Rethinking the future by Chloe Combi, part one: How could schools change after lockdown?

Illustration shows two young people studying. They are sitting on a giant book and behind them are huge pencils.

The future of schools

I met the Myrtle sisters in researching for my next book and looking at the issue of sibling relationships and rivalry. There is something a bit last century about them – an observation they like and possibly try to encourage. At eighteen, fifteen and fourteen respectively, they all have that long, heavy hair that is currently very fashionable, but also looks a bit Sissy Spacek in the 1976 film, Carrie.

With a fondness for floral dresses and straw hats, the sisters are, as one might expect, all academic high-flyers destined for top universities and successful careers. When the pandemic hit and all the schools closed, all three sisters freaked. The oldest was going to miss her A-levels, and the two younger ones were missing what they both thought were essential school years, and there was understandable panic, tears and an insistence they were all “going to fail” not just at school, but the rest of their lives.

Schools are mostly closed, but some of you quite like it!

Last weekend, I revisited them via Zoom with a little trepidation. I expected to find a home-schooling warzone, sky-high stress levels and crazy hair. What I didn’t expect to find was the three of them sitting in the garden together watching Tiger King. On asking them how they’d found lockdown and the absence of school, their responses indicated they’d all done a massive 180, with them describing school being cancelled as “brilliant”, “the best thing that’s ever happened to me” and “lit.” This stunned me as the Myrtle sisters are the type of students teachers live to teach – hardworking, active in school life, and they all love school – so what exactly had happened to them in the last six weeks that turned them from the archetypal products of tiger parenting to the bonkers characters of Tiger King? Their Mum, who fully ‘fesses up to pushing her daughters very hard academically, admitted to me that the enforced lockdown and school-closure had given their family a “bit of pause and perspective.”

She went on to explain, “this sudden break has made me realise how much pressure I’d put the girls under. Millie (14) is sleeping properly again as she’s out of the perpetual girl-dramas in her year, Joni (fifteen) seems just much happier all-round and is eating properly again, and Martha (eighteen) I genuinely think might have avoided a nervous breakdown. Even I worried how much pressure she put on herself. I’m ultimately delighted they got this break. It’s been good for all of us.”

Schools are amazing, but do some things need to change?

If the Myrtle sisters were loving school-less lockdown-life, this got me wondering how the rest of the country were faring, because this is, and make no mistake, a fascinating once-in-a-century experiment we are all living through. Since the Education Act in 1880, which made school compulsory for all children ages 5-10, and the 1902 Education Act, which extended this to secondary pupils, we’ve all been in school pretty much from ages 5-16. And in that 120 years, the core essence school hasn’t changed that much. You go to a big building with hundreds or even thousands of other young people and you learn stuff.

School is and continues to be one of the most important inventions of human-kind – it has created an educated population that has evolved at a breath-taking pace and achieved staggering things. It allows young people to learn how to be social and communal beings, giving children their first sense of community beyond their families, and almost all of us our first experiences of friendship, cooperation and what life looks like outside the home.

For disadvantaged young people – and make no mistake they have been the worst impacted by school closures – school gives them safety, an anchor and respite from tumultuous and difficult home-lives. But up until now – except for the kids who get home-schooled – school was also just a fact of life. You went, like it or not, and if you didn’t go, your parents got into trouble and you wouldn’t pass the all-important exams. There was no ‘what ifs’ or alternatives to compare the fact of school to – until about seven weeks ago.

What don’t you miss about school life?

In the UK, no one has any idea – or a real plan – as to when school might start again, and the reality is all young people currently in school might well be off school until September – possibly longer. So, this is the first time in over a century young people haven’t been required to go to school for six months or more. The uniqueness of this experience got me interested in how young people are responding to this. There has been absolutely justifiable coverage of primary and secondary kids who are being negatively impacted by school closures, but what of the young people it might be benefitting?

