In recent weeks policymakers, the media and organisations such as OFSTED have focused resources to identify what the post-lockdown realities are for young people. Despite the government dedicating £1.7 billion in catch-up funding, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) released a report outlining the urgency of need but also the insufficiency of the amount currently dedicated (amounting to just 43p per young person). The EPI report suggests that a multi-year funding package of £15 billion is what is needed to reverse the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked for a response to this report, the government said that it was working with parents, teachers and school leaders to develop a long-term plan to make sure all students have the chance to recover from the impact of the pandemic. While we welcome this level of consultation, we find ourselves asking, once more, where are the voices of the young people? Why are they not consulted as experts in their own experience and in potential solutions regarding the impacts of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, for many young people, especially those from marginalised backgrounds they are constantly spoken about and for and they typically represent the first and final frontier of school reform. In policy spaces, conferences and even across the third sector, young people are constantly kept out of conversations and consultations. At FBB, however, we believe in the immense expertise extant in young people and see a major pillar of our policy approach to engage, reflect and platform the views of the young people. They should be the pulsating heart of any reforms in education and consulted in a manner that is equivalent to what typically takes place in University research reports.
To this end, and against the backdrop of several initiatives such as the Children’s Commissioner’s Big Ask Survey, the COVID Survey of Young Londoners, and the establishment of the Mental Health Action Group, I have spent time in Schools over the past couple of weeks. Across London, Kent and the North West of England 11-14 year olds have shared how they feel they can best be supported to be their best selves against the backdrop of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked young people how best they can be supported to achieve their potential at school. I finished by asking them ‘what message they would deliver to the board of governors or the Minister for Education. While this article is not an exhaustive list of their views, I have outlined the most pertinent for education policy (sorry to the young person that wanted to move to a four-day week!)
“When you feel good you can be good and do good [in school]… we need someone to talk to”.
For many young people across the country, the pandemic has had a significant impact on their mental health, organisations such as Young Minds have released surveys and analyses outlining the scale of this, and nearly all the young people I spoke to made it clear that they needed some mental health support in the form of 1:1 mentoring/counselling/therapy. They have faced isolation, a loss of routine, the breakdown in relationships and bereavement – but have had no space to disclose this or anyone to speak to. As one teacher outlined to me, the desire to return to ‘business as usual’ has meant that a great deal of trauma is left unattended or undetected and this is impacting young people’s mental health and thus their ability to achieve and this was confirmed by a young person that shared: “if we are struggling mentally, it is hard to learn… there are things you can’t see.”
Some of the young people I spoke to mentioned how important it is to have a space or person to speak to about what they are facing, someone that could be a bridge between the young people and their (already extremely stretched) teachers and someone that can help them through some of the issues they are facing. As one student put it: “every student should have a counsellor they can speak to.”
“The whole point of coming back to school was to stop the isolation from lockdown… why do I spend time in isolation rooms for talking in class or having the wrong uniform… what is the point? I might as well learn on Zoom again.”
One consequence of the move to online learning has been that young people’s expectations and common sense understanding of schooling and education have been challenged. This is particularly the case for young people that have typically struggled in mainstream school environments. Nearly all the young people I spoke to in the past two weeks mentioned the traumatic impacts of isolation rooms. As one young person put it: “Isolation does not help at all, it gets you angrier, makes you feel unwanted and makes me think that my school teachers don’t want to understand me, just exclude me.” I think we can all agree that such feelings do not lend themselves to a positive attitude to school.
For many young people, finding themselves sitting in a room on their own takes them back to online learning and has them questioning why they were hurried back to schools and are being excluded from their classes for what they deem minor transgressions. This is not to say that young people do not believe in high behavioural standards, but rather that they are desperate to connect with their peers and teachers, desperate to learn and desperate to rebuild key relationships that can help them thrive at school . When I questioned them on what alternatives they would suggest the responses were extremely mature, they wanted more mediations between students and teachers to deescalate disagreements, they wanted more mentors in schools that could support their teachers and help bridge the gap between teachers and students and they wanted punishments that were proportionate to the transgressions. As one student put it: “we want to be included and want to achieve, the internal exclusion room gives us none of that.”
“I am struggling with simultaneous equations while he *pointing at his friend* is struggling with graphs… I don’t know why we are all doing the same things all the time”.
A really interesting, and perhaps most surprising, insight I heard from the young people I spoke with was around the opportunity to develop a personalised curriculum that fit their needs. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns has meant that the intended curriculum pathway has been shaken up and the lack of in person assessments has meant that young people, more than ever, are facing different challenges accessing learning and in their journey through school – some young people have thrived in certain topics and others have thrived with others. To this end, many young people evoked a clear view that they believed that some parts of online learning could be integrated into in-person schooling. They enjoyed the independence of online learning and felt like teachers could utilise a similar approach in school to allow students to tackle topics they need as part of the ‘catch-up’ rather than all doing the same things at the same time. As one young person put it: “I am so bored in Science because we are going through all the stuff from September and I know it already, can’t I do something else?”