We’re all in this together
‘We did not know when we would see each other again, and I am not ashamed to say that there were tears with parents as they left with their children. We shared how much we appreciated and cared for each other, and we wished each other safe and well, as we said goodbye. The situation made us all a little afraid and worried, as we did not know how long life would continue in this way or when we could return to normal.’ (David Yates, reception teacher, describing saying goodbye to most of the children in his class)
We are living through a pandemic which is having an impact on each and every one of us. It often feels difficult to think beyond the day to day and our need to adapt to the latest guidelines for ourselves and for children, families, settings and schools. On top of that we may be struggling to pay bills; we may be worried about our loved ones; we may be sick ourselves and/or trying to protect those whose lives will be endangered if they get sick. Fear and uncertainty are in the air with the virus and have an emotional, psychological and physical impact on all of us.
Living in an unequal society
The impact of the pandemic on young children is particularly concerning for those of us who work in early years. Globally, according to a recent United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) report about 77 per cent of children under the age of 18 worldwide, or 1.8 billion, are living in countries with some form of movement restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Across the world risk factors for violence, abuse and neglect are on the rise for children living under restricted movement, many of them in workless and inadequately housed families. Girls and women are at increased risk of domestic and sexual violence and refugee and migrant children are experiencing reduced access to services and increased discrimination and prejudice (Kluge et al 2020).
In the UK we live in a society where those risk factors apply to many children. Inequality of all kinds is deeply entrenched and has been worsened by the last ten years of austerity. Despite being reputedly the fifth richest country in the world we are also one of the least equal and have increasing levels of poverty and foodbank use. Pickett and Wilkinson (2009) highlighted the pernicious effects that inequality has on societies generally and showed very graphically that health is related to income differences within rich societies. Furthermore, a recent report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that health inequality may be linked to more than income. It revealed that black people in England and Wales are more than four times as likely to die from Covid-19 as white people. Bangladeshi and Pakistani people were about three and a half times more likely, and those of Indian origin two and a half times more likely. Even when factors such as inadequate housing, unemployment, poverty, prevalence of diabetes (all of which affect Black and Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities disproportionately) are stripped out, the ONS figures show black people are still almost twice as likely as white people to die a Covid-19-related death, with Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian individuals also over represented. This report begs some obvious questions, such as whether BAME people enjoy equal access to healthcare and are treated with the same care and respect as white citizens and points to a breach of (alongside many other more recent statutory protections) the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and Article 25 of the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that everyone has ‘the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.’
It is in this socio-political context that many children are also having their rights eroded.
During the pandemic we are all having to live with restrictions on some of our often taken-for-granted rights and freedoms. Most of us comply with these because we see that they benefit all of us as a society. Banning large gatherings and meetings, wearing masks and supporting social distancing, for instance, help us to prevent the spread of the virus and are a means of supporting our most vulnerable citizens as well as those who are key workers.
Despite an increasing death rate and discontent with some of the mixed messages coming from government, people speak admiringly of a renewed sense of community and small and large acts of kindness in a world where we are increasingly connected in online space. This coming together rightly deserves to be celebrated now and remembered when the pandemic is over; but it’s not the only experience. A predominant government line is the heroic ‘war on the virus’. This is used to invoke a ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative based on a rose-tinted version of ‘wartime spirit’ where we came together, and social and class differences were forgotten. This can be seen to link very easily with the communitarian coming together narrative and positions government measures favourably in terms of popular support.
However, despite government’s apparent generosity after a decade of austerity, we went into the health crisis in what Harris (2020) calls ‘a state of disastrous social fragility’ and it is in this social fragility that a looming children’s rights crisis is located.
Many young children were already vulnerable to poor health, insecure attachment, developmental delay, educational under-achievement and trauma. Many of these problems are caused or exacerbated by poverty. As Anne Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said in response to a recent report from End Child Poverty ‘We may all be experiencing the storm of Coronavirus together, but we are not all in the same boat. The government’s data shows the extent to which over the past four years, children in low income families have been cut adrift and are already experiencing unacceptable hardship.’ Cuts to vital services total about £2billion and have had a huge impact on children and families and on early years settings’ and schools’ ability to support them and ameliorate some of the effects of poverty.
Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children. But it is hard to see how benefit cuts and the closure of children’s centres and nursery schools or some of the pandemic policy decisions are based on this best interest.
