March 8th and beyond - where do we start?

In just over a week, most children and young people will return to school full-time, nearly exactly a year after the beginning of our first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK (many, of course, having attended school during that time).

The current rhetoric around lost learning, ‘catch up’, ‘catastrophic rise in mental health issues’ and ‘destruction of life chances’ (described by Robert Halfon, chair of the Education select committee as the ‘four horsemen of education apocalypse) has contributed to panic-y sounding policy suggestions such as longer school days (now, thankfully, ruled out) and national summer schools, which have been roundly challenged from within the educational establishment.

The narrative of lost childhoods and falling behind has also got a lot to answer for in generating more anxiety and fear for both parents and young people themselves. Of course, this is not to underestimate the unprecedented challenges that many families have faced, but perhaps we could suggest that a narrative of hope and of learning opportunities that we can build on from over the last year, (combined with the necessary social, financial, emotional support) may be more supportive in terms of a child’s life chances.

So what needs to be the starting point for schools and families, as they begin to re-establish their communities face to face?

Far from seeing this only as a moment of crisis - and of the desperate need to cover more curriculum ground in less time, schools are building on the relationships with families that have been strengthened through the pandemic. A focus on relationships and community that will enable students to rebuild socially and emotionally and provide the foundation for all to thrive is more crucial now than ever. As Geoff Barton of the Association for School and College Leaders puts it so neatly – ‘instead of focussing on what children have lost this year, let’s focus on what they’ll need next - laughter and fun.

Back in 2012 a colleague of mine heard Michael Gove at the Festival of Learning building on his argument that rote learning and tests should be a central part of the school experience - saying ‘without exams it’s just play’. But of course, last Summer and for this forthcoming summer, we have shown that there are alternatives to exams - that a young person’s abilities, knowledge and skills can be assessed in a range of different ways.

Perhaps we could even see this crisis as an opportunity to step back and reflect on some more core, philosophical questions about the nature of learning and education and the role that both schools AND families have to play in supporting these.

We must also recognise that play is, in fact, absolutely crucial for a whole range of benefits for children, young people and adults. Its contribution to social, emotional and also academic outcomes is now undisputed. So let’s have a focus on play, on reconnecting with friends and teachers, on freedom and an opportunity to process the challenging year we have just been through and are still experiencing. Children and adults alike need time and support to process and to reflect.

The poet and children’s author Michael Rosen sums it up, ‘at present, the rhetoric is full of the idea that because it has not been possible for the whole curriculum to be taught to everyone, it must follow that young people’s minds have been standing still. But children’s minds don’t freeze simply because they are getting less school time’.

So what have the children learnt?

About themselves, their families, their response to the challenges of the pandemic? The foundations of lifelong learning are influenced by the environment of relationships and experiences that children and young people find themselves in.

Now, more than ever, we need to prioritise and support responsive relationships between adults and children within emotionally healthy cultures, so that the only thing that is ‘falling behind’ is the unhelpful rhetoric of ‘lost learning’ and ‘catch up’. Let’s offer our children a new narrative of community, relationships and collaboration.