. We now know the transmission rates of COVID-19 are lower outdoors than indoors, so plans should be made for outdoor activities in the event of restrictions being in place, and for the use of ‘bubbles’ and other safety measures where required.

Whatever further challenges emerge, it is vital that work on the design of summer programmes starts now – linking, where appropriate, to existing initiatives around children’s catch-up and recovery. Businesses, arts and sports centres, local media, and many other organisations all need to play their part in helping the UK’s children to reset. But meaningful recovery is unlikely without the commitment of national governments, local authorities, schools and community groups – with the lessons learnt this summer also being incorporated into their ongoing recovery programmes.



Summary of recovery funding packages

England’s education recovery package includes a £302m Recovery Premium for schools to ‘bolster summer provision, for example by laying on additional clubs and activities’; £200m for secondary schools to deliver ‘face-to-face summer schools’; and £220m for local authorities to coordinate free holiday provision, including ‘healthy food and enriching activities’ through the Holiday Activities and Food Programme 2021. In Scotland, where the majority of pupils returned after Easter and will break up for the year in late June rather than July, the Scottish Government has announced a national ‘summer of play’ for young people and their families – supported by £20m in funding to provide access to activities and opportunities to socialise, play and reconnect within their local communities and environments.

The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed a number of allocations in the 2021-22 budget to the Department of Education which will help to support summer initiatives. These include £4m for a schools-based Summer Scheme, and £5m for a Youth Service Summer Programme. The Executive has also committed to funding holiday provision of free school meals until April 2022, with £2.70 allocated per meal. At the time of writing this document, there had been no official announcement in Wales regarding funding related to summer provision for children.

About IPPO

The International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO)  has been set up with support from the Economic and Social Research Council to provide decision-makers in government at all levels with access to the best-available evidence on the social impacts of COVID-19, and the effectiveness of policy responses spanning education, mental health, care, housing, Black, Asian and minority communities, vulnerable communities, and online living. If you would like to discuss how IPPO can help support you with regard to summer support programmes, please email us at ippo@ucl.ac.uk, using subject line summer support.

Further reading

The following evidence papers and expert blogs have been commissioned by IPPO to inform how the UK’s schoolchildren could best be supported, in response to the impacts of COVID-19 on their mental health and wellbeing:

Special thanks

IPPO would like to thank Dr Maria Loades from the University of Bath, Professor Siobhan O’Neill from Ulster University (Northern Ireland’s Interim Mental Health Champion), and Mahveen Alam from City, University of London for their contributions to our summer support workstream.