By Jack Reynolds, Co-director.
After four weeks of the 2020/21 academic year, I wanted to share a few of the things that I’ve heard through my sessions and school visits so far. These four quotes sum up both the strains and risks created by the most extraordinary of academic years.
1. ‘It’s good to be back with my friends. I can’t get excluded now and go back to isolation.’
Vulnerable young people make up 78% of all school exclusions. These are likely to be the same young people who had the toughest times at home during lockdown. These young people are now desperate to stay in school, but I worry it won’t take long for that excitement at the return to become disillusionment at the reality.
2. ‘There’s no time allowed to run around anymore. It’s killing me.’
One of the less explored impacts of year group bubbles is the impact it is having on young people’s time to play at school. Most schools have taken the decision to split by year group, with break and lunch times also segmented. This segmentation means that the typical school day has a 10-minute toilet break and then a 20-minute lunch slot to grab some food. At best within all of this, young people might sneak in 5 or 10 minutes to run around or play footie. While I completely understand the impossible choices that schools are having to make around safety, it is difficult to see how any solution to supporting our most vulnerable children involves even less time for exercise and play than pre-COVID.
3. ‘All the adults seem really stressed the whole time and loads of our lessons have cover teachers.’
Three overlapping trends mean that the strain on classroom teachers this year, is immense. Firstly, teachers are being forced off for two weeks at a time if they or co-habitants have symptoms. Secondly, teachers are often putting together double lesson plans, supporting students in school and then attempting to replicate the lesson for those having to engage remotely. And, thirdly, COVID has just brought an additional level of anxiety to every interaction. Those young people who already found school to be a stressful and triggering experience are going to struggle to cope within that environment. And they are much less likely to have teachers able to offer them the consistent daily relationships which are so crucial to making schools feel like welcome and safe places.
4. ‘There’s no spare money. It’s all gone on making this place safe.’
Against this backdrop of increased vulnerability and anxiety, we have a school system which is ever more stretched for resources. While we are seeing a spike in referrals to social services, as IPPR and The Difference have highlighted schools still don’t receive any additional money specifically to support their most vulnerable young people. Headteachers are in a crazy position of knowing very well how much more need their students are bringing into school but have no additional options for providing them with support. It’s a good example of the flawed physical health vs mental health binary playing itself out with school leaders having to choose to prioritise the physical health of their staff and young people through COVID risk measures at the expense of the mental health of those same people.
5. Through listening to our young people and partner teachers, it is incredibly clear that there are two waves moving through our school system.
Wave one: Our young people, and particularly those from unstable homes, are delighted to be back in school. They are loving seeing their friends, they are embracing the routine, and they are enjoying the stimulation of learning again. They are frightened that they will be back in isolation, either through school closing or through school exclusion.
Wave two: Our schools, and particularly those which were struggling before the pandemic, are battling to deliver even the minimum requirements of an effective school. They are coping with high teacher absence with possible COVID symptoms, and they are delivering double lessons online and in person. They are forced to spend more of their time thinking about safety rather than learning. They are frightened that they won’t be able to sustain even this minimum level of teaching and student safety, and they know there is very little additional resource to improve things.
My fear is that very quickly wave two will subsume wave one. For the first time, we have so many of our disengaged students talking openly about how much they want to be in school. But they are coming back into a system which is struggling to provide them with the level of nurture and support which it will take for them to succeed after such a difficult year. Unless that changes, we may see the learning loss of lockdown replicated by the learning loss of school exclusion.