‘The pandemic has highlighted the huge social divide that exists in the UK’

Vivian Hill talks attainment gaps, education and resilience.

07 June 2021

There is substantial evidence that tells us that when children from the poorest and most disadvantaged families start their education, many of their skills and early learning attainments are less well developed than those of their more advantaged peers. Despite the best efforts of the education system the evidence from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) suggests that by the age of 16 that attainment gap increases to reflect a difference of 18 months. For the past decade there has been a concerted effort to close the attainment gap, yet even before the pandemic struck worrying evidence from EPI was highlighting that this process had stalled. In addition to concerns about the attainment gap there has been increasing alarm about children and young people’s mental health and well-being in the pre-pandemic world. This is only predicted to escalate in the post Covid-19 context.

The pandemic has highlighted the huge social divide that exists in the UK. It has had a strikingly different impact on our poorest communities, those from BAME backgrounds, those delivering frontline services, older people and those living in overcrowded accommodation, all of whom were found to be at greater risk of both morbidity and mortality. For children and young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds the impact of digital poverty was noted to be seriously impacting on their access to education during lockdown. The Institute of Fiscal Studies report in May 2020 suggested that each day during lockdown children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds accessed 75 minutes less learning than their advantaged peers.

Since then there have been numerous studies investigating the impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns on children’s learning. Some are suggesting that, on average, children are now seven months further behind than they should, be whilst other estimates suggest they are 22 months delayed. That doesn’t just include delay in conceptual learning but also includes language development, social skills, the ability to build and sustain relationships, manage conflict and regulate emotions. That’s the nature of the gap – it’s not just a gap of measurable learning but a gap of a wide range of social and emotional skills too.

The national response to the educational impact of lockdown has been to focus on developing a ‘recovery’ and ‘catch up’ curriculum, but the challenge is to ensure that this is fit for purpose and does not neglect or exacerbate the psychological and emotional needs of children and young people. This raises important questions about what the focus of this curriculum should be, and how it should be delivered, providing an important and unique opportunity to consider what a good 21st century education should encompass. We have an important opportunity to consider how to embrace a more holistic conceptualisation of education that integrates both good mental health and well-being alongside a pedagogy that supports meta-learning.  

What is education and what are children’s rights?
The context we’re in right now should encourage us to think carefully about what education is and what children’s rights and entitlements are, to consider what young people have missed and how best to address that. Members of the BPS Division of Educational and Child Psychology and Division of Clinical Psychology and a group of young people from States of Mind recently met with Robert Halfon (MP) and Chair of the Education Committee to discuss these issues and attempt to inform next steps. It was felt that we need to see recognition that we’re coming out of a pandemic and need to manage not only the academic consequences but the psycho-social ones too. This is a unique context that provides important opportunities for change: what won’t help is trying to cram in ‘lost learning’, and there have rightly been robust rejections of any suggestion to do so.

The new tsar for closing the attainment gap, Sir Kevan Collins, is someone whose approach aims to promote social justice and he’s been talking about extending school hours, perhaps offering learning opportunities over some of the summer holiday. He comes from the Education Endowment Foundation and advised the Labour Party during the ‘Every Child Matters’ era, which is where the notion of extended schools originated, and it involves thinking about them as a resource for the community. We need to recognise that we have some children who have been confined in overcrowded accommodation, without access to safe outside play or socialisation opportunities, whilst others may have been exposed to domestic abuse and the extended school offers a safe place to go to play, to build friendships, to learn social skills, and through these activities provide opportunities for learning. I don’t think that the emphasis is going to be focused exclusively on formalised academic skills… it’s going to be much more about helping children and young people to catch up on a wide range of developmental tasks.

Opportunities in the return to school
We have to think about the return to school as a great opportunity to embrace a much more holistic view of education and to look in great detail at the interconnection between emotional, psychological and academic development and see that as a completely integrated process. I’d like to see a much more holistic view of education and what learning involves, making sure that we provide a school environment where developing the mental health and well-being of all pupils is at the heart of the curriculum.

The BPS put out two papers on returning to school – one on the compassionate return to school, which is about considering children’s experiences during the pandemic including bereavement and extreme deprivation, the other considering applying psychological perspectives to support the wider community through this process. In catching up with the curriculum you’ve got to deal with the mental state of children and young people, their families and communities as a starting point.

I would also suggest that many of the initiatives that have started during the pandemic really need to be carried through to their completion. For example, we’ve seen a recognition of the impact of digital poverty and it’s brilliant that we’re now giving children access to the internet and laptops in the poorest families. That will support closing the attainment gap – those children will start exploring on the internet and have access to knowledge and information that they’ve been largely denied up until now. I would really encourage things like that to continue – we need to get laptops into every family home.  

I would also like to see education and school contexts being seen as somewhere where you develop a much wider range of skills, thinking about children’s psychosocial development as well as their intellectual growth, and the understanding that the two are interconnected, you can’t do one effectively without the other.

There’s lots of evidence that tells us about the importance of a sense of school belonging to help reduce both school exclusion and subsequent social exclusion. If we make the return to school harsh and academically-focused and intolerant of behaviour problems we are going to lose some children. Psychology and psychologists have a huge amount to contribute to supporting this process – for example we can help schools identify the most appropriate social developmental activities for different age groups who will have missed out on some really quite fundamental, language, conceptual, learning and social and emotional growth activities.

We need to consider how flourishing in its broadest sense applies to everybody – but some children need much more support to flourish than others. Some have had difficult experiences during lockdown, but that is not true for everyone. For some children it has been beneficial. I was talking to a parent the other day whose child has autism, and he’s been going into school throughout the lockdowns and has benefited so much from being in a small bubble of six to eight children, in terms of his learning and social and emotional development. I think it is crucial to challenge the deficit model that highlights how every child has been damaged or delayed by lockdown experiences, we will see lots of different effects, but I want to introduce a note of optimism and suggest that children are really resilient. Learning isn’t static, it is dynamic and different aspects of learning will have taken place during lockdown, perhaps different skills and abilities will become evident in our children.

If we think about the last significant disruption to children’s education and daily life in the UK it would be the World War Two era. At that time our society changed in remarkable ways: it was the context in which the National Health Service and Welfare State evolved. What is clear now is that we must look at ways of reducing inequalities. From my point of view that’s exactly what Covid-19 has done – it has highlighted the huge social inequalities in our society and the need to redress those imbalances. It has raised challenges about the differential opportunities afforded to people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. It has brought into sharp focus the toxic nature of poverty. Perhaps we need to review the nature of the tasks of education for all children, reflecting on the experiences required at different ages and stages of development, what this offer should look like to ensure our education system is more inclusive and preparing all of our children for adulthood and their place in society.

What we’re really uncovering is that, for human beings to flourish and to thrive, they need a sense of belonging, they need to have their basic needs met. I want to see the return to school focusing on building supportive networks that meet the needs of the whole child, including their social, emotional and learning needs. It is not just about closing the achievement gap.

Photo: Tina Vedrine