The widespread panic about schooling during the pandemic reveals the rotten assumptions that underpin our education system, says Chris Bagley

In February, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) think-tank made the sensational claim that, for children, “losing half a year of schooling will mean losing £40,000 in income over their lifetime”. This statistic has been taken up by many across the political spectrum.

It is revealing that an economics research institution is the ‘go-to’ voice on how to respond to perceived crises around education. It shows the extent to which our policy-making is informed, not by considerations of the social, emotional wellbeing and individual interests of children, but economic efficiency. The ‘crisis in lost learning’ is construed in abstract, financial terms; the narrative is defined by economists, not educationalists or young people themselves.  

The IFS’ proposed solutions – to extend the school year, lengthen the school day, mass repetition of whole school years or summer schools – are predicated on the idea that ‘learning’ involves a gradual, cumulative build-up of essential information that, if missed, will result in children becoming economically redundant, work-incapable adults.

The IFS alleges that the danger of lost learning will hit disadvantaged pupils the hardest. Yet inequalities in education cannot be solved by cramming academic content. Our education system has inequality built into it – it is designed to create winners and losers. 

The IFS is correct about one thing: ‘Parents with higher levels of education are likely to have been better able to help their children and, potentially, pay for expensive tutors to help them catch-up’.

Lockdown does enhance the capacity of better resourced families to ensure positive outcomes by ensuring efficient download of curriculum content and tutored exam technique. This has nothing to do with lost learning and, instead, calls into question an education system that has, since its inception, defined success solely by performance on invalid, discriminatory exams that separate human beings into sheep and goats. The lost learning fantasy is the latest smokescreen; a comfortable myth that hides a rotten core.

When asked by the Children’s Society, young people report having learned much of value during lockdown, including the importance of connecting with friends and family, the benefits of being active, appreciation and gratitude for what they have, and the merit of engaging in creative activities. None of this learning is deemed relevant, apparently.

All considerations other than financial earnings, regardless of how they are perceived by young people, equals loss. Education exists to create economically efficient workers. Many have suffered considerably during lockdown. However, reducing young people to the status of economic losers without including them in the conversation is dehumanising. This treats young people as passive objects instead of active participants in their own lives.

States of Mind has spent two years conducting participatory action research led by young people. We have found, consistently, that the English education system’s obsessive, inflexible focus on exams, memorisation and forced compliance leads, for many young people, to loss of identity, loss of autonomy, loss of consent, loss of mental health, loss of student-teacher relationships and loss of opportunities for personal development.

The essential building blocks of psychological health and human flourishing are actively impeded by education policy. These fundamental issues are not mentioned by the IFS or considered relevant by the lost learning pugilists in government. Teachers are not to blame. As described by our student participants, they are also sacrificed on the altar of competition and when asked, most deplore the rigid, stifling educational climate they are forced to espouse. 

We have a huge problem in our society. Adults project anxiety about losing their place in the social hierarchy onto their children. We marinate them in our own fears of failure. We shape them to believe that fulfilment is always around the corner, never in the present; achievable only through accepting the tyranny of testing, the need for competition and the coerced pursuit of goals set by others.

They are terrorised into thinking that knowledge and success develop along a pre-designated pathway in a linear fashion. Missing a wrung of the ladder or failing to climb a rigidly defined greasy pole is equal to catastrophe; choosing an alternative path is not even countenanced. 

What sort of culture does this generate? One where people are indoctrinated to believe that happiness is an endless possibility lying tantalisingly over the horizon. To get there we need to pass our SATs, ace our GCSES, smash our ‘A’ levels, gain an undergraduate degree, get a job, get promoted, get promoted again and again and again until one day we wake up 60-years-old, still unhappy.

The problem is, each time we climb the invisible, socially constructed ladder and rise up the hierarchy of nothingness, we don’t feel any different. We’re all gazing over the horizon to a Utopia that does not exist. We are enough, as we are, right now. 

Our children’s education must respond to them, as human beings, not as objects to be shaped into future economic agents against their will. By endlessly focusing on the fear of lost futures and positioning children as incomplete and faulty, we place false barriers in the path of contentment and confine them with the message: ‘you are not enough’.

Children are human beings, not economic commodities. Our response to the pandemic should not be guided by the gloomy speculations of misguided economists, but young people and those who know them. 


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