Wendy Cobb and Bea Stevenson argue for a post Covid-19 education system that can ensure young people develop socially and emotionally, as well as academically.

As we head towards the end of a second national lockdown, the news of a potential Covid-19 vaccine has offered us the tantalising hope of a family Christmas and a much brighter New Year amid talk of a return to a new kind of ‘normal’.

This week, we represented our organisations at the Fair Education Education (FEA) Annual Summit where talk was about anything but a return to the norm. As members of a coalition of over 150 private, public and third sector organisations working together to make education fair, the FEA has continued to put the spotlight on closing the gap and ensuring that no one child’s success is limited by their socio-economic background. 

Sadly, despite the best intentions, closing the gap initiatives were failing to address the most persistent disadvantage even before the pandemic and Covid-19 has only increased the gap for the most vulnerable children. There have been many FEA successes, such as the campaign for a National Tutoring Service, the launch of the Universal Skills Builder Framework and other joint calls to action in multiple campaigns to instill policy change, yet the consensus remains among members for the need for more radical system change. 

We are right now at a pivotal point for education. The time is right for a paradigm shift, yet as Peter Hyman, co-Director of Big Education and co-founder and first headteacher of School 21, expressed at the Summit, there is a strong danger of a gravitational pull back to the norm. 

The third of five FEA Impact Goals is to ‘ensure young people develop social and emotional competencies, good mental health and wellbeing’- advocating for a whole child approach to education such as the curriculum proposed by School 21. Any return to an accountability agenda which values a narrow definition of academic success above essential life skills and which fails to recognise the importance of creativity, agency, curiosity, awe and wonder in the ‘catch up’ curriculum will not meet this goal. In a shift from the ‘compliant cultures’ advocated in the US and the UK since the 1990s, we must create a truly inclusive system, working also with parents and communities, to enable young people, in their own words, to ‘actively challenge [and]disrupt the systems that control us’.

At the end of the summit, after listening to inspirational presentations by BiteBack 2030 Youth Ambassadors we were asked to commit to what we would do one day, one month, one year from now. Today, we committed to write this blog, in a month we hope to have strengthened our connections and joint actions for systemic change, and in a year, we hope that the voices of diverse youth leaders are helping us to look forward and not back.

Wendy Cobb is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education. Bea Stevenson is Head of Education at Family Links, The Centre for Emotional Health.