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Pupil views around the Covid-19 pandemic: an opportunity for change in education?

We are currently living through one of the most life-shifting experiences in recent memory. There have been changes in the way people live their lives across the world as a result of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Gaining pupil views

In Southend, the Educational Psychology Service decided to gain the views of children and young people for two reasons:

  1. To understand how this situation has been for them
  2. To guide planning a return to school which takes into consideration their thoughts and needs.

We were astounded by the number of responses (752 from pupils across all year groups) and moved by the experiences and thoughts shared with us. We felt it was vital to show the children and young people that we had heard what they said. Therefore, we created a document comprised of their words and presented a webinar.

Four key themes came from the views and thoughts shared with us by the children and young people:

  1. Safety
  2. Relationships
  3. Certainty
  4. Opportunities.

These themes also reflect those which came from a survey conducted by Phoenix Education in May 2020.

This blog considers the theme of Opportunities in more depth and explores what the thoughts and views shared by the children and young people tell us about opportunities (gained and missed) for education and learning.

We would like to invite school staff, professionals in education and those in the government making decisions about education to think about the short- and long-term impact of the coronavirus situation on our children and young people and to explore the available opportunities for change.

Opportunities and secondary pupils: a narrow view of the curriculum?

“I am very concerned for exams since we have missed out quite a large chunk of learning”

Secondary Pupil

Many Secondary pupils were worried about the “potential impact to learning” of being at home. They felt a need to “catch up”, have “extra lessons” and “get back to school quickly” fearing that they might fail exams. This view has been reflected in the media. We suggest this ‘catch up’ narrative has permeated the lives and beliefs of young people in a way that potentially puts a high level of pressure upon them, giving a sense of missed opportunities. But is this true?

Missing two months of ‘school’ doesn’t have to be seen as detrimental in terms of learning. On the contrary, many of the young people told us about the opportunities they have engaged in, the skills they have learnt and the activities that have helped them to cope. While they may not have learnt the next step in algebra or what a conjunction is, many have engaged in multiple different learning opportunities at home. We feel this should be celebrated and that children and young people should not be viewed as ‘falling behind’ or led to believe they require extra lessons to ‘catch up’.

We suggest a need to shift away from this dominant narrative of ‘catch up’, which sits within a narrow construct of a National Curriculum. Instead, we suggest a focus on a narrative centred around enjoyment of and motivation for life-long learning. The national curriculum states where children and young people ‘should be’ in terms of academic progress. This is not fixed and shouldn’t be seen in this way. We need to explore and celebrate what has been achieved during the pandemic and focus on the skills used or developed, as this is what is going to help our young people to grow and develop in the future.

The current situation provides us with an opportunity to re-consider the expectations for our children and young people and re-evaluate and question what is important. Should we focus on specific outcomes e.g. children knowing all phonics in Year One, achieving a pass grade at GCSE etc. or should we be promoting their emotional wellbeing, life skills and the relationships they build to support growth and learning? Can a curriculum be built or adapted highlighting these life-long skills?

Opportunities and primary pupils: adaptation and excitement

[I enjoyed] “Making and painting” “Making new friends” “New activities” “Doing just dance in PE… swimming, playing outside, gardening”

Primary school pupil

Compared to our secondary pupils, we were struck by the responses of our primary aged children attending school throughout this period of uncertainty; particularly their overwhelmingly positive response to adapting to a school setting that was “a bit different to normal”. Perhaps our primary aged children were less aware of the media coverage regarding falling behind and catching up, and this helped to provide them with a positive lens through which they were unburdened by worries about the curriculum, academic levels and completing ‘enough’ work. Instead, many of the primary children seemed to see a plethora of new opportunities they felt excited about.

Many of the children fully embraced the different opportunities provided such as doing lessons in different ways, being active outdoors, making new friends and mixing with children they hadn’t spent time with before. They told us they enjoyed working and playing with “other children I haven’t met before” and looked forward to seeing friends, new and old, once everyone returned to school.

