A Recently, at a university meeting, my friends and I cornered the dean in charge of pastoral care and tried to get him to tell us how much cooler we are than the students these days. We heard that they didn’t have sex, didn’t do drugs, never went out, spent all day in the library and all night applying for internships at accounting firms. We must have been so hard to control, we said smugly, smugly. Probably, his life is easier now.
“Actually, you were all very nice,” he said crushingly. The real challenge was the new crop of the first years. In fact, they were more difficult to control than any group he had encountered before; it all started with horrible bullying and then it got worse. The problem, he said, was that they were immature: he had to treat them more like 16-year-olds than the 18- and 19-year-olds they were.
And the reason was obvious. They missed a key developmental stage – the maturity spurt that occurs in the sixth grade. Instead of socializing with their peers, they often shut themselves up at home.
What damage did two years of intermittent closure do to young people? We don’t have the full picture yet, but increasingly anecdotally (a teacher friend tells me his third year is less confident and less academically advanced than previous years), we can now add data. Sat results are one of the most reliable indicators of how a group is performing, and a surprising statistic emerged on Tuesday. The proportion of 11-year-olds achieving expected standards in reading, writing and maths in England fell to 59% in 2022, down from 65% in 2019. This is a big drop.
Then there are the very young. During the pandemic, parents were horrified about having to tell their kids to stay away from others and not hug their friends. In May, a study published by the Education Foundation claimed that the lockdown had affected England’s youngest children worst of all. Four- and five-year-old children walked to school far behind, biting and hitting, surrounded by large groups of other children and unable to settle down and learn.
Perhaps it was necessary, but it must be admitted. From 2020 to 2021, we conducted a mass experiment on young people. There is perhaps one point of comparison in recent history: the evacuation of World War II. But here is the opposite experiment. In 1939, children were exiled from their parents. Over the past two years, they have been silenced.
Colin Blakemore died last week. The famous neurobiologist is remembered, in particular, for his work on the importance of “critical periods” in development. He found that if a baby’s vision is poor during a critical period after birth, the brain will never be able to see properly, even if the eye problems are corrected. This theme resonates in developmental science. The younger you are, the more important what happens to you.
When the former evacuees were 60-70 years old, a study of their mental health was conducted. Those who were the youngest when they were sent (between the ages of four and six, for example) suffered the worst consequences. Will today’s four- and six-year-olds have problems when they are 70? We need to make it more likely that they will.
In the 1990s. scientists from the University of Wisconsin conducted several interesting experiments on baby monkeys. One group was separated from its mother at birth and raised in a “nursery” with other monkeys for five months. (Perhaps we could call this the “evacuees” group.) Another group was to stay with their mothers, but each mother-child pair was isolated. This “closure” group did not see other monkeys for five months.
At the end of the period, the researchers found something interesting (although the study was perhaps too small to be definitive). Evacuated motherless monkeys did not fare worse than correctional monkeys that had access only to their mothers. They had similar behavioral problems. The evacuee monkeys were hyperactive, but the confined monkeys were exceptionally clingy and had a delay in social development.
Surprisingly, the national conversation seems to have largely moved on from worrying about the effects of quarantine on young people. Maybe we don’t want to think about it. In the midst of the pandemic, it was a topic of national conversation.
It is rarely mentioned now, despite the apparent lack of government action on the matter. Last month, the commissioner for the recovery of education in England resigned through a lack of “reliable” catch-up funding. The analytical center calculated the latest budget commitments of the government we will spend £310 per pupil compared to £1,600 in America and £2,500 in the Netherlands.
Or maybe we forgot. Lockdown Britain had all the aesthetics of fictional dystopias of great powers – empty city squares, mass testing centers, tapes around park benches, neighbors pulling curtains who would like to report you to the police. It was easy to see then that something bad and lasting could happen to all of us. But the otherworldly, futuristic atmosphere disappeared when the infections disappeared – and life mostly returned to normal.
But we must remember what we have done. Keeping a generation of children away from their classrooms and friends was unnatural and harmful because was unnatural and harmful. We should at least be collecting a lot more data on this than we seem to be doing. After all, we did an experiment. Now we have to worry about the results.