Along with the rest of the nation, I observed the much-anticipated return to school last month with a mixture of relief and apprehension. Reports from the front line are encouraging. Attendance is good, additional safety measures such as testing and wider use of face coverings are in place, and teachers have described the ‘absolute joy’ of seeing children back in the classroom.
Nonetheless, this is the fourth attempt to reboot traditional learning since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and the stakes are high. Much rests on this landmark event which is hoped to herald the beginning of the end – our first tentative steps out of a global health pandemic. Focusing resolutely forward, the government has appointed an Education Recovery Commissioner – responsible, as the title suggests, for rebuilding the education system and addressing the learning loss incurred by a generation of children and young people (CYP). Both common sense and the latest research suggest that this will be a considerable task and significant and sustained progress will be long-term in the making.
Current evidence paints a stark yet consistent picture of the impact of school closures on learning outcomes for pupils. After the first national lockdown, children demonstrated two months’ less progress than similar pupils in previous years, while disadvantaged CYP were more likely to have been adversely affected. It is likely that subsequent national restrictions will have exacerbated these deleterious trends. However, other evidence shows a more nuanced picture with some CYP thriving during remote learning or benefitting from face-to-face teaching in reduced classes. This begs the question of what ‘education recovery’ – or, in popular parlance, ‘school catch-up’ – entails for different school communities. There are no simple answers and while the government has announced a further £700 million to support short-term catch-up schemes, such as tutoring, longer school days and summer clubs, educationalists are calling for a more evidence-informed approach to tackle learning loss. Provision needs to be carefully evaluated and well targeted; one size will not conveniently fit all, and local needs must be taken into account to make sure the most vulnerable pupils benefit. Seriously addressing the impact of the pandemic on educational outcomes and CYP’s life chances involves playing the long game.
Crucially, the challenge for schools is not just dealing with redressing the academic shortfall. Myriad behavioural and pastoral issues can be expected as many anxious and confused pupils begin to adjust to post-lockdown life and new school regimes. Mental health and wellbeing must be at the forefront of concerted strategies to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. While CYP are the population least likely to be physically affected by COVID-19, they are, conversely, the most vulnerable to poor mental wellbeing in its wake. Certainly, there was a mental health crisis prior to the pandemic. However, a wealth of evidence shows a rise in emotional and behavioural difficulties for a significant proportion of CYP since the outbreak. Again, it appears to be those already impacted by inequalities who are likely to be affected the most. The NHS is providing mental health support to growing numbers of CYP, but there is a significant level of unmet need – an emerging ‘crisis on top of a crisis’. Early intervention and treatment are vital, and schools have a pivotal role to play here. For many CYP, their usual support structures crumbled during the pandemic and the physical safe haven of school was temporarily removed. However, with the return to classroom learning there is a golden opportunity for schools to prioritise mental health and allow CYP to ‘catch-up’ socially and emotionally and to nurture pupil readiness to learn.
The task is huge, but schools do not have to manage alone in their efforts to support pupils. There is help available with an array of evidence-based interventions such as Book of Beasties – the Mental Wellness Card game, Pyramid Club for schools and the LifeMosaic app, all of which aim to promote and support CYP’s mental wellbeing. Programmes like these can augment schools’ existing mental health strategies and the relationships and health education curriculum. Dedicated funding should be made available to allow schools to commission the support they need to attend to local needs during this time of unprecedented crisis. Finally, and most importantly, pupils should be at the heart of decision making around their school’s recovery plans. CYP are best placed, as experts in their own lives, to help develop effective and meaningful strategies to build back a better school experience. The ubiquitous mantra of ‘how do we catch-up on [academic] learning?’ needs updating. This time, the return to school should be accompanied by a unanimous voice urging for CYP’s mental health and wellbeing to take number one priority – let’s join that call, loudly.
Michelle Jayman is a chartered psychologist and a lecturer in psychology at the University of Roehampton.
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