According to a survey from the online subject resource Kapow Primary, more than two in three teachers believe the behaviour and conduct of young children in the classroom has noticeably declined since the COVID-19 lockdowns, with pupils ‘more likely to move around the room, complain about being bored and annoy or provoke’ fellow classmates. A total of eighty-four percent of the teachers surveyed also expressed that the children they taught now had attention spans that were ‘shorter than ever.’
Many have received this finding as one of the long-term negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which involved social norms and activities being halted and partially halted by government-enforced lockdowns. This included the complete closure of schools for months at a time and, when central government believed was appropriate, partial re-opening of primary education settings. This included a transformation of normal schooling procedures, including staggered pick-up times, partial social-distancing and confining children to social ‘bubbles’ of fifteen, which meant their ability to interact with those from other ‘bubbles’ was forbidden.
It also meant large periods of attempted home-schooling during periods of lockdown. This meant that, with those that had access to the appropriate settings and technologies, many young children in their formative years were learning basic and fundamental skills primarily through a computerised screen. One primary school teacher from Derbyshire picked up on the issue this has had in their classroom since schools have fully re-opened. They observed that ‘behaviour in class is very different post-COVID. We had to teach the children through a screen during the pandemic but taking the screen away now has had a massive impact.’
Results from the survey will concern those that believe children’s attention spans are being zapped by a constant barrage of seconds long TikTok clips and social media dopamine hits. According to DT Next, the introduction of smartphones to toddlers leads to ‘addiction’ later in their development, which ‘imbalance brain chemistry and changes brain activity.’ The rapid introduction of unsupervised technology usage during lockdowns may be a contributing factor to the reported shortening of attention spans. More than four in five of the teachers surveyed by Kapow Primary believed that the ‘ever-swiping nature of social media’ was having a negative impact on their pupils.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? The direct link between the rising rate of mental health issues in young people and social media usage is well documented. However, as a recent study from Nathaniel Blanco in February 2023 illustrates, ‘immature cognitive control’ and a wandering attention span in young children has an array of benefits that ‘guard against learning traps.’ Read through this lens, wandering attention spans help young people ‘make sense of an uncertain environment’, thereby acting as an indispensable part of the successful journey of a young child’s development. The uncertain social, economic and political environment established since the outbreak of COVID-19 has arguably led to the wandering attention span of young children to be enhanced for them to try and make sense of this contemporary uncertain environment as they return to, and in some cases begin, face-to-face teaching outside of the confines of their home. For many younger children, the height of the pandemic was the only world they knew.
The crisis in primary education is only partially impacted by the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. A cohort of MPs warned that the ‘Covid generation’ will experience a tangible ‘performance gap between disadvantaged pupils and others’ that may take an entire decade to repair. This will undoubtedly be compounded by the cost-of-living crisis that continues to engulf many less well-off families. Coupled with the rising housing costs in expensive cities, the Guardian has reported that more than ninety primary schools in England are set to close because pupil vacancies amount to over two-thirds. Due to funding being allocated on a per-pupil basis, the declining numbers of school places being filled has had a detrimental impact on the quality of education these primary schools can provide. Across England, there are over half a million unfilled primary school places – the highest number since the Great Recession.
Furthermore, education settings continue to be at risk of closure from widespread strike action from teachers demanding pay increases as inflation continues to emaciate wages. A report from The Warwick Business School found that one in three primary schools have no male teachers, and that raising pay and reducing hours would help in the recruitment and retention of male teachers. The report’s author stated that ‘boys from less affluent backgrounds are already the lowest achievers in school’ and that ‘they are the students who would benefit most from a male teacher, but they are less and less likely to have one.’ Almost forty-two percent of the primary schools that are categorised with ‘special measures’ by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) have no male teachers.
The Department for Education has maintained that the government’s ‘approach to tackling behaviour in schools has been to support schools to develop a behaviour culture that works for them, their pupils, and their communities’ alongside providing ‘£10 million behaviour hubs programme’ which will support ‘up to seven hundred schools to improve behaviour.’ Whether this will prove successful in fixing the state of UK primary education in a post-COVID, social media heavy and Artificial Intelligence bound educational environment will be for time to tell.
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