January 5, 2021

In any other year, the next few months would be some of the most formative of Emma’s life. New classes, newer friends; at the very least, her second term in Sixth Form held the promise of A-Level mock exams. But with the Christmas holiday over and schools shut until at least mid-February, Emma — like thousands of children across Britain — once again finds herself confined to the virtual school gates imposed by her computer.

“They’re just going to kill us all, from the inside.” Emma turned 16 years old in June. That was her response when the Government announced that London and the South East, where we live, would enter Tier 4 restrictions last month. But in the weeks since, as the Department for Education has stumbled from one U-turn to another, her fury has given way to frustration. As to the recent rumour-mill about whether schools would reopen, her standard response has been a cynical eye-roll.

After all, throughout this crisis Gavin Williamson has claimed that the education of children has always been “an absolute priority”. At the weekend, he even proclaimed that “we must move heaven and earth to get children back to the classroom.” Yet the narrative that has dominated the debate over school closures in the past year tells a very different story.

Indeed, of all the most egregious elements of Britain’s chaotic battle with Covid-19, it seems that the weaponisation of education could be the most damaging. From the moment the pandemic gripped Britain, both the print and broadcast media have persistently presented schools as little more than petri dishes, and pupils as little more than germs on legs. As Mary Bousted, the National Education Union’s joint general secretary put it in May, pupils are “mucky, who spread germs”.

In the months since, as confusion and uncertainty have morphed into charged animosity, we seem to be in an even worse position than we were back in the spring. Much of the concern surrounding the impact of school closures has tended to focus on the considerable welfare implications for children from deprived or abusive backgrounds. There can be little doubt that those from disadvantaged households, for whom the classroom both offered an escape and a ladder, will invariably be left worse off by being banned from the classroom.

But as a sociologist and university lecturer, I fear this focus on welfare leaves little scope for discussion about the importance of schools as educational institutions. Indeed, the Government’s stated aim to keep schools open by turning them into mass Covid testing centres suggests that it sees them primarily as an arm of the public health state.

Crucially, the closure of schools could also have far deeper implications — not just for young people but, as educational values are eroded, for society as a whole. For schools are so much more than a collection of classrooms. They are the place where the adult world meets the child world, where social norms and values are communicated across the generations. They are the place that lifts children outside of the febrile tensions of their daily existence and gives them a wider perspective on the human condition and a grounding for their futures. Even with the best will in the world, online learning can never be a substitute for that.

Unlike any other period in recent history, those coming of age today have been forced into an acutely intimate engagement with politicians as they wait for daily updates about whether they will be allowed to go to school or university, sit their exams, see their friends, keep their jobs or indeed do anything that they were previously told was crucial for their mental health, emotional development, and future careers.

They have found themselves on the sharp end of a vicious public narrative of ‘Covidiot shaming’, which has blamed young people for spreading the virus by daring to go about their normal lives: visiting the beach or cafes with friends in summer, going to university or school before Christmas.

This hounding tendency has had practical, and often visceral, consequences. When headlines last summer screeched that university students might ‘seed the virus’ across the land, a number of universities responded by introducing measures more akin to young offenders’ institutions than to places of higher learning. They demanded that students study from the confines of their bedrooms and erected metal barriers around halls of residence that were patrolled by security guards in case they fancied a walk or, heaven forbid, a visit to the library.

At the same time, although many teachers — including Emma’s — have since gone above and beyond in their attempts to restore as ‘normal’ an educational regime as possible, the alienation caused by social distancing practices and the plummeting of attendance has given schools a conditional stop-start quality, which keeps children, teachers and parents constantly on edge, further increasing anxiety and demoralisation. Rows between parents and schools over social distancing, the necessity for keeping windows open in freezing cold classrooms and sanctions for Covid non-compliance have only exacerbated existing tensions between home and school.

And this is where things could start to get messy. For running parallel to the attempts of Britain’s leaders to impose political authority on the Covid chaos, Britain’s children have been subjected to an altogether different — and possibly more dangerous — crisis of authority as their parents and teachers become progressively infantilised by a web of ever-changing rules that they have to obey.

Take the Government’s orders for people to ‘Stay at home’, which — while many will claim are necessary to halt the spread of the virus — operate in an uneasy and destructive relationship with parental authority. Whether they like it or not, parents are responsible for ensuring compliance with these measures, even when they contradict their instinctive worries about the negative impact on their children’s physical and mental health, education and relationships.

For children, their parents’ constant need to adapt to ‘the rules’ has resulted in a string of shattered plans, broken promises and arbitrary decisions about where they are allowed to go, what they are allowed to do, and who they are see. As is to be expected, the impact is slightly different in teenagers. At an age that would typically render them on the cusp of independence, they find themselves no longer able to push against the authority of their parents in the small ways that they have always done, unless they wish to invoke the wrath of the state. Meanwhile, those parents tempted to assert their own authority against the excesses of ‘the rules’ will be fully aware that doing so would draw their children into conflict with official public health advice, thereby contributing to further corrosion of political trust and social solidarity. They simply cannot win.

No doubt some will scoff that this is a small price to pay for necessary measures in the face of a deadly pandemic; that at least the number of Covid-induced deaths will be reduced. In that vein, a sharp rise in mental health problems among the young, evidence of widening educational inequality and concerns about the debilitating effects of a year without sustained social interaction are shrugged off as necessary casualties in the fight against the virus.

But all that forgets that, whether we like it or not, the relentless attacks on our children’s spirit will leave a mark. When schools do reopen, it won’t just be young people’s education that has taken a bashing. It will be their trust in all the norms, expectations, and institutions of adult society. And what could be more disturbing than that? 

The Corona Generation: Coming of age in a crisis by Dr Jennie Bristow and Emma Gilland is published by Zer0 Books.