Children’s best interests during the pandemic
Up until this week, only ‘vulnerable children’ and children of key workers have been entitled to attend an early years setting or school. However not all children identified as vulnerable have been attending. There will be various reasons - perhaps fear of going out, being part of a family having to shield relatives or belonging to an already distressed family which has been tipped ‘over the edge’ by the effects of the virus. Those children who are attending are, in many cases, getting a very different experience than they would usually be having. This may well be more positive in the sense that they are in familiar surroundings and are relating to practitioners who can give them more attention and focus more specifically on their individual needs and interests.
Those individual needs may include helping children deal with family stress and their own internalised worries about Covid 19. A lot of the children will have parents who are working in frontline jobs which are dangerous and where colleagues may have died - bus drivers for instance. They may be the children of care or health workers who return home from work upset because people they have been looking after have died. These adults may be feeling depressed or shocked and numb or angry about what has happened. They may return from work and have to wash and change their clothes and may talk about the lack of enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them from further danger. They may be so traumatised and exhausted that they have very little energy left for their children. Living in these families is likely to be very stressful for young children whether or not they also have other issues to contend with such as poor housing, domestic violence or parents with mental or physical health issues.
These children will be feeling hyper-fearful and vigilant which means their brains’ flight or fight mechanisms are fully primed. They need time and space with skilled and familiar practitioners to be supported to relax and enjoy being in the setting. Imagine how much worse those children will be feeling if they have had to move to a different childminder’s or setting because theirs had to close due to the financial impossibility of staying open at the present time. This is the reality for lots of settings and children and means that many early years practitioners, who themselves may be poorly paid and receiving benefits, are enduring extra levels of stress at the same time as having to support children and families.
Current policy, although possibly seeming generous to an outsider, is merely perpetuating current underfunding and will tip some small settings into insolvency. An Early Years Alliance (EYA) survey of over 3,000 settings reported recently in Nursery World (Gaunt 2020) found that 25% of respondents thought it was unlikely they would be open in 12 months’ time.
Key figures in the early years sector have been fighting hard for more clarity among the contradictory messages and U turns coming from government. In order to try and convince the Treasury they have to use the political arguments about the damage to the economy involved in letting the early years sector remain critically underfunded. The tragedy is that these arguments, while absolutely crucial for the survival of services for children and families, completely overlook the interests of children and, like government policy, concentrate (when they do mention people) on the adults involved. This approach indicates that we are still struggling with some political misconceptions about the nature of childhood. The biggest and most important one is around the fact that early years is still not seen as an important stage in its own right and young children are not seen as active citizens from birth.
This misconception leads to government policy that sees them primarily as dependents of their parents, in need of ‘childcare’ to enable those parents to work, and the crucial early years as some sort of waiting room for school when ‘children’ become ‘pupils’ and where they are not welcome if they are not ‘school ready’. It also opens the door to underfunding and cutting of services and the top down pressure on Reception classes to become more like Key Stage 1 and 2 that we have recently seen expressed in ‘Bold Beginnings’, the revised EYFS early learning goals and the Ofsted inspection framework.
Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that, with the added pressures on everyone right now, the rights of many young children to be nurtured as well as educated are not being adequately protected. And it is not just the children of key workers or those already identified as ‘vulnerable’ who are suffering. In some respects, all children are vulnerable during this crisis.
They may not be living in poverty or bear obvious signs of deprivation but their mental and physical health, as well as their ongoing emotional and cognitive well-being and development, may be coming under pressure.
There have been many positive moves from individual practitioners and organisations to support children and families which recognise both the importance of the ‘home learning environment’ and the stresses that many parents are suffering having children around – perhaps while trying to work from home/living in cramped conditions. There is much support based on empathy and knowledge of child development as well as understanding that a family home cannot (and should not!) be turned into a nursery or school. Some of it is generic and online and much of it is being provided in individualised and family centred ways by practitioners who are trying to keep their setting or school open and safe for the small numbers of children they have, as well as providing support for the absent majority about whom they are worried.
