Eight weeks into the first lockdown in the UK I met a woman and her young son, not yet two, in a park. Within minutes she had broken down. She was a single mother, he was an only child, and with nurseries closed and play-dates forbidden, her son hadn’t seen anyone other than her in two months. Zoom calls with family and hours of CBeebies were no substitute for human interaction, she told me (from the required two metres away). She wished he had siblings to play with. He was lonely, he wasn’t talking as much as he used to, she feared his development had stalled. What would be the long-term repercussions of denying him contact with other children?
That boy will be turning five soon. He’s probably about to finish his first year at school, part of a cohort of children whose early years were shaped by the pandemic. In some ways, his age group is one of the more fortunate. He won’t remember the feeling of isolation, and by the time he went to school the world was getting back to normal. Older children suffered the biggest impact: sent home in March 2020, then again in January 2021, forced to continue their education remotely for months on end.
It’s hard to measure the damage done by school and nursery closures, but attempts have been made. Oxford University researchers estimated in January that, through the pandemic, children lost a total of a third of what they’d have learned in a normal school year. The effect appears to be particularly acute at the transition stages: teachers reported children starting school while still in nappies and lacking basic language skills, while those entering Year 7 also seemed to have regressed. A study from October 2020 found that the writing skills of 11-year-olds were 22 months behind. Pupils’ progress had not just stalled: it had gone backwards.
These results are not evenly distributed. The teacher and former journalist Lucy Kellaway wrote in March 2021, as pupils returned to school after winter lockdowns, of her dismay at seeing how dramatically children at the top and bottom of her classes had diverged – with those at the bottom losing months of progress. “Every single answer was wrong,” she writes of work submitted by one of her “more chaotic” pupils, “which was particularly alarming as a year ago he could have completed them all correctly”. The government’s own research on lost learning admits that “disadvantaged primary school students were disproportionately behind”.
The variation in how this generation has fared is one of the unspoken horrors of the Covid years. Some kids – the kind ministers no doubt had in mind when drafting the closures policy – had it relatively easy: homes with good internet access, a device for every child, and parents with the time and resources to make up for the dramatic shift in circumstances. Others – children in low-income households, or who had disabilities or mental health conditions or absent parents – didn’t stand a chance.
All this was defended at the time due to the urgent need to reduce transmission. It was known early on that children were not especially vulnerable to Covid, but the science indicated they could be “vectors”, making school closures a necessary part of the strategy to “reduce the spread” and “save lives”. With the death count rising and hospitals being overwhelmed across the world, we can’t blame ministers and officials too harshly for that desperate choice.
But we can blame them for the complete lack of any mitigation strategy. Now the Covid inquiry is under way, it is clear that no plans were in place for the possibility of school closures. This is despite Operation Cygnus, the 2016 simulation of how the UK would fare in a pandemic, specifically identifying this issue. The report flagged the risks of school closures and recommended that the Department for Education (DfE) draw up contingency plans. It seems these recommendations were ignored.
Even after Covid had hit, the message didn’t get through. When I interviewed the disaster planner Lucy Easthope earlier this year, she spoke of her frustrating attempts to get DfE officials to understand the long-term consequences of closures. “If you try to imply that education is something that can be sent as an email, you will fundamentally change the relationship between child and school,” she said, noting the sharp rise in child and adolescent mental health issues and the thousands of children who have dropped out of education entirely since the lockdowns. “But very few mitigations were baked in because we couldn’t get them – the advisers, local authorities, central government – to picture three to five years down the line.”
We are three years down the line now, and the picture is clear. “While school closures may reduce Covid-19 transmission, they were also associated with negative impacts on children’s education, health and well-being including increased anxiety, reduced learning, and increased obesity,” is the damning assessment of Oxford University’s systematic review of the evidence to date. It is also obvious. Anyone in those first weeks of lockdown watching a small child play alone could see the risks of sacrificing their education and social development for the sake of protecting those much older than them. Anyone could have recognised that, if school and nursery closures really were crucial, they needed to be accompanied by a long-term strategy to minimise the damage. As these children grow up, and that damage becomes more apparent, we must not allow our leaders to hide behind the cowardly fiction that they were not warned.
This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars