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WEEKEND READING: Observations on the pandemic from a Schools Outreach Fellow

  • 4 July 2020
  • By Nick Barker

This guest blog is kindly written by Nick Barker, Schools Outreach Fellow at the University of Warwick, who works full-time with disadvantaged pupils in a Worcestershire primary school to raise their aspirations and help them achieve their potential.

We need to help people to get to university if it is the right thing for them. It does not matter what their background is because, in the end, good mixtures of people make the most creative teams. What 25 years of trying has shown me is that you can encourage children from challenging backgrounds to aspire to go to university by getting them to believe in themselves (which takes time and effort) and then you follow that up with sustained, relentless support and encouragement from decent, relevant people. That is it, there’s nothing glamorous about it.

At this point in time, some way through the ongoing stretch of unprecedented disruption brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, I know I have seen enough to be sure that all momentum has been lost. The primary school children I work with are learning less than they would on a normal school day with optional attendance. School is currently a service to some parents who qualify to be able to go to work and to some children who are at risk from harm at home.

People growing up on the estate where I work are more likely to go without breakfast than progress to higher education. I am worried that across our country children are hungry, isolated, anxious and making no progress in their education. Before the pandemic struck, 19 per cent of children in the UK lived in food poverty, but I am sure that is higher now. I am also sure that the number of children living with domestic violence or substance abuse in the home will be higher too.

On the day of writing this piece, through my support role in the school, I have taught “N” how to calculate a discounted price, but the day before he couldn’t tell me what 10 per cent of 100 is, so I think language was the barrier not his ability. “O” can now use sin, cos and tan, and “J” and “A” have asked me to set them some questions to do at home. They are keen and want to learn. “C” is now happy with basic trigonometry and will bring her scientific calculator tomorrow. These children are just 10 and 11 years old.

At the school, I am trusted with the children’s background stories. Sometimes they upset me and I have to carry them around not knowing what to do with that information. I want to tell you about them, but my fear that the child could identify themselves from what I write keeps me silent. Their right to a dignified privacy, not to be thought of as a victim, is even greater than my will to see them succeed. The children are amazing. They inspire me every day with their grace. It is very hard for people who are basically comfortable, employed and able to work from home in some comfort to imagine just how different life is for so many children and how important it is that they can attend school each day.

Poor, state-educated kids are not progressing educationally or socially. I see that with my own eyes. And they are now on course to miss at least six months of education during these highly formative stages of their lives. The legacy of this, although unknowable at present, will inevitably be felt for years to come.

One adult said to me that it will all be fine because children missed a lot of time in the war and they were ok. First, define “ok”. Second, unskilled labour was needed then in a way it no longer is and, third, the wealth of scientific understanding gained since 1945 concerning the psychosocial development of children would suggest this is not true.

While this situation is very hard for everyone, independently-educated children are generally being served a full timetable online every day, even at primary school level. The gap grows wider and I can only hope sector bodies in higher education, like the Office for Students (OfS) and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), are taking this seriously too, because we cannot afford to close our eyes to a problem that is coming our way in the future.

I am just one person in one bubble and I have access to 12 children each day. But I know that there are several million children going pretty much nowhere in this country every single day. This should be thought of as the UK’s second emergency, after saving the NHS.

Footballer Marcus Rashford has already received praise this month for making a difference to around 1.3 million disadvantaged children in England this summer, who will now be able to claim free school meal vouchers over the holidays. But I am now left asking myself if we can, and should, be doing so much more. Can we not, for example, mobilise the nation to bring our children out of their homes and back to spending more time with each other? Can we not open every sports centre, gym, theatre and concert hall, and mobilise those sports people, actors, musicians and anyone else who can help our children, who may have otherwise been furloughed, to spend some meaningful time with them, so they can learn to do constructive things too?

Many children in the UK today are missing out on so much. And if we don’t find ways to re-engage them in learning and development soon, then I fear a whole generation in the future may never know if higher education could have been the right option for them – because they missed out on so many opportunities from a young age and the support of people who could inspire them, encourage them and, above all, believe in them.

2 comments

  1. Robin Davies says:

    What an inspiring appeal on behalf of so many children who need help to make the most of their abilities in life. I am struck by your observation that there are so many adults qualified and able to help these children with time on their hands to do it, especially in the current circumstances. There must be a role for educational organisations to coordinate these links in a safe and secure way to mobilise many more people to give children in need the support they deserve.

  2. Palmer says:

    I would like to add to Nick Barker’s points that I am seeing a stark difference in secondary schools between the provision for the pupils I teach online (as a specialist privately funded teacher) according to whether they attend state or independent schools.

    In many cases, the state-educated pupils have had no lessons provided by their school since March. These pupils’ appearance online has sometimes shocked me. It is evident that they are suffering psychologically, which as teenagers is understandable because it is necessary for their psychological development to socialise and mix with their peers.

    The arrangements for handling COVID 19 are that ‘ health comes first’. The plans in place dismiss differing physical and psychological health risks for children and adolescents, from those of adults at risk of complications through comorbidities. The arrangements put in place favour these adults and put the needs of the young last.

    The harm to the young is being experienced on a continuum: with most children affected, but some harmed in ways that will change the course of their lives, especially if the mistakes made in depriving the young of schooling for so long are not recognised and addressed.

    It is worrying that the effects of the plans in place for so long are remote from those making the decisions because, for the most part, their own children attend independent schools and are consequently still, in general, receiving a full timetable of lessons. The enormity of the problem for, perhaps 97% of school-aged children is, for the decision-makers, out of sight.

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