Culture

Schools & Covid: Getting the Balance Right

 Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.

Jean Piaget

The Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on the youngest members of our society with the loss of in person schooling during the national lockdown and less contact with extended family, especially grandparents. Schools have had to run a fine line between academic ‘catch up’ and supporting the mental well being of pupils.

Have they got the balance right and what are the consequences for a generation of children if they haven’t ?

The Orkney News investigated how our schools have been responding across Scotland to the needs of young children since coming out of the national lockdown.

Research has shown that the mental wellbeing of many children and young people was already deteriorating before the Covid pandemic changed all our lives. A study of children in England reported that probable mental health conditions increased from 10.8% in 2017 to 16% by July 2020.

Across the UK in the 4 – 11 year age group in the March to May 2020 lockdown there was an increase in behaviour problems as children struggled to cope with feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression.

For many parents home schooling was difficult for multiple reasons including digital connectivity and having a quiet space to work.

Surveys conducted for the Scottish Government showed that the mental well being of girls fared worse than for boys. This was heightened for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, those in poverty, children who were care experienced and those from Black and Ethnic Minority communities.

Parents were particularly concerned that when children returned out of the long period of national lockdown to face to face schooling that they wouldn’t get enough emotional, behavioural and educational support.

The investigation by The Orkney News has uncovered that whilst the majority of Local Authorities in Scotland are putting the mental well being of young children first and foremost, it is not the case in every school. This could be due to poor teacher training and a lack of understanding about early child development.

Early Years education lays the foundation of a child’s experiences with school and their perception of their own self worth. It can influence their mental health in both childhood and into adulthood. Failure to understand why a young child is not concentrating in class on set school work and responding with inappropriate strategies may have a damaging long term impact on how that child sees itself through the eyes of others. The key influencers in its life. It affects how it views education when the joy of learning is removed and replaced with punishment.

One of the strategies used by one authority in Scotland is, that if a young child (age 7) is failing to complete set tasks, to isolate the child within the classroom. The teacher does this by moving the child to the front of the room and surrounding them with a cardboard divider. The child is also issued with headphones so that it can neither see nor hear classmates. Other children of course can see the child now isolated from their companions.

A spokesperson for the Local Authority which uses this strategy said: “A range of strategies are put in place in schools to meet individual learner needs.”

Having now received responses from across Scotland, we can confirm that this is not common practice. Indeed those that replied categorically stated that nothing like that happens in their schools.

A spokesperson for Aberdeenshire summed up the response from the overwhelming majority of Local Authorities:

“The entire ethos around supporting children in schools is on inclusion and wellbeing.”

Education Scotland is the Scottish Government’s body for supporting and improving what is happening in our schools.

An Education Scotland spokesperson said :

“The needs, interests and wellbeing of children and young people and protected adults are central to all of Educations Scotland’s work.

“Every child, young person and protected adult, at all times, has a right to feel safe and protected from any situation or practice which may result in harm.

“Through inspection and review, HM Inspectors focus on evaluating and reporting on the impact of the establishment’s approach to wellbeing which underpins this and children and young people’s ability to achieve this successfully.

“HM Inspectors evaluate how well policies and practices are based on current legislation and a shared understanding of the value of every individual.

“We focus on how well education providers carry out their responsibilities in a manner which safeguards children, young people and protected adults.

“Above all, the welfare of children, young people and protected adults is of paramount consideration and we must all work together to ensure they are protected.

“We cannot however comment on individual cases that we have not observed. “

Interpretation, Training and Understanding.

Every school in Scotland has followed ‘Getting it right for every child’ for over a decade – it’s a mantra that you will find on all their websites, with wellbeing and the individual needs of the child stated in print. The United Nations Rights of the Child will be in there too because that’s now been incorporated into Scots Law.

The GIRFEC approach:

  • is child-focused – it ensures the child or young person – and their family – is at the centre of decision-making and the support available to them.
  • is based on an understanding of the wellbeing of a child in their current situation – it takes into consideration the wider influences on a child or young person and their developmental needs when thinking about their wellbeing, so that the right support can be offered
  • is based on tackling needs early – it aims to ensure needs are identified as early as possible to avoid bigger concerns or problems developing
  • requires joined-up working – it is about children, young people, parents, and the services they need working together in a coordinated way to meet the specific needs and improve their wellbeing

This is where the disconnect comes between the words printed above and actual practice in some schools.

Isolating a young child for failure to complete a set task and using sensory deprivation to prevent them being distracted in no way fits into any of the GIRFEC approach which has been in our schools since 2006. Indeed it is completely counter to it.

Those who employed this strategy of isolation considered it successful because the child did complete its set work. The teacher was pleased. The school was pleased. The child was pleased that it had pleased those key adults in its life.

What was the message to the classmates? Was it – look at this child who is different ?

This strategy is the opposite of inclusion.

Research on the impact of Covid 19 and its restrictions on young people showed that many struggle with anxiety, loneliness, depression and behaviour changes.

Teachers, understandably extremely busy with day to day teaching, haven’t had time to read research papers and in-service training may have focussed on missed learning – the drive to get pupils to ‘catch up’. But those early years in school are the foundations. Get the foundations wrong or weakened then it will take many more years, if at all, to repair the damage done to a young child’s view of itself and what should be the love of learning. The impact of Covid on our young people and on their perception of how they are valued in terms of ‘education’ will last long after the pandemic has left our communities for good.

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”

― Jean Piaget

Fiona Grahame

1 reply »

  1. “One of the strategies used by one authority in Scotland is, that if a young child (age 7) is failing to complete set tasks, to isolate the child within the classroom. The teacher does this by moving the child to the front of the room and surrounding them with a cardboard divider. The child is also issued with headphones so that it can neither see nor hear classmates. Other children of course can see the child now isolated from their companions.”

    That sounds very like standing them in a corner wearing a Dunces cap.
    As you say – pointing them out as being ‘different’ – and children don’t take to children who are ‘different’. Unfortunately.

    “Those who employed this strategy of isolation considered it successful because the child did complete its set work. The teacher was pleased. The school was pleased. The child was pleased that it had pleased those key adults in its life.”

    Is that what matters – ‘achieving’ and pleasing adults? Maybe that approach is part of what has caused the difficulties with self-worth that people are experiencing so much these days.

    And so – they buy things.

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