Work your magic

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 2 2021

We need to reject the reductionist language of ‘catch-up’ and ‘lost generation’ says Geoff Barton. He believes it’s time we used the magic of what our schools and colleges routinely do, to see children and young people thrive and succeed after this crisis.

So now we know. The author LP Hartley misled us. In his novel, The Go-Between, set in England between the world wars, he opens with a sentence that is frequently referenced: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

And that’s how it has always seemed – the past is a place where people stare back at us from faded photographs, wearing clothes and expressions that speak of a different era.

It was a past that seemed recognisably different and distant from who we are now. I remember looking at pictures of my parents on family holidays in the 1960s, dressed with the formality that middle-aged people, even on beaches, were expected to display. These people were recognisably my parents but there they were, gazing out from a different era.

The past most definitely felt like a foreign country.

The not-so-distant past
But now, suddenly, we’ve gained a new understanding of the meaning of the past. It’s basically just a year ago.

Indeed, I suppose 2020 BC might one day mean ‘Before Covid’, when a world we took for granted shifted, a time when, unthinkably, we stopped shaking hands, eating in restaurants and stopped cramming ourselves into busy railway carriages. Then there’s the change in our language.

This time last year, we hadn’t yet learnt terms like ‘social distancing’ or ‘self-isolation’. We hadn’t developed an etiquette of how to react graciously when someone said to us the new phrase of shame: “You’re on mute.”

Oh – and we hadn’t heard of Jackie Weaver, who, you’ll recall, was in the national spotlight after intervening at an online meeting of Handforth Parish Council.

She was one of a number of previously anonymous figures who, amid the grimness of Covid, brought clarity, humanity and inspiration. The late Captain Sir Tom Moore proved to be another.

I mention all this because I worry about how children and young people must feel when they are described as the ‘Covid generation’ or – much worse – the ‘lost generation’.

As a former English teacher, I know that words matter. The words we use, the stories we tell ourselves – these aren’t trivial or marginal. They shape our sense of self and the people we become.

So, just as ASCL has campaigned relentlessly on behalf of ‘The Forgotten Third’ – those young people let down by our GCSE system without the dignity of a qualification – so, I hope we’ll use different words and tell different stories about the young people who are now finishing their time of Covid.

After all, there’s a precedent.

The Covid ‘interruption’
I’ve written before about a little-known story that fascinates me. When the Second World War was declared in 1939, a Mickey Mouse cartoon was running on BBC television. Suddenly, it was stopped mid-flow. Then, when the war ended in 1945, the cartoon was shown again. And, in a decision that now feels extraordinary, the cartoon was restarted at exactly the same point where, six years earlier, it had been paused.

The BBC seemed to be signalling to the viewing public that the war was merely an interruption. Normal service – that is, life – was now being restored.

And, of course, as the cartoon reminds us, there were children at the heart of that national crisis. Some three million of them ended up being evacuated, often from cities to the countryside, sometimes from the UK to far-flung overseas lands. Those evacuees found themselves in a present rather than a past that must have seemed a foreign country.

As one of them, Ronald Miller, later wrote: “The experience broadened my character immensely, taught me that there was much more to my country than the suburbs of London and showed me the essential goodness of people. These things have never left me.”

We won’t know for some time quite what the impact of the Covid ‘interruption’ might have been on the children and young people who were suddenly displaced from their nurseries, schools and colleges. Too many people have been too quick in my opinion to speak in catastrophic terms.

Resilience and adaptability
In reality, what those evacuees of the Second World War showed us was the resilience and adaptability of young people, their capacity in so many cases to take disruption in their stride. Which isn’t the same as saying that our young people won’t have been affected. Of course they will – like all of us, they will have oscillated through degrees of frustration and anxiety, weariness and hopelessness.

But, for many of them, the magic of what our schools and colleges routinely do will be enough – the reassuring presence of friends and familiar staff, the soothing rhythms of lessons and breaktimes, the sense of being back with other human beings in person, rather than on screen.

Which is why, as an organisation, ASCL is proud to be playing a part in rejecting the reductionist language of catch-up, and in suggesting something that we hope every school and college across the UK might want to get involved in.

A celebration of school arts
We are proposing a Festival of School Arts in the summer term – a day on which social media is filled with the voices of children and young people. Whether they are singing, performing drama, dancing, painting or reading poetry, we want young people, who’ve weathered the past year, to celebrate our collective step into the future.

And we can think of no better way of celebrating what human beings can achieve – their grit, creativity, optimism – than through the richness of the arts, something that has always been at the core of our education system. You’ll hear us give more details of the festival in the coming weeks.

For now though, let’s acknowledge that even our most recent past will soon seem like a foreign country. We’ll share stories about it, reminisce, and think, “Did that really happen to us?”

And let’s hope, from all of this, we can create an improved, fairer education system, as we’ll be proposing in our new blueprint later this year. And in making those ideas a reality, we will be creating our own Covid legacy on behalf of the children and young people whose own futures we are privileged to be entrusted with.

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary

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