Let’s seize this opportunity to break down barriers faced by disadvantaged students

Rae Tooth says why return to normal when that system leaves behind so many young people.

Rae Tooth is chief executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust

“Children who have fallen behind.” “Catch-up plan.” “Lost learning.” The language used by the government when discussing the impact of Covid-19 on education is steeped in a deficit model which does our young people a profound disservice.

Over the past 18 months, they have not simply “fallen behind”; they have survived a pandemic. In acknowledging – quite rightly – that young people have suffered educationally, socially, developmentally, and emotionally, it is vital that we do not diminish their impressive achievements and the depth of resilience, stamina, and emotional maturity they were able to call on during this most challenging period of history.

Extra pressure

Villiers Park Educational Trust works with hundreds of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds each year. The tenacity and resilience they have demonstrated over the past 18 months are nothing short of remarkable.

Alongside studying for GCSEs or A levels and participating in our Future Leaders programme, many of these students have been busy homeschooling their younger siblings and holding down part-time frontline jobs to help the nation through the pandemic – not to mention making a vital contribution to their family’s income in the process.

Take the example of one student we have supported in Hastings. While studying for his A-levels last summer, John-Russell Barnes held down three part-time jobs to support his mother and sisters. While the lengths he has gone to in order to support his family financially sound extreme to those of us who enjoy financial security, John-Russell is by no means an outlier. We work with hundreds more students, each coping with their own unique situation.

These young people are meeting their responsibilities while coping with the additional challenges posed by lockdown. It is easy to think of them as extraordinary and brilliant but while they are brilliant, I’m not so sure that they are extraordinary. Sadly, this balancing of education, complex home lives, and earning essential income is entirely ordinary – or at least common.

What I see is an extremely complex set of skills that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds must have in abundance simply to stay in education and keep a roof over their heads. These are extremely capable students who are able to juggle so many competing priorities.

This is all the more impressive bearing in mind the strain they have been under since March 2020. We saw last summer the impact of a chaotic exam result season on students, with thousands ending up unfairly missing out on places at their preferred university. This summer, despite the best efforts of exams boards and Ofqual, the class of 2021 will be feeling uncertainty – and, for many, real anxiety – over how they will fare under the hastily drawn-up grading system.

And it is the most disadvantaged students who are facing the greatest number of obstacles to fully engaging in education.

Like many other organisations, Villiers Park last year supplied IT equipment to students who did not have appropriate technology at home. But this is only the start: we found that some of them did not know how to operate the devices they had been supplied with.

Many commentators talk of a generation of digital natives but it is important to remember that this knowledge is not shared equally. Others didn’t have access to internet infrastructure or the access they did have was patchy and weak, so even with the right kit, they were still hamstrung.

Taking their one shot

For most of the young people I work with, they have been taught that education is their only route out of poverty. While their advantaged peers always have the option of taking a year out and retaking their course, these vulnerable students could be forgiven for feeling that, if they mess up their exams (or they are unfairly graded), their one shot at success is gone.

When you have no safety net and it feels like your future is in the balance, it is easy to see how anxiety can take hold, which it has for large numbers of our young people.

In psychological terms, the experiences of the pandemic have been traumatising in some way for many of us. The numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds experiencing the effects of trauma is alarming.

Through Villiers Park’s work in partnership with the University of Oxford’s Rees Centre, we are working to ensure our programmes support young people with a history of trauma. This doesn’t necessarily relate to a single, life-changing incident – it can equally be caused by the gradual exposure to a series of emotionally difficult circumstances.

Just think about the experience of being a teenager coping with the isolation of the past 18 months: all that underlying stress is traumatising. When left unchecked, such experiences can exercise a profound and lasting impact on educational engagement for years to come, as well as all other areas of life.

A better system

As young people progress to the next stage of their learning journey, whether it be higher education, further education, or an apprenticeship, the onus is on providers to be sensitive to the experiences that learners have gone through and the different impacts it has had on them.

Recovery isn’t just about learning, it is equally about processing experiences, grieving, and developing emotional and social skills and a normal independence from family that, for many, have been lost.

It is in this context that we have to plan for developing and delivering effective and transformational educational experiences. We must take student-centred and trauma-informed approaches to how we work across the education sector. We must create learning environments in which students are able to develop their social and emotional wellbeing along with building their knowledge and skills.

The £1.4 billion education recovery package announced last month was worth less than a tenth of what former catch-up tsar Sir Kevan Collins had called for.

My main concern around the “catch-up” narrative is that it appears to be based on the aspiration of little more than returning to the pre-pandemic “normal”. I don’t agree that normal is a society that leaves children hungry and unable to access education. What we had before was “common”, not “normal”. Why would we settle for what was unacceptable and common and pretend that it is normal?

For millions of people, the pre-Covid normal did not work. We can choose to do things differently, to level up, and build back better. Our education system does not have to be like it was.

There are proven ways of closing attainment gaps. Organisations such as Villiers Park have decades of experience in supporting less-advantaged young people to develop self-efficacy and agency in their own futures and equipping them with the skills, experiences, and motivation they need to become leaders in their chosen field. And we have the evidence to prove that our interventions work.

But this is just a sticking plaster – to really succeed, we need to see significant system change. Not to teach disadvantaged young people to simply work harder, jump higher, but to remove the barriers.

We are ready and willing to play our part in the education recovery. In recent weeks we have announced ground-breaking partnerships with Trinity College Cambridge and the University of Bath to help them reach young people in left-behind communities such as Hastings and Swindon.

We have also set up communities of practice for those interested in social justice delivered through further and higher education, which are free to join and allow all of us to share our collective wisdom and bring it to bear on these challenging problems.

I have high aspirations for the sector that together we can do so much more. The Covid generation has shown remarkable resilience and stamina this year – and, with the right opportunities, support, and systems, they will go on to achieve brilliant things. It is now down to all of us to create the conditions that will allow our young people to thrive.

The author developed this piece having given oral evidence to the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission. Find out more about the work of the commission here.

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