When catching up means losing out

Children and young people have spent the last two years trying to learn how to cope with isolation, loss and a world turned upside down. Why do we now need to harass them into making sure they’re at the same academic level as a hypothetical young person who hasn’t spent the last 2 years living through a pandemic when that child doesn’t exist anywhere on earth? We have to ask who are we trying to catch them up to and why?

This cohort of students has faced challenges to their education most of us will never experience and we have the ability as a society to decide we’re going to cut them some slack and let them adapt to yet another change in circumstances. That we are going to expect less of them in terms of pure academic knowledge and instead focus on promoting their mental and emotional well being. As long as children have the basics covered and older young people have the functional academic skills they need to function day to day let’s take anything else as a bonus, let them take fewer qualifications and use some of that time to make sure they have the coping strategies to become emotionally healthy adults. Education can happen at any time of life but the longer maladaptive coping strategies are left in place the longer it takes to recover from them.

This is something I know from my own life experiences, in 2019 I spoke at federal conference on a motion on adult education about the value adult education had for me. A combination of bullying, ill health and being a primary carer for my mum with no external support caused me to experience significant mental ill health and the pressure of trying to stay at academic parity with my peers only made things worse. I fought to stay caught up, made myself more unwell in the attempt, still couldn’t manage it and instead that failure further fuelled my mental illness. This has been the case for many children with life experiences like mine for years and now it will be the case for many more.

As a Youth Worker and Teaching Assistant I saw the devastating impact upheaval and uncertainty can have on a child’s ability to progress and grow and how impossible it was for them to learn effectively without the root causes being addressed first. We have the power as a party and a society to protect and support these young people. We can recognise and defend the fact that it is possible to attain more academic knowledge at any age but it is significantly easier to manage that and manage it sooner if you aren’t battling mental illness, have good coping strategies and emotional resilience.

Young children still have time left in education to build their academic knowledge and better funding for adult education would allow teens (and those who, like me, left school having under-performed based on their ability) to go back and achieve new/better qualifications if they need them as well as being a demonstrable commitment to our belief in the value of lifelong learning. We can prove what I think we all believe- that a someone who isn’t ready to take GCSE’s until they’re 18 or even 28 is no less worthy or hardworking than someone who takes them at 16- they may simply have had different lessons they needed to learn before they could.

So instead of catching children and Young people up academically let’s demand better funding for mental health support and get professionals into schools to catch them up mentally and emotionally. We have to focus on giving them the skills they need to return to and maintain mental wellness before they will be able to catch up academically and the earlier we can do that the less entrenched any issues will be.

Lack of mental wellbeing support meant it took me 10 years of hard work to return to mental wellness. Lack of academic knowledge meant it took me 1 year to retake my GCSE Maths and get an A. Let’s commit to making sure no child loses a decade of their life because we decided academics was more important than emotional and mental well-being and be kinder to our kids.

Let’s focus less on kids ‘catching up’ and more on letting them catch their breath.

* Charley joined the Lib Dems in 2010, has stood in Local elections in Stoke on Trent and London and was PPC for Eltham in the 2019 General Election and a GLA list candidate in 2021. They have been a Youth Worker, Early Years Teaching Assistant and FE College Governor. They are currently an Emergency Services Worker in London and Vice Chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems.

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  • Brad Barrows 17th Jan '22 - 5:51pm

    I think the difficulty is that lockdown and covid related disruption to education has impacted young people unequally – some who were more motivated and more supported at home engaged well in remote learning, while others, for a variety of reasons did not engage with online learning. Bottom line, pupils who engaged less than others are the ones in need of help to ‘catch up’ to ensure that they do not end up with poorer grades and less opportunities than those who engaged well. In other words, catching up is not about a hypothetical pupil but about those very real pupils who have now acquired real, relative advantages, due to their better engagement during lockdowns and disruption to education. ‘Catch up’ is therefore all about trying to help pupils overcome these relative disadvantages.

  • But the only reason they will be behind is because we’ve decided that they are. It’s all artificially constructed – ‘you should do your exams at this age’, ‘you should have X thing by Y age’. We need to ask ourselves *why* we’ve decided that and why it matters. More importantly we need to ask ourselves why we can’t decide to change that.

    If we believe that people shouldn’t be held back by their life circumstances then surely we shouldn’t be reinforcing the idea that if you haven’t done GCSEs at 16 you’ve failed.

    If we aren’t treating education like it has a finish line then nobody needs to catch up because nobody is behind- they’re just learning what they need to, when they need to (and hopefully when they want to)

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '22 - 1:06pm

    A very good article. I certainly like the sentiment but I’m not entirely convinced by the conclusion. As Brad points out, the impact of the pandemic on children’s education has not fallen fairly across society so without urgent help to catch up now, some children may never do so.

