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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

The pandemic, pupils and prejudice – Has COVID led to less empathy?

The pandemic hasn’t just affected children’s emotional development, observes HOPE not hate’s Owen Jones – it’s also made it harder for them to overcome prejudice and relate to others

Owen Jones
by Owen Jones
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HOPE not hate’s Education Unit was launched in 2016, and has since supported nearly 90,000 students across the UK. The vast majority of our work in schools involves teaching pupils about prejudice and discrimination.

We’ll go through the psychology of these topics and then, most importantly, examine their social impact. In order to understand the consequences of structural prejudices, such as racism, sexism, ableism and so forth, it’s vital that students are able to develop a certain degree of empathic understanding with other groups in society.

The classes we offer are there to provide essential tools for children when it comes to understanding prejudice and discrimination.

Although we are not born with prejudice, we are to an extent hardwired to lean into prejudicial behaviours. What’s crucial is that we can learn to control such impulses. Prejudice should be seen in a similar way to anger – something inherent in us all, but which we can learn to contain.

Emotional intelligence

Many young people in the schools we visit lack the experiences and opportunities that individuals in more affluent and more urban parts of the country take for granted. As a result, the comments they come out with could be seen as intolerant, when it’s often the case that they’re actually just displaying ignorance, or fear of the unknown.

Lockdown has affected our experiences of supporting children. Following our educators’ return to classrooms up and down the country in May 2021, they’ve been finding that lockdown has changed young people’s interactions at school in many different ways.

We’ve all heard troubling reports of the increased levels of anxiety among returning students, as well as the growing inequalities between those pupils who had a laptop and a quiet space to study in at home, and those without access to such amenities, as well as the pressing need to catch up on missed learning.

What we’re hearing less about, however, is the regression in emotional intelligence pupils are presenting, especially those in KS3.

Struggling to cope

Whenever I arrive at a school, there’s always the smalltalk as I’m led from reception to my assigned classroom, usually consisting of questions that tend to follow a pattern. ‘How was your journey?’ ‘Do you visit many schools?

I have to admit to not being the biggest fan of smalltalk. I usually offer cursory responses – ‘My journey was uneventful…’ ‘I visit around a hundred schools a year,’ – since I know no one’s actually that interested in the answers. They just fill the time as we walk.

More recently, however, I’ve started to kick off these conversations with, ‘How have the pupils been, post-lockdown?’ In asking this question, I’ve noticed something interesting. Teachers have often given very similar responses, telling me that they’re experiencing a noticeable regression in the emotional development of KS3 pupils, and Y8s in particular.

This mirrors what myself and the wider HOPE not hate Education Team have been seeing on a daily basis in classrooms nationwide. The reality is that many pupils right now are struggling to cope with what the education system expects of them. A significant number simply aren’t yet ready for the day-to-day realities of secondary school.

By that, I don’t mean their ability to cope with the academic content of the school day, but more the environment that surrounds the academia.

Storming out

It’s become increasingly common for teachers to find themselves before students who, given their age, one might normally expect to be behaving as young adults, but who instead exhibit behaviours more akin to primary-age children. For example, we’ve noticed instances of students taking teddy bears to class and seeing their teachers as parental figures.

Over the past two years, the majority of students in the country spent months separated from their normal school lives. Having spent so much time talking mostly to friends and family, they’ve had fewer opportunities to develop and retain the ability to interact with people they don’t like, or who hold different views to them.

For the first time, we’re seeing students storm out of classrooms not over an actual argument, but because of someone disagreeing with an answer they’ve given. Since the lessons we deliver typically involve discussion of sensitive issues, this has added yet another layer of complexity.

One problem we’ve always encountered, however, is that our message of respect and openness can sometimes go against prejudiced and discriminatory narratives that students have been fed at home since they were born.

This is hard to break, since it’s never easy to confront the possibility that your parents might have got things wrong.With the current KS3 cohort having missed out on a crucial period of their emotional development, though, these types of challenges have become even more severe.

For me, the changes we’ve seen in how children respond to being taught about prejudice and discrimination shows just how important Y6 really is. This is the year when pupils get to be heads of their schools, are expected to set examples for peers in lower year groups and get to experience transition programmes before entering secondary school. Our current Y8s are the cohort that will have missed out on all this the most, and it’s showing in how class after class have struggled to engage with the material we’re delivering.

Barriers to entry

A regression in emotional development makes the process of broadening children’s horizons and understanding that much harder, thus complicating the process of challenging racism and discrimination in remote areas of the UK.

These observations aren’t unique to HOPE not hate. Without exception, every school we work with has reported experiencing similar issues around children’s delayed emotional development and social skills. Yes, it’s vital that pupils regain the ground lost on their academic progress – but without addressing the skills they currently lack in coping with day-to-day school life, we’re making an already difficult process even harder.

The question now is how we tackle the fact that children who were already facing barriers to entry when learning about prejudice and discrimination, are now faced with a double whammy of having also missed out on the crucial emotional development normally provided by their classrooms.

Most charities in our sector will use deprivation indexes and the like when deciding which parts of the country to target. At HOPE not hate, we’re lucky to have an outstanding research team that provides us with data to help track those areas most vulnerable to racist ideologies. But the pandemic, with the fresh set of problems it has presented, means we now need to see action on a widespread scale, across the country.

We believe it’s time for a national conversation on the issue, before these habits become ingrained into the characters of a generation.

Owen Jones is director of education and training at HOPE not hate; for more information, visit hopenothate.org.uk or follow @HNHeducation

Anti-prejudice in practice

Teachers can download the following HOPE not hate resources from Teachwire’s online resource collection:

Come dine with me A lesson with accompanying slides and handout that explores stereotyping, both positive and negative, and the impact it can have.

Harmful Language A lesson with accompanying slides and handout designed to help students better understand how the words and phrases we use can affect those around us in unforeseen ways, and the harms that can be wrought by discriminatory language – even ‘low-level’ examples.

Who’s missing? Set of 10 slides to support a 20-minute whole class exercise intended to get students thinking about representation and diversity in relation to national demographics, institutions and where the power to shape society resides.

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