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The Manufactured Terror of Lost Learning

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In February, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) made the sensational claim that for children, ‘losing half a year of schooling will mean losing £40,000 in income over their lifetime’. This statistic has been taken up by many across the political spectrum in the UK. It is revealing that an economics research institution is the ‘go-to’ voice around how to respond to perceived crises around education. This shows the extent to which our policy-making is informed not by considerations of the social, emotional well-being and individual interests of our children, but economic efficiency. This ‘crisis in lost learning’ is construed in abstract, financial terms; the narrative is defined by economists, not educationalists, or young people themselves.  

The IFS’ proposed solutions, to extend the school year, lengthen the school day, mass repetition of whole school years or summer schools are predicated on the absurd idea that ‘learning’ involves a gradual, cumulative build up of essential information that, if missed, reduces children to economically redundant, work-incapable adults. The IFS allege that the danger of ‘lost learning’ will hit ‘disadvantaged pupils’ hardest. Even if these ludicrous contentions are accepted, the IFS ‘catch-up’ approach would work if only the ‘disadvantaged’ were subject to it. Otherwise, the ‘advantaged’ would also benefit, thus nullifying the aid. 

How would this work? Call off holidays for the poorest children? Academic summer camps for children attaining below average at Key Stage 3? Inequalities in education cannot be solved by increasing cramming time to rediscover lost academic content. Also, one can’t lose something they never had; our education system has inequality built into it and is designed to create winners and losers. 

The IFS are correct about one thing: ‘Parents with higher levels of education are likely to have been better able to help their children and, potentially, pay for expensive tutors to help them catch-up’. But the issue here is not ‘lost learning’. What invokes fear are ‘lost opportunities to cover the appropriate content required to pass exams and gain the right credentials to win at life’. Lockdown does enhance the capacity of better resourced families to ensure positive outcomes by ensuring efficient download of curriculum content and tutored exam technique. This has nothing to do with lost learning and instead, calls into question an education system that has, since its inception, defined success solely by performance on invalid, discriminatory exams that separate human beings into sheep and goats. The lost learning fantasy is the latest smokescreen; a comfortable myth that hides a rotten core. Have young people ‘gained’ anything during the pandemic?

When asked by the Children’s Society, young people report having learned much of value during lockdown, including the importance of connecting with friends and family, the benefits of being active, appreciation and gratitude for what they have, the merit of engaging in creative activities. None of this learning is deemed relevant by many in our society. All considerations other than financial earnings, regardless of how they are perceived by young people, equals loss. Education exists to create economically efficient workers. Many have suffered considerably during lockdown. However, reducing young people to the status of economic losers without including them in the conversation is dehumanising. This treats young people as passive objects instead of active participants in their own lives. So what loss do young people experience? 

States of Mind have spent two years conducting participatory action research led by young people. We have found, consistently, that the English education systems’ obsessive, inflexible focus on exams, memorisation and forced compliance leads, for many young people, to loss of identity, loss of autonomy, loss of consent, loss of mental health, loss of student-teacher relationships, and loss of opportunities for personal development. The essential building blocks of psychological health and human flourishing are actively impeded by education policy. These fundamental issues are not mentioned by the IFS or considered relevant by the lost learning pugilists in government.  Teachers are not to blame. As described by our student participants, they are also sacrificed on the altar of competition and when asked, most deplore the rigid, stifling educational climate they are forced to espouse. 

We have a huge problem in our society. Adults project anxiety about losing their place in the social hierarchy onto their children. We marinate them in our own fears of failure. We shape them to believe that fulfilment is always around the corner, never in the present; achievable only through accepting the tyranny of testing, the need for competition and the coerced pursual of goals set by others. They are never, ever enough. They are always on the way to something. They are terrorised into thinking that ‘knowledge’ and success develop along a pre-designated pathway in a linear fashion. Missing a wrung of the ladder or failing to climb a rigidly defined greasy pole is equal to catastrophe; choosing an alternative path is not even countenanced. 

What sort of culture does this generate? One where people are indoctrinated to believe that happiness is an endless possibility lying tantalisingly over the horizon or ‘just around the corner’. To get there we need to pass our SATs, ace our GCSES and A-levels, gain an Undergraduate degree, get a job, get promoted, get promoted again and again and again until one day we wake up 60 years old, still unhappy. The problem is, each time we climb the invisible, socially constructed ladder and rise up the hierarchy of nothingness, we don’t feel any different. We’re all gazing over the horizon to a Utopia that does not exist. We are enough, as we are, right now. 

Our children’s education must respond to them, as whole persons, right now. Young people are not objects to be shaped into future economic agents against their will. By endlessly focusing on the fear of lost futures and positioning children as incomplete and faulty, we place false barriers in the path of contentment and confine them with the message: ‘you are not enough’. Children are human beings, not commodities. Our response to the pandemic should not be guided by the gloomy speculations of misguided economists, but young people and those who know them. 

Chris Bagley, DEdpsy is an educational psychologist and the Director of Research at States of Mind.

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