The overwhelming majority of teachers – 98% – are opposed to an extended school day and shorter holidays as a means of helping children’s learning recovery after the pandemic, according to a major union poll, which also revealed a lack of enthusiasm for the government’s tutoring scheme.

The wide-ranging survey of 10,000 members of the National Education Union (NEU) highlighted the devastating impact of poverty on disadvantaged children, exposed by the pandemic, with teachers describing panic in families struggling without free school meal vouchers, and having to support families evicted during the Covid crisis.

The survey, conducted between 2 and 10 March, involved 10,696 union members in schools and colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including classroom teachers, support staff and headteachers..

The government has said it was considering all options to help pupils catch up on learning lost during the pandemic, including longer school days and shorter holidays, as well as subsidised one-to-one and small-group tuition for disadvantaged pupils.

NEU members, asked a series of questions about the best way to achieve education recovery, called instead for flexibility in the curriculum (82%), as well as more opportunities for sport and exercise (68%) and an increase in creative and practical learning (66%).

Just 21% agreed that tuition, under the government’s controversial national tutoring programme, was important and just one in 10 agreed that “a strong focus on delivering all of the existing curriculum” was the best way forward.

The survey concluded that school staff supported working with students “in a way that is nimble and unconstrained by curriculum diktat, with active and creative elements forming a strong part of that approach”.

Asked, through multiple choice questions, what interventions the government should be making, 85% said teacher workload should be kept at an acceptable level and 80% called for a focus on the social and emotional wellbeing and mental health needs of students.

Almost seven in 10 (68%) said the government should urgently tackle child poverty as the best way to support pupils after lockdown. Members’ comments showed that school staff have at times been a lifeline for poor families struggling during the pandemic.

“I called home during the first lockdown and spoke to an older sibling who was panicking because the free school meals vouchers email hadn’t arrived,” said one NEU member. “It was the evening before a bank holiday weekend and there was no food in the house. I will never forget the panic in that girl’s voice. No school child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”

Another said: “We have had pupils and their families move in to hostels during the pandemic when they were evicted. They were rehoused – but literally were given a house. No furniture, ovens, fridge, washing machine, no carpets. Nothing. We rallied as a school and furnished two homes.”

“In 20 years teaching I have never seen the situation so bad,” said another.

The survey, published on the first day of the NEU’s annual conference, which is a virtual event this year because of Covid restrictions, showed 69% of respondents were enjoying new ways of working with technology during lockdowns, 57% said online parents’ evenings were a good innovation, and nearly half (49%) welcomed the greater public recognition of the needs of disadvantaged pupils.

Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said: “If the government is serious about building back better, then they should take on board these views. Education professionals have been on the frontline, either virtual or physical, throughout the last 12 months and it is their insights on what has worked best that should be taken forward.”

The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the government’s “chaotic” response to the pandemic had exposed inequalities that had been holding children back during a decade of failed Conservative governments.

“Labour, parents and teachers are calling on the government to prioritise delivering a world class education for every child, with valued staff supporting them to recover learning and delivering activities that promote wellbeing, rather than half-baked ideas about the length of the school day or term dates.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have already invested £1.7bn in ambitious catch-up plans, with the majority of this targeted towards those most in need, while giving schools the flexibility of funding to use as they believe best to support their pupils.

“We are working with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure all pupils have the chance to recover from the impact of the pandemic – and we have appointed Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner to specifically oversee these issues.’

This content first appear on the guardian

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