Challenging the damaging ‘Covid gap’ narrative
We’ve got you kids! It’s the system that needs to change, not you. This is why.
Coauthored by Kathryn Pratt and Caroline Palmer
A few weeks into the third stint of pandemic-induced emergency homeschooling, parents are struggling to maintain the National Curriculum’s pace of educating their children. The impact of juggling jobs, housework and teaching is causing a peak in stress and anxiety, in spite of Boris Johnson’s open letter to parents.
“I feel like I am failing” — emergency homeschooling parent
Increasing the pressure on parents, and fueling their sense of failure, the media and government are perpetuating a damning narrative of COVID-era children’s prospects. And the children are listening. Last week the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) released a document reporting “significant learning loss” of year 2 pupils, aged 6 or 7 years old, due to COVID-related school closures. The report, based on Maths and English scores, concluded that children “have fallen behind”, and in spite of such a young cohort, highlighted the “importance of continuing to invest in catch-up activities to enable children to recover the learning they have lost”. The concern over “lost learning” has been corroborated by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), announcing an average lifetime earning loss of £40K per child as a result. Despite the IFS admitting that “the unprecedented nature of the current crisis makes it hard to predict the actual effects”, the headlines are hard-hitting and can’t be unread or unheard, by adults or our children.
The pressure is huge and the narrative outright damaging.
Fuelled by ‘evidence’ from the IFS and NFER, the government is drawing-up “catchup plans”, overseen by Sir Kevan Collins, to bridge this identified ‘covid gap’ in learning. Such catch-up plans might include missed holidays, as Boris Johnson promises “we will make sure that teachers and students are equipped with the resources and the time they need to make up for lost learning”, while unions reject longer school days. The pressure on families to find the time, tools and emotional resilience, during a pandemic, seems unfathomable, and the toll on mental health immense.
Children across the country, and world, are dealing with enormous upheaval in their personal lives and a scarily shifted global landscape. Comparisons can be easily drawn with the disruption World War 2 brought to school education. City school closures and evacuated children, not to mention the mental health challenges, meant many missed out on school completely. In response, the education system was rapidly reformed, with the House of Commons passing the Education Act in 1944, “aimed to remove the inequalities”, and “provided free secondary education for all pupils”.
Notably, despite the extensive disruption to war-time education, the post-war era saw the economic boom of the ‘Golden Age’, with technological innovation pursued and achieved by children of the war.
In the midst of a pandemic and a national mental health crisis, what if slowing down the flow rate of spoon-fed information, tests and expectation allows kids to breathe, explore and dream; to learn how to cope, even a little better, with living in these times?
What is being overlooked by the government, IFS and NFER, is that time out of school does not directly equate to lost learning. What the kids may or may not need to “catch up” on depends on the intended end product and how progress towards it is measured.
Education is supposed to prepare children for adult life, equipping them with the tools and skills to thrive.
Upon leaving compulsory education in the UK, however, children are expected to be a ‘minimum viable product’ for a workforce of the past. Their potential to succeed is measured by their ability to complete tasks and meet National Curriculum standards set by the government. As such, the education system tests what is easily measurable — children’s ability to regurgitate a predetermined slice of our bloated, colonial, outdated and absurdly steadfast, National Curriculum.
“What planet are you on if you think the purpose of education is to provide 9 or 10 GCSEs that fail a third of our children from the outset?” (Lakhani, 2021 Rethinking Education Podcast).
At its most basic level the current education system is an exam-based peer ranking scheme, designed to determine who should succeed and who should fail. It favours the structured academic and penalises the creative and neurologically diverse.
In the pandemic, with many children away from the four walls of school, learning may have had the opportunity to diversify, sprawl-out across a range of topics, forming a network of gained knowledge, connections and real-world experience. All left unmeasured and so unacknowledged and uncelebrated by the system. It is unlikely, therefore, that standardised testing can accurately determine a child’s learning, let alone indicate future prospects. With a rigid education system unable to tick predefined boxes, children are told they are falling behind.
