A guest editorial from the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce
I’ve just finished a book tour. After years of Zooms and Teams it felt good to be going through the old routine of eye-wateringly early trains, of walking up to school gates unsure whether you were going to be treated like a rock god or someone selling brushes. It felt like things were finally getting back to normal. No masks. No testing. No one even talking about the pandemic any more. But things are not normal. And we should be talking about this. About what has changed. Because it seems to me that for our children, everything has changed.
I first began to think about it for a fairly happy reason. I read out a passage from my new book – Noah’s Gold – about a not-very-socially-distanced encounter with a basking shark. The kids’ questions at the end are not the usual prepared ones – not where do you get your ideas? Not how many books have you written? Not even the standard – pineapple on pizza yes or no? Instead they were all questions about basking sharks. I admit to be under-prepared but that was great. I felt the kids were really engaging with the book, with something new, instead of with the Visit. This happened time and time again. In the staff room between sessions I’d mention this and every time it ignited a conversation about how different these children were. How the experience of the pandemic had changed them. Some of it is obvious. Obvious but not discussed. For instance obviously a lot more of these children have experienced the loss of an older relative or even a parent than you would normally expect. They’ve also had a lot less contact with those older relatives. Obviously these children have missed some of the punctuation marks – the birthdays, weddings, first communions, bar mitzvahs, prize days, leaver’s balls – that help define who they are. Some of the smaller things are the most telling. One teacher said she found it really upsetting that her children were embarrassed to sing in class. That lead to a conversation about how these children relate to each other. On the one hand, many said that the children were able to take real joy in small pleasures – for instance a description of a basking shark – and were kinder and more patient with each other. At the same time they many had lost the ability to resolve issues between themselves, were turning to teachers for the most trivial reasons. One said, ‘They’re like coiled springs, reacting much more quickly and aggressively when challenged.’ Above all there was concern about children arriving in reception with very poor language skills.
I’m an entertainer not an education professional. And of course when I visit a school I am myself a distortion field. The school will be on its best behaviour. Though it’s interesting to see what different schools regard as ‘best behaviour’ – that ranges from a joyful engagement to a regimented respect. But I see a LOT of schools and I always come back from these tours reeling at just how unequal our society is. In a thousand ways the pandemic has accelerated those inequalities. Sometimes to breaking point.
The other thing that has accelerated of course is children’s dependency on screens. Of course it was thanks to the internet that they were able to carry on their relationships with friends, far away relatives and with school. And it’s noticeable that their digital skills have improved. But we have no idea what that increased dependence will do to them in the future.
Everything has changed. The nature of the relationship between school and home, between real life and the digital world, the nature of friendship, the definition of study, all changed utterly. This is not all negative. I don’t think it’s even an entirely bad thing that these children have had to think about mortality a bit more. It may well make them more conscious of their environment, of the important things in life. Which brings me to another stark truth that the tour rammed home. In a reverse of the natural order of things we asked our children to bear the brunt of the pandemic – to make sacrifices – in order to protect the grown-ups, the economy and the NHS. Now that they’ve done that, what is their reward. As I’m typing this I’m listening to the candidates for the Conservative party leadership describe their visions for the country. The most remarkable thing is the absence of any conversation about children. To the extent that they are mentioned at all it’s about catching up. What does catching up mean? It means erasing this experience. Getting to a point where we can act like it never happened. Why? Teachers, parents and children have done things differently. What worked? What didn’t? These children are emerging from a massive experience which in which no one is interested. They are stepping into a world in which huge things are happening – war, environmental disaster, catastrophic inequalities – but in which the adult political conversation is entirely taken up with trivia. What are children to make of that? There has never been a better opportunity to begin afresh. There has never been a worse time to ignore our children.