Former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has said that he is “really sorry for this generation of young people – fate has dealt them a terrible hand". And the prime minister has warned of a “lost generation”. The policy cry of “catch up” reverberates in the corridors of Whitehall.
Of course, these sentiments are well-intentioned. And, in the context of a pandemic in which both education and childhood have been significantly disrupted, they are also true. But I am increasingly worried about the public narrative that is emerging about our children and young people.
Over half-term, I watched a magnificent TED talk by the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entitled "The Danger of a Single Story". It is a powerful and compelling narrative, which resonated at so many levels for me – not just in the way we need to think about the books children are reading, but also in the way we are talking about the impact of Covid-19 on children and young people.
Schools reopening: The danger of an incomplete story
Adichie's central point is the danger of “the single story”: a narrative that depicts a people or a country as just one thing. She argues that if this single story is told over and over again, then this is what the people become.
Most often the single story is negative. Adichie warns us that to adopt this story as our default position serves to flatten the lived experience of people whose story we are attempting to define. She argues that power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make that the definitive story, and to make it impossible for those who read the single story to see the people about whom the story is told as anything other than lacking.
She concludes that the problem with the single story is not that it is untrue, but that it is incomplete.
I think there is a very real danger that the story that is starting to be told about our children, which reduces them to a “lost generation”, has the features of Adiche’s single story. As Adiche says, it is not that this story is untrue, but that it is incomplete.
The deficit narrative of catch-up assumes that there has been only one lived experience of Covid-19. In some places this narrative is well-meaning, but it is misplaced. We risk flattening our children’s experience of the past 12 months.
The deficit narrative of Covid catch-up
Adichie’s response is that we should tell many stories – a balance of stories. And, indeed, that we should encourage children and young people to tell their stories.
There will need to be recovery, but let us also focus on their stories of resilience, of ordinary acts of kindness, of heroism, of fortitude. Alongside these stories, there will, of course, be the stories of loss and bereavement, of sadness, of anxiety and trauma and the loss of social contact. This is inevitable, but it does not define our children and young people.
While children and young people who have been isolated at home for long periods may be suffering significant mental stress, we cannot assume that this will continue when we are able to get back to the structured social setting of the school. Schools know how to create the conditions that are favourable to mental wellbeing: busy, well-structured days including a range of after-school activities, such as art, drama, music and sport.
Schools naturally create plenty of space for social interaction and a positive sense of belonging. And a school curriculum that enables a growing sense of efficacy is the best source of catch up.
Adichie’s final comment in her TED talk is: when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place or people, when we encourage the telling of lots of stories, then we regain a kind of paradise.
Leora Cruddas is the chief executive officer of the Confederation of School Trusts