“Children cannot learn on someone else’s schedule. They can only learn on their own schedule” Dr. Renuka Ramroop
Unforgivably, 30% of British children live in poverty, without access to resources many of us take for granted. Motivation has likely plummeted and curiosity about the world dwindled, both surpassed by immediate and essential needs of food and safety. These children, like all children, don’t need more pressure, more expectation and a renewed sense of failure — to be told they have fallen behind before they have barely begun. They don’t need catch-up tutoring, longer school days and missed holidays. They need to benefit from urgent education reform, much like the Education Act 1944, with access to resources, a reliable connection to the digital world, to be fed, safe, supported and believed in.
From this basic foundation of nurture and nourishment, all children can flourish, following their passions and developing interests and excellence in topics far beyond the National Curriculum.
What if we, the parents, teachers, communities and government, embraced the reality that there is more to education and learning than Maths and English, metrics and test scores?
What if we internalised that every child is innately equipped with the curiosity and ability to thrive and recognised our roles as guides, mentors and champions.
Kids, we believe in you.
Read our next article ‘An education fit for purpose’
Kathryn Pratt is an educator, parent and founder of Soweni (Soweni.com), a social enterprise project which reimagines education.
Caroline Palmer is a freelance writer, editor (www.flourishlife.co.uk), scientist and parent.
Join the education revolution
The education revolution is gaining momentum. We need your voice to make positive change. Here are some things that you can do:
- Tell your children they are incredible and not falling behind.
- Start documenting your child’s learning with photos and videos
- Write to your MP and ask for change. Here is a draft letter you can use.
- Join the Rethinking Education community and dive deeper into the current thinking on education reform www.rethinking-Education.mn.co
- Add your voice to rethinking assessment: https://rethinkingassessment.com/help-us-rethink-assessment/
- Write to your children’s school and ask them to support education reform and help your child to develop 21st century skills.
Lakhani, P. (2020) Inadequate: The System Failing Our Teachers and Your Children. John Catt Educational.
OECD (2013), Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2013-en.
Philbeck, T. and Davis, N. (2018) The fourth industrial revolution: Shaping a new era. Journal of International Affairs 72:17–22. Accessed January 30, 2021. doi:10.2307/26588339.
Draft letter to MPs
RE: Urgent education system reform; scrapping exams and supporting children in 21st Century learning
I am writing to request that you raise the issue of our outdated, exam-based National Curriculum with the Minister for Education, and propose a reform towards 21st Century learning.
We are a fifth of the way through the 21st Century, but our education system is built to prepare children for the 20th, and so is no longer fit for purpose. The pandemic has highlighted serious, systemic failings in the education system, underscoring the need for the radial overhaul that educators have been asking for for decades.
Now is the time.
Telling our children, as young as 6 (NFER), that they have lost life chances, and potential earnings (IFS), and must ‘catch-up’ on ‘lost learning’, is deplorable. Such damning narrative by politicians and the media is compounding the national mental health crisis, demotivating young people and instilling a sense of failure in children and parents alike.
We are at a point in time when change and uncertainty are the norm. When we need resilient, quick thinkers, problem solvers and innovators so that we may navigate the global challenges that lay ahead. We need knowledge-hungry, compassionate young people able to manage their mental and physical health and contribute positively as global citizens.
What we don’t need are children memorising facts merely to pass government-set standardised tests that have no relevance to the real world or their ability to thrive in it.
I call for the government to rethink exam-based curricula, and take tangible steps towards curiosity-led learning. Releasing teachers and children from the intense pressure to meet targets and instead offer support and mentorship through inspiring projects. We ask that exams and test scores are abolished and children are instead assessed, compared and valued based on a digital portfolio showcasing their passions, skills and achievements.
I also call for the government to send a message of support, hope and optimism to our children.
I strongly urge you to raise the education reform with the minister for education and actively support progressive policies to enable our education system to become ‘world leading’.
If we don’t act now, the country will be left behind, not only our children.
Thank you for your time.