There’s no getting away from it. Despite the vaccination programme and easing of restrictions, COVID-19 is still very much with us … and likely to hang around for the foreseeable future.
At all levels of education, the stress of living through a pandemic has inevitably taken a physical and emotional toll on the workforce. As well as their own personal COVID experiences, they’ve been learning to live with infection control systems, frequent disruptions due to child or staff absences, and a never-ending stream of COVID bureaucracy from local and national policy-makers. As we approach our second COVID Christmas, have those policy-makers noticed that the care and education workforce is exhausted …?
Even more important, have they recognised the effect of the pandemic on children’s mental health? The media has been reporting an escalating ‘child and adolescent mental health crisis’ for over a decade, and according to one reporter, that crisis is now itself a pandemic. Our CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) were creaking at the seams even before COVID, so God knows how they’ll cope with the spiralling demands. Yet this time last year, when plans were optimistically drawn up for COVID recovery, government rhetoric focused on educational ‘catch-up’, rather than students’ emotional capacity to learn.
This lack of attention to the Health and Well-being strand of Curriculum for Excellence was reflected in the recent public consultation on the future of Scottish education. Since the consultation was inspired by an OECD review of CfE, and influenced by the horrific exam crises of 2020 and 2021, most questions focused on reform of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. So we can presumably look forward to a reorganisation of deckchairs at these two organisations (perhaps accompanied by changes of name and logo) while the mental health iceberg looms ever closer and the oncoming waves ever icier.
Childhood wellbeing and education
Mental health problems during childhood have long-term consequences, for the children themselves and for society as a whole. But it also matters NOW that an ever-growing number of Scotland’s young people are unhappy, anxious and depressed and that – thanks to COVID – we’re soon likely to see these symptoms of mental ill health in many more children under the age of five.
Our education policymakers must begin prioritising children’s health and well-being over bureaucratic reform. And it’s now widely accepted that there are two key protective factors for long-term mental health. Five years ago this month, forty distinguished experts (including Professors Robin Alexander, Tim Brighouse and Colwyn Trevarthen, Baroness Susan Greenfield and Naomi Eisenstadt CB) signed a letter to the Guardian concluding that ‘if children are to develop the self-regulation and emotional resilience required to thrive in modern technological culture, they need unhurried engagement with caring adults and plenty of self-directed outdoor play, especially during their early years (0–7)’.
Yet, despite several positive moves forward for the early level of CfE – including the publication of Realising the Ambition and improved outdoor learning opportunities in many nurseries – as soon as children enter school at age four or five, policymakers and local authority bureaucrats expect teachers to aim for the attainment of ‘benchmarks’ in literacy and numeracy, and children must sit standardised assessments in these subjects in Primary 1.
Catching up with child development
If Scotland is ever to ‘catch up’ with successful countries like Finland and Estonia in meeting children’s developmental needs (and thus helping them reach their full educational potential), our government must recognise that health and wellbeing come first, especially in early years. That doesn’t just mean the health and wellbeing of the children but of the adults who care for them.
We must reduce stress in schools and settings. That means ditching pressure for academic achievement at an age when the overwhelming majority of the world’s children aren’t even in school. It means letting our young children learn and develop through the time-honoured medium of play – and allowing the adults who care for them the time and space to support that learning and development.
Until the final decades of the 20th century, all Scottish children – rich and poor, urban or rural – had time and freedom to play. In a genuinely research-driven education system, the state should be providing space and support for this developmental necessity, not just pursuing arbitrary age-related standards of educational attainment.
As I was writing this blog, David Cameron, one of the architects of Curriculum for Excellence, urged the government (via the TES) to focus on the causes of children’s current distress, adding that ‘as long as we allow the causes of distress to thrive … we will face the consequences of that in children’s behaviours‘. Responding to his article, the campaign group, Give Them Time, tweeted that ‘denying the difficulties going on both in schools and within families/ communities is alarming. We need the truth to be told. Where are the bold leaders who can step up to this? It is critical because Covid isn’t going away which means those impacts remain and worsen’.
A genuinely research-driven education system would start with a rights-focused, relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds. And, as we move towards Year Three of the COVID pandemic, it can’t start soon enough.