After two academic years of unprecedented disruption, insecurity and stress, education staff are anticipating the new autumn term with a mixture of cautious optimism and understandable apprehension. Prioritising the safety of pupils, teachers and the whole school community is at the core of ‘back to the classroom’ planning.
However, government advice leaves head teachers with the responsibility for deciding which common-sense measures – face coverings, building ventilation, one-way systems etc. – to implement locally. This is the new normal for schools returning in the autumn, alongside the gargantuan challenge of educating pupils who (in the UK) have missed, on average, around a third of their learning time during lockdown restrictions.
For good reason, senior leaders must initially prioritise wellbeing, settling pupils back into the school environment and re-engaging them with learning. Education systems have limited experience of situations the magnitude of a global health pandemic and pastoral, safeguarding and wellbeing services will be heavily drawn on as students’ lives continue to be affected by COVID-19.
Back in the midst of the crisis, technology rapidly assumed an integral and essential role in all our lives – for children and young people (CYP) it was their gateway to learning, living and staying connected with the world. As we move beyond the eye of the pandemic, the role of technology remains very much at the centre of educators’ strategy to build back – both in terms of students’ academic progress and now, more than ever, in facilitating better support for their wellbeing.
Same storm, different boat
The vast range of individual experiences encountered during the pandemic is a major challenge for educators and others working with CYP. The inequalities endured, particularly during extended periods of school closure, will be felt for a long time as pre-existing gaps in attainment and physical and emotional wellbeing have widened.
Some CYP experienced general anxiety and low mood for the first time while the mental health of others with existing conditions deteriorated. The switch to online learning had far greater impact on CYP from disadvantaged backgrounds, already more at risk of falling behind.
At the start of UK school closures, approximately 10 per cent of pupils did not have access to either a digital device or the internet and for many others access was severely restricted. Support with school work from parents or other family members also varied considerably and not all children benefitted.
In poorer households, parents may lack basic digital skills, a deficit that can be passed on to offspring through the absence of regular exposure to technologies at home. CYP’s very disparate engagement with the curriculum will have important consequences on their academic progress and mental wellbeing both now and longer-term. Those living in poverty were already significantly disadvantaged compared to their wealthier peers and the digital divide is more apparent than ever.
At the height of lockdown restrictions, the sudden and overwhelming reliance on home education left hundreds of thousands of school-aged children in a learning wilderness. Reports from head teachers indicated that far fewer pupils from economically deprived households had engaged with online schooling, in the words of one parent, “It was pay the wi-fi or feed the children this month.”
Supporting CYP’s wellbeing in schools
The experience of a pandemic has exacerbated the demand for mental health support from a system that was already struggling to cope.
Back in 2019, the Children’s Commissioner for England called for renewed investment in early-intervention services after years of austerity, and for more attention to be given to the type of low-level support that community initiatives and school-based programmes offer. Two years down the line – in the aftermath of COVID-19 – this plea has even greater resonance.
The pivotal role of education in supporting pupils’ wellbeing has been well documented, while the recently introduced relationships and health curriculum places statutory responsibility on all schools to promote mental wellbeing, reduce stigma and provide appropriate support for pupils experiencing difficulties (DfE, 2019). However, a major challenge for school leaders tasked with implementing prevention initiatives is the limited knowledge around the most effective and appropriate approaches.
Encouragingly, evidence of good practice can be found across the UK – including popular, longstanding socio-emotional programmes such as Pyramid after school clubs and the introduction of innovative new resources like Book of Beasties: the Mental Wellness Card Game. Nonetheless, practice is sporadic, and schools do not always rely on the strength of the evidence for implementation choices. Case studies of interventions proven to be effective are urgently needed for schools to share – to facilitate informed decision-making and ultimately benefit greater numbers of CYP.
Harnessing technology and empowering pupils
Digital technology has revolutionised the way CYP interact and communicate with each other, express themselves and access formal and informal support networks.
The onset of the pandemic witnessed a dramatic shift to online mental health support in a bid to continue vital services. Although this did not suit everyone, reduced waiting times, flexibility and not having to rely on parents for transport to services, were some of the benefits reported by CYP.
Also, traditionally repressed groups such as the LGBTQ+ community found digital services preferable due to their perceived greater confidentiality and anonymity. Alongside new modes of provision, there is growing recognition of CYP’s valuable contribution – as experts in their own lives – to shaping mental wellbeing services targeted at them.
CYP occupy the online world intensively and often in ways that adults find hard to comprehend, yet evidence suggests they are more conscious of its drawbacks than might be expected. This places them in a pivotal position to look for ways to successfully navigate the digital realm and harness its potential. Digital platforms can provide a space where CYP feel able to discuss topics that might be trickier, or avoided altogether, in the offline world. This was exactly the thinking behind the creation of LifeMosaic – a personal informatics wellbeing app for CYP, designed, developed and tested by a team of secondary school pupils. This ground-breaking pupil-led project produced a valuable resource currently being used for a peer-mentoring scheme, showcasing how CYP can meaningfully contribute to their school’s wellbeing strategies.
Truly listening to CYP and actively engaging them in ways to harness digital technologies to optimise their own healthy development requires rebel thinking and innovative practice. Schools can be an ideal site for social change, but this requires a shift in culture from one traditionally based on hierarchy and power to one founded on participation, collaboration and equal relationships. Of course the responsibility for CYP’s mental wellbeing stretches beyond the school gates, but the education sector is uniquely placed to make an enormous contribution to pupils’ positive development and flourishing. Technology will not provide a panacea but will inevitably continue to play an integral role in both academic learning and mental wellbeing strategies as educators contend with yet another academic year like no other.
Department for Education (2019). Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education. Crown. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805781/Relationships_Education__Relationships_and_Sex_Education__RSE__and_Health_Education.pdf