In the many months since the first closures of schools in the UK, much has changed. For some, vast online systems of integrated, interactive learning rose to meet the challenge. Innovation has shown us the demonstrable strength of a community when united towards one goal – our future generation. For others, the present and future appeared bleak. No systems. No learning. Just them, hopefully a laptop, maybe some wifi, and a google classroom. This resource gap made an already existing inequality even more apparent: 60% of private schools in affluent areas have access to online learning, compared to 23% from deprived state schools.
The purpose of education is a diverse one, but a strong contender would certainly be around developing active citizens, with the character strengths and skills to enter the wider world and workplace. It should stand with no controversy, then, to claim that any education must first help the most disadvantaged. It is the most disadvantaged that are vulnerable to losing self-belief and resilience when faced with an almost insurmountable hill to climb.
It is the most disadvantaged that stand alone in freely navigating the world of further education and work. In a pandemic, these challenges are not only realised but made worse. Families that already struggled have less money, and children that were once supported in their studies are now left to attempt schoolwork in what can be busy, multi-generational or confined homes. It is now more than ever that these students need support.
To say that students will come out of this pandemic changed seems to now be a given. But as students return to classrooms across the country, the pressing question remains – how can we recover all that we may have lost? Many in the social mobility and education sector will know that a large part of the recent university admissions success from deprived state schools is due to the development of an aspirational, motivational, ambitious, self-belief instilling culture. And ultimately, without this kind of culture, material provision cannot succeed alone.
As a student myself, having gone through a diverse array of school systems, I have faced the direct impact of these cultures, and have come out of it with the aspirational self-belief I once saw as not being made for me. This was only possible because of a collective effort – school teachers who constantly demonstrated belief, youth social action programmes that provide students with the tools to make change, and a culture that told me I could make a change.
For many students, education is a provider of hope and belief. And this more than anything is likely to have been lost or eroded. Exacerbated by uncertainty, the charities and schools that have worked countlessly to help disadvantaged students realise their dreams, face the chance that much of this motivation may be gone. Children with mental health difficulties, children without resources, children without a supporting family, children without friends. These are all students that – without focus in this pandemic – will have lost belief in a system they see as working against them.
A girl having faced anxiety for years, failing GCSEs with little residual hope, just comes to believe that maybe she can make a change. With the help of countless agents – from council workers to school teachers to family members – she keeps pushing as they do and achieves A*s and As in her first year of sixth form. But it is she who is hit hard by the pandemic. It is she that has lost the support, that no longer sees the escape, that can’t find a way to keep going. It is she who is stuck, and she who we must help.
This pandemic has taught a critical message. That creating academic curriculums that help students achieve the best they can – becoming valuable workers, contributing to the economy of a society – is important. But none of this is possible if students are not supported to meaningfully engage with their education. We must refocus as a society to place priority in people.
The voices of young people must be heard – demonstrating to youth that they can make a change and creating a culture of self-belief. Following the pandemic, this means working harder, investing more, and giving more to youth than ever before. Universities need to think harder about achievement – they must place greater focus on people in order to make education fair.
We must make a greater effort to understand the challenges of diverse young people – possible only by providing opportunities for their voices to be heard – to ensure that Education works for all young people, not a select few. In the end, if we are to come out of this as a united country, prepared for a new era, then we must show that every individual has a meaningful stake. And, for youth, that starts with providing Education which develops a mindset of self-belief and gives every child an equal chance to achieve.
Adam Ramgoolie is a 19 year old student, #iwill Ambassador and founder of Get 2 Learn, an educational inequality project. Adam has been interning with #iwill partner, the Fair Education Alliance, over the summer.