The impressive ability of these children to adapt quickly to a new way of working in school and the positives they found in the situation are not to be underestimated. This is not to say the transition was easy; there will undoubtedly be further challenges and necessary adaptations ahead. However, it is important to remember how well children can and indeed did adapt with the right support. They managed to have fun and make connections to help them to cope in an uncertain situation; wonderful skills that should be recognised, celebrated and reiterated in difficult times.

Missing lessons…or missing friends?

Many of the children and young people shared that they had missed work and lessons in the school environment. However, this was largely due to the fact that these learning experiences were shared with others; we noticed a clear longing for connection and interaction. There was a need for opportunities to reconnect with these relationships and that this was more important to the children than school work. There were suggestions made by the children of leavers parties or a ‘coming back to school party’, a few days of playing or relaxing together before learning started, a more fun and relaxed approach to learning and playing more sports together.

The children and young people told us they would like to postpone a return to formal learning while they reconnect, socialise and play. We propose this will be a vital consideration when thinking about opportunities for making school a safer and happier learning environment for children and young people to be in during the current transition time and into the future. The children and young people’s responses to a ‘different looking school’ gave us a lot to think about. These reflections resulted in a wonderful realisation that we should take the children’s positive attitude towards new opportunities and importance of relationships and think about ways schools can incorporate and focus on these into a ‘new normal’ moving forwards.

Opportunities for Change

We need to think about what learning and education means for children and young people and how we can create change following the unusual time that we have experienced. We could take a more open and growth mindset view of what has been achieved in this time of difference – rather than being fixed in a view that something has been missed or lost. The creative activities, hobbies, exercise and space that many of the children and young people have used to explore new and old hobbies and activities are inspirational.

There is also an opportunity to find out what else we can learn from children and young peoples’ experiences and views. There is so much potential in what the children could bring to thinking about the wider context of learning and development within the education system and what we as educators could be doing differently and providing more of. For example, children and young people embraced and responded positively to using technology to learn (Google Classrooms, Zoom, Teams, online challenges and quizzes etc.). This is an area which could be developed dynamically to support different ways of learning, especially for those children who find managing school difficult. However, we believe thought should be applied to providing access to these resources for all.

We would like to end with a suggestion to help us continue to explore new opportunities for education. We think the Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF) developed by Lucy Johnstone and colleagues (Johnstone & Boyle, 2018) could offer a powerful guide to re-thinking education and moving forward with hope and ambition for a creative and innovative future. The PTMF provides an alternative view to ‘within person’, ‘deficit’ narratives, conceptualising difficulty and distress as being context-bound and influenced by cultural and societal phenomena.

The PTMF was developed to be used as a way of helping people to create more hopeful narratives or stories about their lives and the difficulties they may have faced or are still facing.’. This viewpoint could provide new opportunities for how we think about education and learning for the future. This is something we will be giving further thought to and would invite you to please join us in these considerations.

Read ‘Returning to School: Ideas from the Views of Children and Young People‘ (2020) from Southend Educational Psychology Service

Watch the Webinar ‘What you told us’ in full


Johnstone, L. & Boyle, M. with Cromby, J., Dillon, J., Harper, D., Kinderman, P., Longden, E., Pilgrim, D. & Read, J. (2018). The Power Threat Meaning Framework: Towards the identification of patterns in emotional distress, unusual experiences and troubled or troubling behaviour, as an alternative to functional psychiatric diagnosis. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

2 Comments so far:

  1. I found this uplifting and inspiring, thoughtfully written and beautifully illustrated by quotations from our children and young people.
    I think you are creating a new and alternative narrative, and challenging the perception that children will have ‘fallen behind’ and therefore need to ‘catch up’. I agree this is an opportunity . . .and with support from our EP community, educational settings and Universities could be a defining moment.

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