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How pandemic closures prompted children to change their perspectives about school

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 March 2022

Denise Buchanan.

How have pandemic-related school closures affected the well-being of children? Some research evidence has emerged, but few educational studies have included face-to-face interviews with children, such as ours has. Our ‘Children’s Life Histories in Primary Schools’ involved 63 interviews with 23 children considered to be ‘lower-attaining’, when they were aged 9-10, concerning their experiences of school closures.

Not surprisingly, the children’s testimonies showed that their wellbeing was diminished by the closure of schools, as it had hindered their opportunities to play, socialise and learn, leading to feelings of sadness, loneliness and boredom. But extended school closures also made them realise what they were missing by not being at school.

These children were already part of an ongoing five-year study and so we were able to gain a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture as the pandemic began in the third year of this project.  Eliciting these views was particularly important given that our children were recruited due to their struggles with literacy and/or numeracy which previously has been found to negatively influence their school experiences. More than half were from socially disadvantaged families.

Alvin (all names have been changed), drew a picture of how he spent much of his time on his top bunk with his grandma sleeping below him, and thinking: I was sad … I miss school. School is my second home’.

Similarly, Eleanor said: ‘There wasn’t much stuff to do at home. We had nothing to play with’ and even Ryan who had managed to make some short, very funny films during the school closures, said:

I was really bored, and I didn’t have a big imagination in lockdown…and I was grumpy in general because I couldn’t see anyone. 

The children also missed their ‘normal’ classes, not least because they were unable to get enough help during online classes from their peers or teachers, as explained by Britney:

You got no help because if you asked for help, they wouldn’t come and help you, so you still wouldn’t understand.

However, one surprising finding was that as a result of the school closures the children’s perspectives on schooling had altered.  For instance, Neymar, who in a pre-pandemic interview had said that he ‘hated school’ and felt when coming into school that his life was ‘getting worser’, changed his views post-closures:

At first, I was so happy about being off school, then I kept begging my mum ‘I want to go to school’, because I got bored’. 

It appeared that the children had missed belonging to something bigger than themselves, in a setting that offered socialisation, structure and purpose, and this new appreciation applied to all of the children regardless of their home circumstances.  When asked if this changed thinking was mainly because they had missed the social aspects of school, the children said no. Rather Zack said: ‘Because going to school helps you learn to grow up… how to make life choices’ and Saffa said: ‘I think education is for your benefit and having a good life’.

Yet, these findings appeared to contradict our previous work. This had revealed that schooling itself had led our lower-attaining children to experience many negative feelings around education such as fears of failure, rejection and embarrassment.  Nonetheless, our work shows that schools do have the potential to play a hugely beneficial role in the lives of children, even for those deemed ‘lower-attaining’. We would argue this is because school at its best, can offer children opportunities beyond academic learning, such as belonging to a community that is much bigger than themselves and their families, opportunities to socialise and engage in purposive activities.

How then can school maximise such potential benefits and minimise the negative aspects?  By radically re-thinking schooling-as-normal. This would involve overhauling the present testing and inspection regimes, in order to lessen the pressure on teachers to teach-to-the-test, expand the curriculum and so allow children more freedom, to benefit from the wider opportunities of being part of a school community.

Let’s hope that these unique insights that the absence-of-schooling-as-normal has given us are not wasted.

Children’s Life Histories in Primary Schools project: Denise Buchanan, Eleanore Hargreaves and Laura Quick



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