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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

Is ‘lost learning’ the new crisis in education?

Concerns around lost learning have been a pervasive and recurrent theme of late – all of which can be traced back to the closing of schools over the past year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. So, is children’s ‘lost learning’ the new educational issue of our time? This turn of events, some have argued, will have long-term ramifications for the present generation of children – pessimistically described as the ‘lost generation’ – due to the spectre of ‘lost learning’ (Halterbeck et al., 2020) and predicted loss of future earnings (Sibieta, 2021). It is reassuring, however, to read that this deficit and reductive-driven perception is not shared by all (see for example Hyman, 2021), which is why it is important to recognise that, rather than being a genuinely new crisis in education, the ‘lost learning crisis’ is in fact a rebranding and repackaging of previous ‘crises’.

‘It is important to recognise that, rather than being a genuinely new crisis in education, the “lost learning crisis” is in fact a rebranding and repackaging of previous “crises”.’

What links past and present ‘crises’ together are the endorsements of key (ideologically driven) ‘master myths’ (Gee, 2015), which use specific forms of language to convey these myths as normal and common sense. The reason this present crisis is a rebranding and repackaging of previous ‘crises’ is because these same master myths can be seen in previous policymaking decisions surrounding the ‘literacy crises’ experienced earlier, both in the UK and the United States. At the time, school reform was seen as the only way to address deeper societal problems. This way of thinking, argues Gee, led the general public to see these problems in narrow terms about literacy, rather than wider issues about society and social justice.

This was shared by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who invoked the same language present in US policy during the ‘literacy crisis’, when he talked about the next priority being to ensure that ‘no child is left behind as a result of the learning they have lost over the past year’ (DfE, 2021). This speech exemplifies how curriculum coverage is interpreted as legitimate learning, which characterises and delegitimises any ‘learning’ outside of this narrow interpretation. Similar to the arguments for school reform during the previous literacy crises, this pervasive master myth is proposing centralised measures, chiefly the National Tutoring Programme, as the legitimate approach to address this issue. What is more troubling, is how this myth is also motivating investigations into the extension of the school day, or reducing the summer holidays, as other legitimate decisions to help address this crisis.

Gee (2015) explains how master myths can hide other ways of thinking; this is evident in how the present myth currently reduces social issues into narrow terms about successful curriculum coverage. This is because curriculum knowledge is presumed to be a viable means by which children’s future income can be calculated; but, more significantly, helps to understand the level of economic return these individuals will provide for society (Klees, 2016). This reveals the underpinning neoliberalist ideology behind the myth, that necessitates the needs of the economy, over the needs of the public good and social right (Giroux, 2013); evident in how perpetuating this myth continues to exacerbate parents’ fears and have a detrimental effect on children’s wellbeing and self-perception. Rather than continuing this ‘lost’-orientated master myth, and the latent assumptions that underpin it, we need to start reframing the narrative to be about supporting children to be the ‘bounce back generation’ (Hyman, 2021), who are empowered by a broader interpretation of what learning is, and its role within their lives.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2021, February 25). New education recovery package for children and young people [Press release].

Gee, J. P. (2015). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. Routledge.

Giroux, H. A. (2013). Neoliberalism’s war against teachers in dark times. Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, 13(6).   

Halterbeck, M., Gavan, C., Patrignani, P., & Pritchard, A. (2020). Lost learning, lost earnings. Sutton Trust.

Hyman, P. (2021, March 7). Enough of the ‘lost generation’. Instead, let’s reimagine school for our children. [Opinion] Guardian.

Klees, S. J. (2016). Human capital and rates of return: Brilliant ideas or ideological dead ends? Comparative Education Review, 60(4), 644–672.

Sibieta, L. (2021, February 1). The crisis in lost learning calls for a massive national policy response [Blog post]. Institute for Fiscal Studies.