Considering the positive experiences of the Myrtle sisters, I started asking hundreds of secondary-school aged pupils, and the responses painted an uncomfortable picture about the reality of modern school life – a reality not where school was terrible for young people, but where the absence of it meant for lots they are actually getting more learning done, are less stressed, more relaxed, better-slept, eating healthier, reading more and having the time to connect with family, friends and self in a more meaningful way.

Stress

One of the recurring observations about the positive effects of having no school was the lack of drama and arguments – and this was particularly pertinent with the girls. As Rhiannon, 15, described “the lack of constant, low-level bitching and back-stabbing that happens at school day in day out is exhausting. You don’t realise how tiring it is, until it’s not there every day. I’ve loved not being in that environment, and when you do speak to your friends or in group, it’s really positive as opposed to ‘so-and-so said this, or she looks like a ho.’ I’m really worried about going back to school and not looking forward to it.”

Bullying

Bullying – and specifically the sudden lack thereof – has been a revelation for hundreds of young people I’ve spoken to. Bullying comes in a tonne of toxic forms and often isn’t just the dramatic punch-ups you see on TV, but all the quiet, pernicious low-level stuff like name-calling, nasty texts, being frozen out of group chats or group activities in class or having rumours spread about you. In fact, very few young people escape scot-free from some form of bullying in their school years, and we’ve all kind of just accepted it as a reality of life – but is this acceptance, really, well, acceptable?

Richard, 16, who came out as gay in Year Nine says the quiet but relentless name-calling had left him almost “numb,” but the sudden of absence of not just “having to survive the day-to-day abuse” has made him both happy and angry. “I’m absolutely loving this new life of not just having to take the almost constant bullying, but I’m also suddenly angry that that has just been a way of life for me so long. I feel like a new person and my happiness is not anything to do with not having to sit my GCSEs.”

Self-care

A feature of being a teenager are strange patterns and cycles – weird sleeping and eating patterns, up and down emotions, skin flare-ups, fluctuating weight. Obviously, a part of that is down to massive changes in the body and hormones going haywire, but again, have we normalised and accepted how negatively they can impact so many young people more than we ought to have? One of the most frequently reported outcomes of school being cancelled is young people saying they’ve had more time to focus on self-care, with very positive results.

Adnan (16) explains, “My usual sleeping patterns are shit, I think because I’m always low-level worried about something – waking up for my alarm, not missing the bus, handing in work, some beef at school. And my eating is really shit. I live on energy drinks and Doritos when I’m at school. Not being at school has meant I’m definitely sleeping better, and I’ve started eating my Mum’s food, so I haven’t had energy drinks for ages. I feel way better than before lockdown.”

Lessons learned

We can’t cancel school forever and of course, there really are lots of amazing things about school life. However, this global break has really highlighted for many just how challenging school can be for some. School should be a time of learning, excitement, friendships and personal growth, and for some of you it is just that, so how do we approach things differently to make sure school can offer those things to all young people?

What can we change?

The overwhelming takeaway from this break from school has been that the attitude to education need reshaping. It is operating on the same model that was created over a hundred years ago, which is a bit crazy when you consider at that same point in time, the thinking was it was dangerous to give women the vote and it was OK to execute people.

School students come from a wide range of backgrounds, with sometimes challenging home lives and as a result, have a huge diversity of complex needs. Schools desperately need to be given funding to be able to support young people not just with their learning, but with their mental and physical health too. Schools and the staff who run them are incredible, and do so much amazing work with the resources they have, but there are still thousands of pupils who feel unseen and need to be seen.

But there’s also a hope that this period of isolation might result in some self-reflection too. Lots of young people have come to the conclusion that as well as giving themselves a break, they might also need to give each other a break too. Ali, 15, commented, “I think this has made me realise that a lot of the stuff we go through at school we do to ourselves. I’m definitely bitchier than I mean to be and start stuff I shouldn’t. We could all still die from this virus, and it’s definitely made me want to be nicer to people. That’s my big aim for next year.”

Next Steps

  • Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research, and to see how you could get involved.
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By Chloe Combi

Updated on 15-May-2020