When schools, colleges and universities closed their doors as a temporary measure last March, few of us could have predicted what was to come. Following a year of unprecedented restrictions and recurrent closures, children and young people are amongst the biggest casualties of the lockdowns triggered by the pandemic. In addition to falling behind in learning, young people’s mental health has deteriorated, with researchers at the University of Oxford reporting high levels of loneliness in a third of people aged 13-18.
It’s clear that recovery from this crisis won’t be easy. Analysis from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) shows that a multi-year funding package of £10–15 billion may be required to make up the lost learning experienced by pupils as a result of the pandemic. With wealth disparities and inequality in society increasing, educators, decision-makers and parents need to work together to ensure that young people receive the educational support they need. In addition, we need substantial investment in support for children and young people’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Finally, we must recognise that the last year has proved immensely challenging for teachers across the country, and consideration must be given to how best to support our education professionals, as they grapple with the multiple impacts of the pandemic on young people across the UK.
Putting recovery support where it is most needed
The attainment gap in schools and colleges varies widely between different regions, with socioeconomic background, ethnicity, and differential access to remote learning all playing a role. Though all children have missed out on school, those from poorer and ethnic minority backgrounds have suffered most, as they’re least likely to have access to adequate home learning tools and technology. Some estimates suggest this gap might represent the equivalent of seven months of learning. Meanwhile children with additional needs have also fallen behind, as they rely more heavily on services that were unavailable or cut back during lockdowns.
The Department for Education’s National Tutoring Programme, which will support students with one-on-one and small group teaching, is an important step to help us narrow the gap. It has proved to be a vital lifeline for those most in need, with evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) indicating that regular tutoring can deliver approximately five months of additional progress. However, the programme has faced some criticism for not yet meeting the needs of the children who most require support. We should consider how we can make use of the national available data alongside technology more effectively, to determine which areas we most need to target, and tailor our engagement efforts accordingly. For example, how technology, such as online formative assessments, could be used to provide immediate, tailored feedback to enable truly pupil-centric interventions to analyse, fill and monitor learning gaps.
Focusing on children and young people’s mental and emotional wellbeing
Over the last 12 months, the wellbeing of many children has been in decline. Young people haven’t just missed out on classroom learning, they’ve also missed opportunities to socialise and develop as people, something that’s crucial to their overall wellbeing and future success. That’s why we must take a holistic, well rounded approach to education development, focusing on areas like music, art, sport and social interaction, as well as the traditional ‘core’ subjects like English and maths. We should also look beyond schools, already juggling many priorities, and consider how we can invest further in programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh Award and the National Citizenship Service, to help young people explore other areas of their education that may have been neglected in the past year.
There’s no doubt the mental health impacts of this crisis have damaged children of all ages. For this reason it’s vital that we prioritise it as much as academic learning, using the situation to develop a more permanent focus on mental health in educational environments. In the short-term, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families is providing training and support for child mental health services, as well as acute intervention when needed.
In the long-term, we need to offer more consistent training and support for all children and teachers to help everyone understand mental health better. We need to think about embedding mental health education into learning early on, as well as encouraging pupils and parents to play an active role. From creating wellbeing pupil peer networks in schools, to hosting regular briefings for families, this should be an enduring and visible part of support to our young people. At present, key services including CAMHS are under considerable strain, meaning schools sometimes struggle to secure the right support when they need it. EEF research suggests that teachers can be trained to improve their pupils’ emotional wellbeing, and to differentiate more effectively between issues that can be solved in school or at home, and those which require more specialist intervention.
Investing in the nation’s teachers
As well as investing in children, we need to acknowledge the exemplary role played by our nation’s teachers over the last 12 months of educational disruption. They understand their students better than anyone, and are uniquely placed to support the intellectual, emotional and psychological recovery of our children. But they need the right help and support to enable them to do so.
Programmes such as the DfE’s Early Careers Framework, and the National Professional Qualifications framework for more experienced teachers, have an important role to play in this. But we should consider what additional, targeted national support is required to tackle the specific challenges of the pandemic recovery. Listening and responding to the key challenges experienced by teachers will help us to determine what interventions are needed and where, offering a more tailored approach to recovery.
The education sector has demonstrated tremendous resilience in responding to the challenges of Covid-19. We now have an opportunity to learn from what has worked during the pandemic response, as well as what requires urgent attention, to ensure that Government’s investment in education recovery delivers for our young people. To make this a reality we will require a collaborative effort from educators, government leaders, charities and partners. If we can enable our teachers to strike the right balance between supporting academic improvement to narrow the gap, maintaining curriculum breadth, and supporting our children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, we can enable the sector to be truly fit for the future.