    I agree that “it’s all artificially constructed – ‘you should do your exams at this age’, ‘you should have X thing by Y age’.”, but I believe that it is important that something is constructed like that! I’m not an educationalist so I don’t have the vocabulary for all this, but I feel that there has to be some sort of structure or system which sets out goals (which are currently qualifications at 16, 18, etc.). Without that, I fear that the left-behind will simply be left further behind by those who plough ahead.

    At the same time, there should be flexibility around those goals or stages, and it ​should not be a one-shot approach at each step through the education system (e.g. someone who does not take or pass their GCSEs at 16 should not be written off as a failure). It’s saddens me that in Coalition government this party played its own part in making the exam system more rigid.

    Also, there should a safety net of lifelong learning available for all. University is an important (but certainly not the only) part of that and again, it’s a shame that the Open University and part-time study for mature students suffered during the Coalition.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Jan '22 - 1:29pm

    Powerful stuff, from you Charley.

    I belive we need to rethink much in education, germane to that, making it more individually focussed.

    I believe lockdown and zoom, and online learning, could be made to work for many, if with individual one to one or small groups. Privacy and solitude are different. We can be at home and yet connect with people.

    So too, we need to see a person as a whole person, and have, thus, a holistic approach.

  • Helen Dudden 18th Jan '22 - 2:09pm

    Not many children could escape the continuous bombarding of news that would cause them upset and distress.
    I remember when I wrote about my 8 year old great granddaughter, who rang me crying. She is bright and could understand one thing, that she and others could be a danger to me and her other grandparents. She didn’t like it. After this we did zoom as one option.
    Trauma, can affect the brain development in children, I remember one of my colleagues telling me this.
    Johnson partied. They broke every rule, I think this has been one of the most upsetting things about the last two years.
    We now steadily build the relationships that were restricted because of others who did more often than not, what they wished.

  • Charley Hasted Charley Hasted 20th Jan '22 - 10:45am

    @Peter I completely agree but right now we don’t have goals we have deadlines if you haven’t taken a subject at GCSE at 16 or an A-level at 18 then, unless it’s English or Maths GCSE, good luck finding a course after that. I have 11 GCSE’s- I would have 14 but my school ‘let’ me drop 3 because I was struggling- no child *needs* 14 GCSE’s once you get past 7/8 it’s my considered opinion that you’re no longer looking at what’s best for the kid but rather an ego trip for the school. Also totally agree that the bonfire of continuing education that happened during the coalition and afterwards is an absolute travesty.

    @Lorenzo again completely agree we need to make education more individualised to the needs of the student. There are kids who thrive under pressure or where losing themselves in academics absolutely helps them deal with problems and trauma they’re facing in their lives.

    @Helen Adverse Childhood Events can absolutely have a huge impact on children’s neurology and psychology going into adulthood. That fact is exactly why I think it is so utterly vital we move towards mental and emotional wellbeing now while it’s still early enough to minimise any impact.

    What I’d like to see is at least 2-3 years where we let kids be good enough. Take an afternoon a week for example and instead of academics we bring in play/music/art therapists, counsellors, bereavement and grief counsellors, even psychs for kids who’ve been particularly badly affected and might need pharmacological help before/while they can engage in talking therapies and we help them work things through, let go of maladaptive strategies and teach them resiliance and wellbeing going forwards because frankly if they’re mentally and emotionally well they will get there academically. If they aren’t we can throw all the money we want at tutoring and lengthening the school day and at best it won’t make any difference.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Jan '22 - 12:50pm

    Charley, thanks, you are presenting excellent heartfelt innovation here, agreed!

  • Peter Watson 20th Jan '22 - 3:41pm

    There are a lot of issues here, and by picking out one I’m worried that I risk sounding like an academic elitist or a Mail-reading “life’s a competition, pampered kids should get used to stress” Tory, but …
    The “professions” are already dominated by people from relatively affluent or privileged backgrounds. I want every child to have the same opportunity to become a doctor, a vet, a scientist, an engineer, a lawyer, an economist, an accountant, even a Lib Dem MP ( 😉 ), etc. While these well-paid jobs and many others are only a small part of the employment market, they should not be out of the reach of anyone. If the academic goals of education are relaxed in state schools and the time spent on them reduced, I worry that children from poorer families will be disadvantaged and left behind by those who may be less capable but who nevertheless, thanks to a bit of money, are swept along by peers, parents, teachers and tutors.
    But school should not be a pressure cooker or an arms race. A balance needs to be found between mental health and ambition for all of our children; I don’t know where that is or how best to accommodate it.
    Ultimately, I think our education needs more investment, but also an overhaul, probably one that scraps the apparent notion that A-levels between 16 & 18 are a sacrosanct gold standard around which the rest of the education system must be based.

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