For David Yates, the reception teacher whose feelings about saying goodbye to children and families featured at the beginning of this piece ‘everyone’s well-being, mental health, and seeing the positive moments, is the central focus of home learning at this time.’ He says ‘It has been crucial to be able to respond personally to children and parents, either by e-mail, or in telephone conversations, to offer words of reassurance, support, or encouragement during this unprecedented time. They have all said how much they and the children are missing being at school and appear to have welcomed the opportunity to be able to stay in touch.’ Here is an example:
“Good morning Mr Yates. Have a good day. Hope you okay and Musa said he see a dream that he goes to school and hug you. He was so happy to tell me about his dream he said he miss his friends and you. Musa find lady bird yesterday while playing in the garden and he put lady bird on his hand.”
This was good to hear. I acknowledged Musa’s feelings by sending him a virtual hug back, and sharing optimistic thoughts for being back at school:
“What a lovely dream, Musa! I really do hope your dream comes true very soon – I can't wait to share a real big hug when we go back to Jade class! I miss you and everyone else very much too. Sending you a great big hug back!! It's lovely to see that you found a ladybird - a nice surprise!”
Musa clearly appreciated the story, as his mum’s next reply confirms:
“Hello Mr Yates. Thank you so much I show your hug to Musa. He said thank you and he show to his dad in a joy.”
In a subsequent conversation I shared my own ladybird find with Musa, which linked our shared experience and made it more special:
“Guess what, Musa? I found a ladybird outside today too! It reminded me of when you found the ladybird in your garden, so I took a picture to show you!”
Fajsin Ali, a teaching assistant was concerned about how to help young children and their parents talk about their Covid worries. She made a simple animation called ‘I Was Sad’ and put it on You Tube. The pictures and text are simple and the message is profound – children have a voice and they need to be heard. It is now a book as well as an animation.
Fajsin and David, like so many practitioners across early years, primary and secondary, show how inaccurate media descriptions of schools and settings being ‘closed’ are! They may be closed as places where children can physically go, but they are very much open in terms of providing ongoing love, education and care.
The home learning environment is consistently identified in research as the most significant predictor of a child’s outcomes, and the poorest children are already behind their better-off peers in important areas such as language development by the age of two. Unfortunately, the nuanced and understanding approach illustrated by David Yates and Fajsin Ali is not universal. For David it ‘was important to reassure children and families at the outset that home learning would not come as an additional pressure…there is no insistence that anything must be completed or 'produced' to confirm that learning is taking place at home, and all suggestions offer families contextual, fun, and easily accessible learning experiences.’ I have seen communications from other schools asking for evidence from parents and insisting on completed worksheets every day!
This sort of approach is fed by reports like the recent one from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) which reduces home and school learning to hours spent (or not spent) and the resultant likely increase in educational inequality. A government which picks up the headlines only feeds them into their existing simplistic view of the purpose of education as the transmission of knowledge. If the poor don’t have the requisite ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ (to quote Ofsted), it’s the parents’ fault.
Rethinking Education and Inequality
Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, responding to the IFS report said 'The disadvantage gap was huge before lockdown... Without doubt, education plays a key role in navigating a route out of poverty, but a lack of education does not in itself cause poverty. Other social factors do that, and to date they have consistently worked against schools' efforts. We need to rethink how we tackle inequality in this country…It would be disappointing if the same old arguments and assumptions about disadvantage were allowed to persist once lockdown has ended.’
I would take this further and say that it would also be a pity if the same old arguments and assumptions about how children learn were allowed to persist once lockdown is over – because those tired old arguments deny children their right to learn in a way that supports their natural creativity and perpetuate a deficit model of children (particularly poor children, those with special educational needs and disabilities and those from BAME backgrounds) as somehow lacking or deficient.
All babies and young children are amazingly powerful learners. Nelson (2007) talks about children learning while embedded in the relationships and interactive language of their everyday environments. In these ‘communities of minds’ they gain conceptual knowledge, learn about their own minds and update their beliefs. As Gopnik (2009:157) tells us ‘their entire stock of knowledge turns over every few months - they go through whole paradigm shifts between their third and fourth birthday…. Really flexible and innovative adults might change their minds this way two or three times in a lifetime.’
