As we emerge from lockdown and the immediate threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to talk about the impact of school closure on the younger generation, in particular children and the burden of risk that is being borne by them in the health policy decisions that are taken.
I say this conscious of the balance of risks as we weave our way through this unprecedented crisis. In our attempt to flatten the Covid-19 curve, we risk inflating an educational inequality curve to the detriment of those children and young people who are most vulnerable and most in need.
That it is the younger generation which was disproportionately affected by the last recession – more than any other generation, and the members of which typically remain voiceless in national policy decisions – is especially pertinent.
It is no coincidence that young people’s frustrations with the ambiguity around the Leaving Certificate came to a head with a poll that drew attention to their anxieties, concerns and frustrations that decisions about them were being made without them.
When schools are closed the impact across all sectors of society is felt. Schools (and early-years services) fill not only an education need but also a care need, “freeing” parents to work.
Closure of schools creates a care gap as well as an education gap. The two are intertwined both practically and philosophically. Some parents have the resources – emotional, material, cultural and social – to support, nurture and educate their children at home. Many do not. Even where parents can support children’s home learning, many struggle with doing this while maintaining the “day” job. This is a pressure that is disproportionately borne by women.
These issues are not a matter of individual want but collective need that comes sharply into focus when our care and education systems falter. Children learn in windows of time, which influences their developmental trajectory. Time for children is different to time for adults. A four- to six-month gap in a child’s schooling is proportionately a substantive rupture in their childhood.
And where children already struggling to play catch-up remain out of school for a protracted period of time, the impact will be long-lasting and profound. Some will catch up quickly, and may even have benefitted from the extended time at home. Others will struggle, become further disengaged and part of the “Covid generation”. This will be reflected over time in graphs and curves showing poorer outcomes along a range of quality-of-life and well-being indicators. How will extended school closure show in future OECD indicators of Ireland’s education performance?
There is inspirational work taking place in schools as teachers make the shift to new ways of working in the digital and technological sphere. Equally, many schools are at the front line in ensuring the continuation of food and school supplies to children most in need. Yet there is variation in current provision and take-up. It is not even.
Schools are an essential element of our public infrastructure in support of the common good. They fulfill practical needs in the present (a co-ordinated approach to the welfare and well-being of our children, freeing parents also to work) as well as long-term gain (an educated society). Schools need to be considered as an essential service fulfilling children’s rights as well as their needs. When these are safeguarded, benefit accrues to all.
Our ageing population is dependent on having an educated, resourceful younger generation that will innovate and thrive in the underbelly of the economy. While current efforts try to realise these rights through children’s continued access to ‘home learning’ supported by schools, it is a minefield to navigate in terms of the capacities, competencies and resourcefulness of all involved. Virtual technology and distant learning, not to mention the digital divide, cannot replace the everyday connectedness of the classroom or schoolyard.
The collective interests of society, especially in times of crisis, are served when we recognise the value of children and their education to the public good and the need to prioritise their needs and interests. This is not only about their lived lives in the present but also their future and that of the society as a whole.
A society that views educational equality as an essential prerequisite is a healthy one. Health and education policy are closely interconnected in terms of long-term impact. Let’s not forget this as we tentatively emerge from lockdown.
Dympna Devine is professor of education in UCD. She leads the Children's School Lives national longitudinal study with associate professor Jennifer Symonds and assistant professor Seaneen Sloan, UCD School of Education