I’m lead practitioner for school services for youth charity Mentoring Plus. In lock-down I’m seeing all kinds of effects on the young people we work with, who often struggle in education and have complex needs and family situations. But one trend has got me thinking.

One young person we support was able to attend school during the lockdown period due to his family circumstances. Prior to lockdown he found school a real struggle and was close to being permanently excluded. But in school in lockdown, he suddenly started to flourish.

He surprised all the staff every day with previously undiscovered strengths, including an amazing musical talent. Where previously playing a musical instrument outside lessons would have meant a reprimand, it earned him positive and sincere feedback.

What did this affirmation mean for him? It was certainly an unfamiliar experience. It meant that in the unusual period of lockdown school provision, his teachers were free to shift the frame of reference from attainment, behaviour and attendance – buzzwords which hold each other’s hands – to seeing what this lad was good at.

Basically, if you’re able to offer this kind of ‘positivity’ as an adult when working with young people, you will (on the most part) be rewarded with some level of engagement. As a professional, you just need to be fortunate enough to have the capacity to do so.

As an organisation supporting over 100 young people in the community, we‘ve seen a real spectrum of young people’s experiences in lockdown. We expected to see young people feeling anxious, isolated and struggling to access online resources, and we have. More unexpected were young people, including those with special educational needs, finding remote learning positive. For students with sensory issues, independent learning away from hoards of noisy folk scurrying through corridors has been liberating.

Young people are bored, but away from their normal triggers, some have found their anxiety reducing. If you take focus away from attainment and place it on just ‘being’, physically and emotionally, you’re more likely to find a ‘well’ young person, who is also more equipped to learn.

The preparations for students to return to education are well underway, but I want to see schools supported to include these experiences in their forward planning. Schools are measured by student attainment, and their resources are focused accordingly. If we switch to focus on wellbeing, what will we unlock?

In lockdown there were far fewer students to look after in school. The school staff members bravely offering the safety of school to those students have had a break from being pastoral firefighters, from trying to hold a lesson together for 29 other kids at the same time. They could respond to individual needs in the cases above. I’m sure teaching in lockdown was no walk in the park, but perhaps we’ll find this period has some positive effect on teacher retention and staff wellbeing too – with less exhaustion from defending the Alamo.

So what happens if we make school a happier place for all? If we measure it not by GCSE grades and attendance figures but whether students are supported to be emotionally present and therefore able to engage in their learning?

The measures we may have to adopt to keep children safe in school after lockdown may even help. Reducing class sizes by staggering the school day could help support a more individualised approach. Learning from the cancellation of exams could help us reinvent how we assess ability and appraise effort alongside achievement.

Switching focus is never easy, and it needs time and money. Maybe here too the lessons of lockdown can teach us: we’d never have thought such a huge national change to education in such a short time period was possible, but it was.

And post-lockdown school reintegration is going to be fraught with concerns about young people anyhow, even for students and families who have never had to access support services before, let alone those already deemed vulnerable. Students coming back to school having have been locked up for months in families facing unforeseen financial and wellbeing pressures will present significant new safeguarding concerns.

Our teachers will be pastoral firefighting once more and it will be a greater challenge to maintain positive learning environments. With all this to contend with, surely there is little to lose and much to gain from taking stock of this and trying a change of focus?

I meet so many young people who have amazing minds and talents that are in no way primed or nurtured by our attainment-led education system. As Einstein so neatly put it, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. I know I’m not alone in thinking this way: we need to seize this one-off opportunity.

It’s so complex working out how to offer education safely to students post-lockdown. Local authorities and MATs have to give individual schools some choice in how they approach the practicalities of reintegration. Given a bit of power and choice, will visionary schools lead the way with implementing the learnings of lockdown in some overdue systemic change?

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