[Guest blog] 5 Reasons Why the ‘Catch-up’ Narrative is Harmful to Children’s Mental Health

Guest blog by Ava Shabnum Hasan & The Mentally Well Schools Team

There is no doubt that the last year has had a huge impact on the education of our children and young people. Lockdowns with extended periods of learning remotely, and the many challenges of adjusting to that, have had a significant effect on the lives of children and adolescents.

Now with the return to school, especially in those countries where vaccination programmes are progressing, there is a need to address all of the impacts of extended remote education, and to set clear priorities across children and young people’s learning, social, and psychological needs. One of the most frequently heard narratives recently in the U.K. and in some other countries is the idea of academic ‘catch-up’.

Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education has stated in 2021…


“There is a whole range of different proposals that we are looking at, whether it is a five-term year, whether it is lengthening the school day.”

The British Psychological Society wrote in February 2021 that the…

“Unhelpful ‘catch up’ narrative about lost learning during the pandemic places unnecessary psychological pressure on children and young people.”

Why does the British Psychological Society say this?

5 reasons why the concept of ‘catch-up’ is likely to harm children and young people’s mental health and life outcomes

1. Pressure to ‘catch-up’ negates the needs of many children and young people who have been impacted psychologically by events of the last year: from bereavement because of COVID, through suffering from food poverty because of parents having lost their jobs, to the impacts of parental stress from caregivers who are struggling themselves due to the unprecedented economic and psychological effects of the pandemic.

Evidence for this includes:
1 in 6 children aged 5 to 16 now have a probable mental disorder. 

This is an increase from 1 in 9 children in 2017 [NHS data].


There was a doubling of urgent referrals for children with eating disorders in England in 2020, and urgent referrals for starting treatment in the community reached an all-time high.

We also already know that…

75% of mental illness develops by age 18. [MHFA]

In order to safeguard our children and adolescents’ mental health and life outcomes, we need to recognise that the pandemic constitutes a traumatic life event for a significant proportion of children and young people, who are in need of nurture, compassion and support to help them recover with minimal long-term impact – not pressure to perform and catch up.

2. The idea of ‘lost learning’ overlooks the reality that learning is a lifelong process. As Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology says…

“…the notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone.”

3. Many children have adjusted to remote learning during lockdowns and have made good academic progress, perhaps just as much as they would have done if being educated in school. To focus on ‘lost learning’ or a potentially ‘lost generation’ undermines the achievements of many children and young people, and their parents/carers and educators, through the challenging events of the last year.

It also overlooks the potential that emotional learning about how to weather life’s unexpected storms is just as important as academic learning, if not more important.

“Emotional learning about how to weather life’s unexpected storms is just as important as academic learning, if not more important.”

4. Focusing on test results, assessment scores and exam grades overlooks the skills which children and young people will need to successfully navigate the immense ecological, technological and societal challenges which humanity faces, and which our children and young people will be tasked with trying to resolve.

  • Global Warming continues to advance at a very concerning rate despite an initial drop due to the events of 2020.
  • The pandemic has catalysed the use of AI-based algorithms by employers, and in coming years more and more jobs will be replaced by AI, making the job market for the next generation unrecognisable.
  • We also know that excessive social media use likely has a negative impact on the mental health of children and young people, with the intentionally addictive nature of such technologies now having been exposed.

To excel in the modern world against the unique and unprecedented challenges being faced by upcoming generations, suggests a need for schools to focus less on academic learning, and more on the types of skills that are most likely to equip children and young people in navigating a rapidly evolving and precarious world.

These are skills such as: problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, initiative, emotional intelligence, and psychological resilience.

5. Talk of the need to ‘catch up’ and of longer school days and shorter school holidays is a further ‘kick in the teeth’ for a teaching profession that is stretched and stressed, often to breaking point. Surveys in 2021 have shown that:

  • Only 44% of international school teachers said they felt their school was supporting their wellbeing through the COVID-19 pandemic [ISC Research]
  • 35% of teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland said that they would “definitely” not be working in education by 2026
  • 66% of teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland said the status of the profession has got worse and blamed government for failing to listen to or value teachers [NEU survey]

The ‘catch-up’ narrative piles even more pressure on educators at a crucial time. Measures such as longer school days and shorter holidays will only serve to drive yet more experienced educators out of the profession – at a time when many of our children and young people desperately need them to support their emotional recovery.

Conclusion

The pandemic has undoubtedly affected education, and in some cases will have disrupted academic progress. However, to focus on academic ‘catch-up’ in the way that governments in the U.K. and some other countries are doing, and to overlook the traumatic emotional impacts of the pandemic in a bid to get back to ‘business as usual’ will fail to address the broader issues at stake for real recovery to happen.

Pressure to ‘catch-up’ is likely to manifest as even higher levels of mental illness among children and young people, inhibiting their life outcomes into adulthood. Many school leaders are well aware of this situation, and now face a choice between acquiescing to the notion of academic ‘catch-up’ or instead resisting this pressure from government.

In the words of my colleague, Darryl Christie, a psychotherapist in adolescent mental health: “If children and adolescents can learn how to manage their mental health, the rest is easy.”

Ava Shabnum Hasan is the Founder of Mentally Well Schools. An LSE graduate, and former SENDCo and Senior Leader, she worked in schools in the U.K. and internationally from 2001 to 2019, including Harrow International School Bangkok. As a former SENDCo with expertise in mental health, she now works with a leading Psychotherapist specialising in adolescent and adult mental health. They offer free resources, evidence-informed programmes and CPD to improve children’s mental health and staff wellbeing.

Find out more at: http://www.mentallywellschools.co.uk

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