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CLARISSA FARR: School closures mean a generation is being cast adrift on tide of unfulfilled dreams

Schools, with their familiar landscape of corridors and classrooms, sounds of bells and chatter, and the whiff of the changing rooms, are for so much of their life a child’s world.

And it is a world in which students learn from their friends, just as they do from teachers.

Today, however, children are at home, away from their classmates and slumped at their computers, in front of their TVs, or craned over their iPhone, often lost in cyberspace, adrift on a tide of uncertainty, of promised and unfulfilled dreams.

We can regret this lost term of schooling for all age groups, but I feel especially for the teenagers.

Without the structure of school or college, the temptation for these children to stray into the type of behaviour as reported by The Mail on Sunday today becomes a very real possibility. 

I was saddened to see some of the photos of young people, clearly of school-age, drinking alcohol and inhaling balloons full of so-called ‘hippy crack’ laughing gas in parks. Unpoliced and under-parented, they could so easily fall prey to county lines drug gangs.

I was saddened to see some of the photos of young people, clearly of school-age, drinking alcohol and inhaling balloons full of so-called ‘hippy crack’ laughing gas 

Of course, there is another side of the coin. Students whose schools have been able to provide a rich online curriculum with plenty of live teaching have been lucky. This has offered new challenges – learning greater self-reliance being just one.

However, with the shocking statistic that only 25 per cent of state-maintained schools have the resources to provide lessons online, it is clear that far too many children have been left to their own devices with little structure and therefore little motivation to study. Boredom and a sense of disengagement with education has been widespread.

We have heard a lot about how this disparity in provision will be detrimental to pupil progress in the long term, widening the attainment gap between the private and maintained sectors.

That is, in part, why Ministers now fear that 700,000 children will be permanently harmed by missing school during lockdown.

What worries me most, though, is something that will affect all children – whether state or privately educated. It is the loss of a sense of structure to life and of social cohesion that school provides.

Children need to be in school because, as human beings with strong mental health needs, we must be together. And I mean physically. We all know that loneliness can shorten our lives and that the communities recording greatest longevity around the world are those where life is connected, across and between generations.

Now, in an age where so much of life is lived in isolation due to our increasing reliance on technology, it’s no wonder that we see a rising tide of mental ill-health, especially among the young.

Lockdown has precipitated us further down this route and the closing of schools has contributed.

Besides missing out on their exams, many children and young adults have not had the live forum in which to think and debate together on the huge issues, from coronavirus to politics to Black Lives Matter and the recent protests, which have emerged in recent weeks. It seems such an opportunity wasted – this is, after all, their future.

It is also easy to forget as adults just how important structure is for our young.

Schools do not merely allow children to absorb knowledge in order to pass their exams. They are places where youngsters do their growing up during the most formative period in their lives. And it is where they work out how to forge relationships with others – how to make friends, how to heal a breach, how to compete, how to fail, how to become resilient – to recover from setbacks, to grow and to change.

Those depressing scenes in parks across the country are proof of what can happen when that is taken away.

School, with its familiar shape of days divided into lessons, terms into weeks, gives the familiar structure which reassures children (file photo)

School, with its familiar shape of days divided into lessons, terms into weeks, gives the familiar structure which reassures children (file photo)

Most children actually like school. As a headmistress, I have stood at the school gates at many an end of term, seeing delighted faces disappearing for the holidays, loaded up with sports kit and half-finished art work, full of delight at the freedom those few weeks away allow.

But I know most of the faces will be as excited and the voices even more full of urgency to share news on their return.

School, with its familiar shape of days divided into lessons, terms into weeks, gives the familiar structure which reassures children.

Incidentally, anyone with children who had thought teachers had an easy life (always on holiday, knocking off at four o’clock!) will surely have changed their tune this term, as home education, hitherto the choice of a few, became the norm for many families.

Overnight, parents have had to become educators. They have been forced to understand the imagination, resourcefulness, multi-tasking ability and sheer stamina which teaching requires.

Teaching, I’m convinced, has won new respect. As well as the vital health benefits of being together, children also need the events, rituals and rites of passage that are a part of school life.

Students who should have taken A-levels this term have not only missed out on the formal experience of sitting exams, something they have prepared for over many months, they have also missed the events of leave-taking that their schools would have organised.

What is there to mark the rite of passage of leaving school and moving on to the next stage of education or to the world of work?

Many schools would normally have had graduation ceremonies, prize-givings, concerts and plays.

These events are not simply a way of filling up the calendar at the year-end – they are an important opportunity for those leaving to remember the sum of what it all meant to them.

To look back, to reflect and to move forward.

Nothing can fully replace human beings coming together in community. And there is a cost to all of us when we are deprived of that.

Crucially, too, we have been newly reminded that schooling is not an out-of-date concept which could readily be replaced, but the foundation of our children’s developing lives as they grow gradually outward from the security of family and explore for themselves.

I hope in September we will hear the sound of school bells ringing again across the country, welcoming children back in celebration to continue their education in the best way they possibly can.

And wow – won’t all those harassed parents be relieved? 

  • Clarissa Farr is the former head of St Paul’s Girls School and the author of The Making Of Her: Why School Matters

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