“This year…I think we all realised, that the only thing standing between parents and genuine, raging insanity is school, and teachers.” Caitlin Moran, The Times, 19/12/20.
Independent schools have done a truly extraordinary job of educating their pupils in the most difficult of circumstances. They have been the ultimate resilience role models, pivoting fast, innovating and adapting to bring the very best education possible to their pupils, but we must not underestimate the cost to teachers of such herculean efforts.
I will not linger too long on the impact this year has had on them. I imagine you are all too aware of the pressure on staff to master the technical and planning challenges of remote learning, to continue to identify and respond to the pastoral needs of their pupils despite not seeing them, and all whilst managing their own families.
But what about parents and pupils? How are they coping as we manage school closures? What has changed for them as the time of Covid has progressed?
“Over half of parents said they were worried about the impact of lockdown on the mental health of their child.”
In May 2020 we surveyed parents to understand what they were most concerned about. We were not surprised to see that over three quarters said top of the list was their child’s increased screen time/usage (77 per cent). Over half (54 per cent) said they were worried about the impact of lockdown on the mental health of their child and 79 per cent said they thought all school staff should be trained to support the emotional needs of children.
We repeated our survey in mid-January 2021 to see what had changed. It revealed some staggering results. An overwhelming 87 per cent of parents reported being concerned about the mental health of their children, 86 per cent were worried about their child’s screen time/usage and 91 per cent thought all school staff should be trained to support the emotional needs of children. These figures do not make for happy reading, but I was not surprised by them.
What did surprise me was that in this latest survey over two thirds (65 per cent ) of parents reported being worried about their child’s motivation which is not something that had previously been a cause for concern. Drilling down a little deeper it became clear that of this 65 per cent, over 50 per cent of respondents have children facing GCSEs or A-Levels this summer.
Every week parents and staff members of our Schools Wellbeing Hub can join a live Q&A which gives us a fascinating insight into the week by week challenges they are facing. When the announcement came that this year’s exams were to be replaced by teacher assessment, we experienced more enquiries about how to help teenagers manage anxiety.
“Uncertainty caused by the shifting goalposts has proved too much for some, leading to despair and paralysis.”
Then in mid-January came the news that Ofqual would like to introduce an element of testing to this year’s GCSEs and A-Levels, and the focus of the questions shifted slightly – they were still concerned about anxiety, but they were more concerned about motivation levels. “My teenager just seems to have given up”, “He says it’s all pointless” and “She just wants to stay in bed” have become the common dialogue and parents are exhausted, concerned and don’t know what to do.
Sadly, it seems that for a proportion of this cohort the uncertainty caused by the shifting goalposts has proved too much, and many are either giving up hope, or are so anxious about what the future holds that they feel paralysed. Despite this, there are things parents and schools can do to help children in these uncertain times.
Firstly, we must be mindful of the language which we are using because it can end up defining them as a generation. I have seen them unhelpfully referred to as “the lost generation”. They are not lost; they are just having a very different experience to the one previous generations have had. Others believe Covid may have a galvanising effect on young people, making them more resilient and able to deal with life’s vicissitudes – coining them “Generation Grit”. We know that no-one responds to devastating events in the same way, but perhaps we could help them see they might have greater opportunities because this situation will force employers to look beyond grades.
“Nobody thrives socially, emotionally or academically with a mental illness.”
Most crucially, our approach to mental health must change. For too long we have invested in mental health training which is reactive; we have relied on services like CAMHS to pick up the pieces when children and young people experience mental health difficulties. Mental health services are already overwhelmed. Instead, we should focus our efforts upstream and do all we can to give young people the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in our increasingly uncertain world. The Teen Tips Wellbeing Hub does exactly that by empowering teachers, parents and young people.
It is time to take psychosocial education seriously for the wellbeing of both staff and pupils. Wellbeing and learning is a symbiotic relationship. Nobody thrives socially, emotionally, academically or professionally with a mental illness.
Let’s help young people see that whilst exam results open doors, social skills, creativity, initiative, critical thinking and emotional flexibility are a far better measure of success in all areas of life, and lockdown presents opportunities to develop these skills.
If parents didn’t believe that their child’s emotional wellbeing was more important than their exam results before Covid, they definitely do now. Let’s capitalise on this new-found awareness and shift the focus away from results and towards a lifelong love of learning.