Surely we should be aiming for all our children to continue to be capable of being excited in the face of the cognitive dissonance involved in changing one’s mind, not shrink from what Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset.’ After all, as Professor Brian Cox says, as a scientist ‘you have to be prepared – and delighted – to change your mind in the face of new evidence. That is the message that should be taught in schools.’ (Adams 2016)
The stance of successive education ministers has been that knowledge transmission is the basis of curriculum and we have been engaged in a constant battle for the rights of all young children to quality early education and care based on sound principles. The principles on which the Early Years Foundation Stage and other UK and international early years frameworks are based are not new. They are the result of much practice, research and theory going back centuries. And yet we have a government that has caused an already stretched sector, as well as children and parents, huge additional stress by suggesting that some children should return to schools and settings on June 1st. At the time of writing there is huge opposition from unions, parents and practitioners – nobody seems to know what children think. Whatever happens with that, the government seems likely to impose a baseline test on four-year-olds starting school in September 2020 in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Children have the right to be better treated as so many practitioners and parents who have supported More Than A Score have said clearly and loudly.
A recent Montessori poll of 1000 parents showed that 87% of the parents believe that the current education system needs updating to focus more on life skills such as creativity, resilience, independence and leadership and 78% of parents think the pressures of the current education system, including testing from a young age, can have a negative impact on children. These parents believe that a good education is based on important life skills and the rights of children to be supported in their growing up into sociable, loving, creative adults – the sort of adults we need to tackle the climate crisis and the poverty and inequality to which it is inextricably linked.
We will all have been changed by the pandemic and even the government has been forced to put human well-being before economic growth for a short time. As John Harris wrote recently ‘We cannot go on like this, with deep inequalities of race and class constantly exploding before our eyes, the need for food banks extending into the distance and voices at the top willing us back towards the very social and political dead end that ensured the virus has had such a disastrous impact. In the great surge of spontaneous collective action that has greeted Covid-19, there are the seeds of something better.’
In early years we must nurture those seeds and strive to maintain a culture where young children’s rights to loving care and protection and a great education are recognised and based on a proper understanding of learning and development from birth onwards. After all, ‘The immaturity of children is a biological fact of life but the ways in which this immaturity is understood and made meaningful is a fact of culture.’ (James and Prout (1997:7).
Ali, F (2020) I Felt Sad. Ben’s life in quarantine, animation available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRUpESWYnos
Book version available at https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B087SDLT8M/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Adams, T. (2016) Brian Cox: ‘It’s a book about how to think’ Interview: The Guardian 18.09.16
Dweck, C (2006) Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, New York: Ballantine Books
End Child Poverty (2020) Children Cut Adrift as Poverty Leaves Covid-Generation Facing a Perilous Future http://www.endchildpoverty.org.uk/children-cut-adrift-as-poverty-leaves-covid-generation-facing-a-perilous-future/
Gaunt, C. (2020) One in four childcare providers fear permanent closure amid virus lockdown, Nursery World, 05.05.20 https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/article/one-in-four-childcare-providers-fear-permanent-closure-amid-virus-lockdown
Gopnik, A. (2009) The Philosophical Baby, London: The Bodley Head
Harris, J. (2020) No hiding behind the bunting- let’s face what Britain is now, The Guardian, 11.05.20
Andrew, A. et al (2020) Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning Institute for Fiscal Studies Briefing Note BN288 https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN288-Learning-during-the-lockdown-1.pdf
James, A. and A. Prout (eds.), 2nd ed (1997) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood. London: Falmer Press
Nelson, K. (2007) Young Minds in Social Worlds, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Office for National Statistics (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by ethnic group, England and Wales: 2 March 2020 to 10 April 2020 at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/coronavirusrelateddeathsbyethnicgroupenglandandwales/2march2020to10april2020
Pickett, K. & Wilkinson, R. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London: Allen Lane
Kluge, HHP. et al (2020) Refugee and migrant health in the COVID-19 response in The Lancet, 395, 18.04.20 https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736(20)30791-1
Rawstrone, A. (2020) Lockdown has boosted parents' respect for early years staff, says Montessori poll, Nursery World 12.05.20 https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/article/lockdown-has-boosted-parents-respect-for-early-years-staff-says-montessori-poll
United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) (2020) UNICEF appeals for $1.6 billion to meet growing needs of children impacted by COVID-19 pandemic 11.05.20 https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/unicef-appeals-16-billion-meet-growing-needs-children-impacted-covid-19-pandemic
Yates, D. (2020) Sharing home learning at a distance – loving home learning in lockdown https://www.early-education.org.uk/news/guest-blog-sharing-home-learning-distance-–-loving-home-learning-lockdown-david-yates
Edited by Jules