When catching up means losing out

Children and young people have spent the last two years trying to learn how to cope with isolation, loss and a world turned upside down. Why do we now need to harass them into making sure they’re at the same academic level as a hypothetical young person who hasn’t spent the last 2 years living through a pandemic when that child doesn’t exist anywhere on earth? We have to ask who are we trying to catch them up to and why?

This cohort of students has faced challenges to their education most of us will never experience and we have the ability as a society to decide we’re going to cut them some slack and let them adapt to yet another change in circumstances. That we are going to expect less of them in terms of pure academic knowledge and instead focus on promoting their mental and emotional well being. As long as children have the basics covered and older young people have the functional academic skills they need to function day to day let’s take anything else as a bonus, let them take fewer qualifications and use some of that time to make sure they have the coping strategies to become emotionally healthy adults. Education can happen at any time of life but the longer maladaptive coping strategies are left in place the longer it takes to recover from them.

This is something I know from my own life experiences, in 2019 I spoke at federal conference on a motion on adult education about the value adult education had for me. A combination of bullying, ill health and being a primary carer for my mum with no external support caused me to experience significant mental ill health and the pressure of trying to stay at academic parity with my peers only made things worse. I fought to stay caught up, made myself more unwell in the attempt, still couldn’t manage it and instead that failure further fuelled my mental illness. This has been the case for many children with life experiences like mine for years and now it will be the case for many more.

As a Youth Worker and Teaching Assistant I saw the devastating impact upheaval and uncertainty can have on a child’s ability to progress and grow and how impossible it was for them to learn effectively without the root causes being addressed first. We have the power as a party and a society to protect and support these young people. We can recognise and defend the fact that it is possible to attain more academic knowledge at any age but it is significantly easier to manage that and manage it sooner if you aren’t battling mental illness, have good coping strategies and emotional resilience.

Young children still have time left in education to build their academic knowledge and better funding for adult education would allow teens (and those who, like me, left school having under-performed based on their ability) to go back and achieve new/better qualifications if they need them as well as being a demonstrable commitment to our belief in the value of lifelong learning. We can prove what I think we all believe- that a someone who isn’t ready to take GCSE’s until they’re 18 or even 28 is no less worthy or hardworking than someone who takes them at 16- they may simply have had different lessons they needed to learn before they could.

So instead of catching children and Young people up academically let’s demand better funding for mental health support and get professionals into schools to catch them up mentally and emotionally. We have to focus on giving them the skills they need to return to and maintain mental wellness before they will be able to catch up academically and the earlier we can do that the less entrenched any issues will be.

Lack of mental wellbeing support meant it took me 10 years of hard work to return to mental wellness. Lack of academic knowledge meant it took me 1 year to retake my GCSE Maths and get an A. Let’s commit to making sure no child loses a decade of their life because we decided academics was more important than emotional and mental well-being and be kinder to our kids.

Let’s focus less on kids ‘catching up’ and more on letting them catch their breath.

* Charley joined the Lib Dems in 2010, has stood in Local elections in Stoke on Trent and London and was PPC for Eltham in the 2019 General Election and a GLA list candidate in 2021. They have been a Youth Worker, Early Years Teaching Assistant and FE College Governor. They are currently an Emergency Services Worker in London and Vice Chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems.