On February 17 2021, Anne Longfield OBE gave her final speech as the children’s commissioner for England. Her words were a clarion cry for the UK’s children, who for the past 12 months have borne the brunt of the changes the pandemic has wrought, and the knock-on policy effects.
Life for young children in the UK looks grim. Schools have closed, remote learning and excessive screen time have become the norm for most, and even friends have to socially distance. One billion days of school1 will have been collectively missed by children in the UK by this April. One in seven five-year-olds is set to fail their reception entry assessment. Children who are on mental health waiting lists have been stuck there for months. Meanwhile, families are under immense pressure to help with home learning while juggling work and managing the household. This leaves little time to keep an eye on the mental and physical wellbeing of children, some of whom might be experiencing what Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child terms ‘toxic stress’ – a negative response to significant life change that increases the potential for developmental harm (see CDC, 2020).
In this context, Longfield argued, children have been falling through the cracks. Gaps in services that were unprepared to operate in a pandemic, coupled with policies designed to prioritise population health above all else, have left many children not just behind in school but mentally and emotionally vulnerable.
Complicating the problem, she notes, is the fact that these experiences of learning loss and isolation are not evenly distributed. Seven-year-olds from households with a lower socioeconomic status are now as much as seven months behind their more affluent peers. Children from higher earning families reported spending 30 per cent more time on home learning than their less affluent peers (see Longfield, 2021). While schools have remained aware of some of these families in need, and while teachers have made a superhuman effort to adapt to teaching remotely, the facts remain: children are not developmentally suited to remote learning, nor to extended isolation and long-term exposure to stress.
The pandemic’s impact on our children will continue long after this lockdown lifts. The question is, what should be done to support young children? Support, from a developmental perspective, means far more than is included in current policy thinking. Learning loss cannot be our only yardstick for catching up simply because it is the most easily quantifiable. Yet policies are, Longfield said, ‘failing to connect the dots on how to improve children’s life chances’.
‘We need enhanced attention, policies and services for children and families in the UK right now, and they must be informed by more extensive and intelligent understandings of what truly comprises ‘learning loss’, and of children’s experiences.’
In my view, this means that the science of child development is noticeably absent from decision-making. The cost of this narrow definition will impact on these children far into their futures: the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ calculation of a £350 billion deficit from pandemic-induced learning loss (Sibieta, 2021) does not take into account that pandemic’s effects in terms of mental health, poorer eating habits, less exercise or any of the other major life-changes that children have experienced. The point is that even if lockdown lifts imminently, these effects will be long-lasting, and we cannot celebrate until a solid plan is in place to see our children through recovery.
Setting the goal of catching up academically is not enough. The losses of our children extend so far beyond the loss of curricular attainment as measured in months or by standardised test scores. Those in education – whether research or practice – must help to promote this message, and call for a more developmentally informed view of childhood and learning, in order to make good on Longfield’s last plea for our children’s futures. That plan could take the form of a ‘Covid covenant’, Longfield suggested. The payoff for investing in children doesn’t manifest until two decades later – yet we know from education economists Cunha and Heckman (2007) that early investment in childhood pays dividends. This underscores the importance of enhanced attention, policies and services for children and families in the UK right now. These must be informed by a more extensive understanding of what truly comprises ‘learning loss’, and a more intelligent understanding of children’s experiences (‘learning loss’ was originally a term derived from a systematic review of the effects of summer vacation on achievement; see Cooper et al., 1996). This is what will help us to ‘build back better’. Longfield suggested that we shouldn’t be holding children accountable or defining them by what they’ve lost out on during this year – rather, we should be defining ourselves by what we give them this year.
1. This refers to face-to-face schooling, in a school setting.
Center on the Developing Child [CDC], Harvard University. (2020). Key concepts: Toxic stress. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 227–268. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1170523
Cunha, F., & Heckman, J. (2007). The technology of skill formation. American Economic Review, 97(2): 31–47.
Longfield, A. (2021, February 17). Building back better – Anne Longfield’s final speech as Children’s Commissioner [Speech text]. Children’s commissioner for England. https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/2021/02/17/building-back-better-reaching-englands-left-behind-children/
Marsh, S. (2021, January 22). ‘I worry about their social skills’: Parents on children’s screen time in lockdown. Guardian. https://www.bibme.org/citation-guide/apa/newspaper/.
Sibieta, L. (2021). The crisis in lost learning calls for a massive national policy response [Blog post]. https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/15291#:~:text=This%20equates%20to%20an%20astronomical,school%20children%20in%20the%20UK