A series of reports released in the last month reveal that, even before Covid-19, the attainment gap in the UK was widening and our children’s wellbeing suffering. Early reports on the effect of lockdown show that Covid-19 has only deepened these existing problems. However, I believe we must remain hopeful. We can only help this generation of children get back on track by focusing on solutions and staying positive about their futures.

The Education Policy Institute has found that before Covid-19 hit, the attainment gap had stopped closing and began to widen in primary schools for the first time since 2007. In July, research released by Teachfirst found that in London the attainment gap has not improved since 2017 and in outer London boroughs it has widened. With such good schools, fantastic community assets and pools of wealth in London to draw on, this should not be the case. But it is children growing up in the neighbourhoods at the very sharp end of the wealth gap in this country that are suffering most. 

And now, following lockdown, a survey of teachers by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Nuffield Foundation estimates that all children are on average 3 months behind on their learning and that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened by 46%. Whilst this data confirms the enormous challenge that lies ahead, I believe we have a window of time right now to bring about change.

Reports have also revealed much about the state of our young people’s wellbeing, both before and after lockdown. The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report announced that we have the lowest proportion of teenagers who are satisfied with their lives in Europe and have experienced the sharpest drop in the last 5 years. And a survey conducted by Public Health England in early August found that a third of children aged 5-18 years old told their parents that they felt more anxious, sad and stressed during lockdown.  Our West London Zone Link Workers had 3-4 interactions per week with each child during lockdown with a focus on their wellbeing, helping them to stay positive and catching up on school work. We found it became more challenging as time went on to keep them engaged.

 On top of all this, reports have started to come through that councils are making significant cuts to children’s services as costs rise in the wake of the pandemic and income falls. I have seen first hand the positive impact of investing early in children’s lives. Some of the first young people to participate in West London Zone’s programme are now at the end of their school careers with hopes of going on to higher education or into employment. Now, more than ever, we must look at the long term and invest in our children and young people’s futures - progress won’t happen overnight.

It would be easy to lose hope seeing these news headlines, but if we do, we risk passing this onto the children and they too will lose hope. We need to continue to focus on designing and delivering positive solutions so we can keep helping children thrive in life.

At West London Zone, we are finding that many of the children we work with are positive and hopeful about returning to school, so we must take advantage of this opportunity. We know that some of them are going to find it difficult to sit through class again for sustained periods of time and others will find it hard to manage their friendships after such a long time apart. But we are prepared for this.

It’s up to all of us who work with children to hold onto as much of the hope and positivity as we can so that we can do our absolute best to help them overcome their challenges and achieve their goals. It’s not too late to get them back on track to lead fulfilled and purposeful lives.

That doesn’t just mean giving them extra tuition or additional lessons. Catch up is a very long term endeavour that involves a lot more than extra homework. It means:

  • Looking at each individual child’s circumstances and assessing what they need, when and how
  • Considering their family context, their own and their parents/carers emotional wellbeing, their self-esteem, their friendship networks, their capability and capacity to focus on schoolwork
  • Making sure funding gets into the hands of those who know the children really well so that every child gets the right support at the right time in the right way

More children than ever now need a combination of sustained social, emotional and academic support. Teachers who participated in the NFER and Nuffield Foundation survey estimate 44% of children need this now, with teachers in the most deprived schools (57%) more likely to believe this than those in the wealthiest schools (32%).

It’s going to take an intensive, personalised approach over many years, which requires long-term funding targeted to those who need it most and enabling all the people in each child’s life to work collaboratively together. We showed that we can do this throughout lockdown – schools, charities, councils and businesses all worked together. Now we need to keep at it and stay positive so that children themselves can be hopeful about their futures.