Why we need to change the narrative over Covid's impact on children

Clare Flintoff believes now is the time to reassess how schools teach pupils. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/

Pupils will return to the classroom on March 8 - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How are you? Alex Scott asks as she turns to the camera, in a touching moment that seems to speak to us directly and individually and feels genuine and concerned, during her advertisement for the BBC’s new mental health toolkit ‘Headroom’.  

In our own ways we are all living through a pandemic that will probably take us some time to fully process in our own minds.

Put yourself in the shoes of your eight-year-old self.  How would you have coped? Could you have processed what is happening? How would it have made you feel? Perhaps your parents would have protected you from the full horror - the death toll, numbers in hospital fighting for their lives, personal stories of grief - for fear of the impact on your childhood?  Before the rise of social media, personal devices and constant access to the internet that might have been possible.  

In 2021 that possibility doesn’t exist and our young people are being fed devastating news that we can’t protect them from.  In the last few weeks they have heard that their 'whole generation has been educationally scarred’, that they face a £40,000 loss of earnings over their lifetime (Institute of Fiscal Studies), that the pandemic may affect their social intelligence (a headline on multiple platforms), that rising rates of mental health issues and abuse have made them the real victims of this pandemic with lifelong and devastating implications for their future happiness.  

As adults we should, of course, be concerned and informed about the studies that are producing these headlines but we should be equally concerned that the headlines themselves are contributing to the problem and are likely to make matters much worse. The messages we are allowing our children to hear about potential damage are causing real damage and they need to stop.  

When the 80% of children who are currently learning at home return to school on 8th March our teachers will be working hard to change the narrative and this will be our first priority.  We will be far less concerned about academic learning loss as our fantastic profession has all the knowledge and expertise needed to put that right.  

Last week the Department for Education released a first report into the learning loss experienced by pupils as a result of the pandemic.  

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Findings were based on more than 400,000 reading and maths assessments taken early in the autumn term when children returned to school from the first lockdown and compared with results in previous years.  

Bearing in mind that most children then went on to experience a full term back at school, the results they obtained are ones we want to pay attention to as we return again. Not surprisingly children from poorer backgrounds were found to be further behind but, on average, that 8-year-old child has about 2 months learning loss in reading, and 3.2 months in maths.  

We have a skilled and highly professional teaching profession and these learning losses will not phase us.  In fact they are easily recoverable as any great teacher will know.  It is not unusual to support a child, who is assessed as a few months behind in their learning because they have missed or under-performed in the past, and to see gains of up to six months a few weeks later.  We can, and will, do this.  

When children return we will be asking them about their experiences and using that genuine and caring question, ‘How are you?’ We will also be telling them how proud we are of them for showing such resilience in what has been an exceptionally challenging year.  

As well as acknowledging the sacrifices they have had to make, we will also help them to see how much they have gained. This may be the greatest challenge that they’ve ever faced but we will do everything in our power to help them to emerge stronger and better prepared for life.  If you get the chance, please tell them how amazing they are - they are the future and that future is not yet written. 

Clare Flintoff is the CEO of ASSET Education, which runs a number of schools across Suffolk.

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