Children and teenagers have done a lot for society over the past 18 months. While the effects of Covid on some children are of course serious and lasting, their participation in lockdowns and restrictions has largely been to protect the older and more vulnerable in our communities. They have been yanked from social life and education settings at a time of critical development, and we as adults have a debt to repay as we move past the pandemic.
Regrettably, that does not seem to be on the horizon when it comes to education policy. A government leak suggests that children and teenagers are to be rewarded for their sacrifices with an extra half an hour of school every day, and it’s hard to see how this isn’t the worst of all worlds. It’s an expensive policy, it’s unlikely to close the learning gap, and it fails to confront the most acute harm of the last year: an unprecedented collapse of mental health among young people.
Students have already thrown cold water on the idea, and it’s not hard to see why. After a year of isolation, uncertainty and despair, what young people need is the time, space and opportunity to enjoy their freedom again, together. The campaigning coalition PlayFirstUK has called for this summer to go down in history as the “summer of play” with kids encouraged to get outside, be physically active and rocket boost their development and wellbeing through play, rather than through formal extensions to the school timetables, summer schools and online tutoring. As a teacher myself, I couldn’t agree more with these aims.
Of course, children weren’t the only ones affected by the pandemic’s impact on our schools. Parents left to homeschool their children for weeks and months on end, often while trying to hold down their own jobs, have taken a huge blow to their mental health too. Research conducted across 6,000 parents by the University of Oxford found that last winter’s lockdown affected parents even more badly than the spring lockdown, with many reporting high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
As you might expect, these burdens fall unevenly depending on your gender and income. This week, we’ve learned that mums have been devastated by mental health problems while dads are left relatively unaffected, and the University of Oxford study found lower income families are far more likely to feel stress and depression.
This can only be because of pre-existing inequality. Doubtless, the stresses of parents will be somewhat lessened by the return to in-person schooling, delivered by the teams of professional educators who have not stopped working throughout. But it’s hard to see what an extra half hour of schooling for kids will do to reduce the underlying causes of stress in the home, especially for mums, low income families, and single parents. As we move out of the pandemic stage of the virus, now is the time for transformative policies like a universal basic income, to ensure every parent has a safety net during any future shocks and freedom from the poverty trap.
I’m also a parent as well as a teacher, so I can see first hand what will be best for my pupils and my boys. If you have spent time around a child or a teenager over the last year, or if you can simply remember being one, you will know it’s painfully obvious that young people don’t want or need to be chained to desks in classrooms for longer days, trying to close a learning gap which won’t ever narrow until we tackle the pervasive and structural inequalities in our society.
We know that freedom from poverty at home is one of the key factors which will allow disadvantaged students to ‘catch up’ with their classmates. We also know that the government isn’t serious about this, demonstrated by the fact it took an unprecedented campaign from a professional footballer to shame them into giving back lunches they snatched from the hungriest children during school holidays.
The proposal to extend the school day is the rubber band snapping back to the tired old system of high stakes exams, target grades and Ofsted inspections. The farce of the ‘mutant algorithm’ last year exposed the pointless misery of teaching to the test, which puts league tables above any other qualitative measures of a good education. We need to take this golden opportunity to rethink the purpose of our education system, and imagine how we can go beyond the traditional models of formal teaching.
In the immediate term, as the sun finally comes back out literally and metaphorically, what our children need is time to rediscover themselves, their friendships, and their joy. After over a year of lockdowns and restrictions our children need to be free to explore the full, glorious diversity of life. Don’t keep them in the classroom a minute longer than usual.
Vix Lowthian is a secondary school teacher and Green Party spokesperson for education.