Covid-19 makes mentoring vital to help discuss young people's futures

Covid-19 makes mentoring vital to help discuss young people's futures

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Sunday 31, January, 2021

YOUNG PEOPLE face more than enough challenges these days without also having to cope with Covid-19. The pandemic has shattered their world in so many different ways principally by reducing or, in some cases, removing altogether, the trusted relationships they have built up at school and by diminishing their educational experiences.

On a recent Zoom call with Jim McColl and 100 other leaders in Scottish education we were rightly reminded that school does not constitute education. How true that is and I will come back to this point later. Nonetheless, school is a crucial part of the educational experience most especially when it comes to learning to read, write and count. Any good teacher will tell you just how important these basics are and why the successful learning of them largely depends on the strong bonds and relationships which first develop in nursery and primary school, including when assisted by play-based learning. 

Just now, so much of this learning of the basics is having to be done online and by parents who will be very quick to tell you they are not trained to do the school job properly. How can you expect the attention span of little ones to be sufficient to concentrate on a screen for any length of time and to be able to engage with someone they barely know in a face to face setting?  Of course they can play online games with their friends, have online parties and have some fun times but the crucial day to day social and physical interaction in the classroom and in the playground is currently lost.

Further up the school, in the years when youngsters are leaving behind childhood and approaching adulthood, the pandemic is even more tough. This is a time in their lives when so many new opportunities usually open up, both in terms of new subject choices and the opportunities afforded by the world of work, college and university. It’s also when they first encounter the challenges of critical thinking and debate and learn the values of tolerance and respect and just how much they can achieve through the richness of extra-curricular activity. Now, however, their sport, their music, their drama and all the other clubs and societies they might attend have all been put on hold. To be sure, some schools have done wonders to keep things going online but however good they have been, it’s just not the same. Nor is it the same for the teachers. Their job has changed beyond all recognition and whilst I think the vast majority of teachers have done a wonderful job to keep things as normal as possible, many of them are struggling with many of the same problems as the young people they teach. 

The individual on the Zoom call who pointed out that school and education are not the same thing said he felt the greatest sympathy for those youngsters who, before the pandemic, had become disengaged at school but who had just found something special within another setting. At Newlands Junior College for example, Jim McColl has done a wonderful job with these youngsters who had not only found new skills but also, new confidence and self-esteem. Yet, one part of that educational experience in which he clearly places so much faith, namely residential outdoor education, doesn’t exist just now. At the very time when his young people were discovering new meaning in life Covid19 has pushed them away again.

We all know what the Zoom age has done to communication. For all the wonders of digital technology (can you imagine what the pandemic would have been like without it?), there is also a huge downside and that is the increasing dependence on social media and all the pressures that brings. Just last week, in a very interesting but nonetheless very stark report, the Princes Trust revealed the true extent of the pandemic when it comes to social media and mental health. Indeed, it warned that 1-in-6 youngsters is now confronted with a serious mental health problem (instead of 1-in-9 just a short time ago) and that is not to say that the other 5-in-6 are free from serious worries about their future. Their increased isolation, the greater tensions in family life as parents struggle to become teachers as well as loving mothers and fathers and chief cooks and bottle-washers, and the fragility of their ability to meet their friends other than on their iPhone, is doing huge damage and it is widening the already large gaps between rich and poor.

So what must happen?

Certainly, several helpful measures have been put in place. For example, ensuring there is far more educational digital technology available for young people stuck at home, especially in those homes where buying an iPad or iPhone is too big an ask; the online homework apps and tips for staying fit; the promise of more concise exam papers which will streamline the qualifications for the duration of the pandemic; and the abolition of ridiculous algorithms which bore no relation to teacher judgment.  

But if I am listening correctly to teenagers, they are crying out for one more really important thing; that they can be allowed to choose a teacher in their school in whom they have the greatest trust and who will be their personal mentor throughout this pandemic. They want someone special who they know will listen to them and help them address their anxieties- someone to whom they can regularly turn for assistance and advice as well as for online learning.

All good heads I have known – and I have known more than a few in many different types of schools – have placed the critical role of personal guidance at the centre of their school. Today that is even more important than ever as we try to tackle their feeling of isolation amongst our younger generation.

I know only too well that none of this is easy, but if we are to help the younger Covid19 generation to have more hope we need to be on their side. And they need to know we are.

Liz Smith is a former teacher and Conservative & Unionist member of the Scottish Parliament since 2007.

Photograph of mentoring by insta_photos from Adobe Stock


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