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On the Loose
Sandy Campbell

Kids are resilient after all, or so we told ourselves.


In 2020 we locked them up in solitary confinement and then, when schools reopened, just expected them to bounce back. Kids are resilient after all, or so we told ourselves.

They’ll double down into their studies, we’ll make a few allowances when it comes to the exams, and before we know it it’ll be business as usual. Well, it isn’t.

A tidal wave is making its way through the school system. Next academic year it’s the turn of those children who were supposed to transfer from primary school into secondary school in August 2020. These current S3 pupils (15-year-olds) will be entering potentially their last year at school and could choose to leave when they turn 16.

If they were finding classroom learning difficult before lockdown, they have been struggling with a lot more than academic attainment since. And they are the ones who did return to school after lockdown. Alarming numbers across the school years didn’t.

The charity I founded in Leith 15 years ago, WorkingRite, is on a mission to help young people who didn’t do well at school find employment. (We now have projects in Glasgow, Ayrshire, Argyll, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.) On the stroke of lockdown we had 60 teenagers on our programme.

We maintained contact with them all via Zoom and old- fashioned phone calls. Three attempted suicide, thankfully unsuccessfully, but it was a close shave with one of them. We heard what all of them were living with, imprisoned behind their front doors. We set them work to keep their minds active and gave each of them time to express what they needed to. Now, two years on, nearly all of them are a shadow of their former selves. They may have grown older chronologically, but emotionally and mentally the maturation process seems to have stalled.

During this time, we also launched a new version of our programme for those in their last year of school. We called it Rite to Work. When we emerged from lockdown, the schools were giving us names of pupils who were not only disengaged from lessons, they were on the school roll in name only. They simply hadn’t come back.

A new term has entered the education lexicon: ‘ghost children’. These are the children who never returned after the schools reopened, prompting headlines like this from the Safeguarding and Child Protection Association: ‘The tragedy of Covid’s 100,000 ‘ghost children’ will make those who demanded never-ending lockdowns hang their privileged heads in shame’.

Privileged and shameful? In my view, it is indeed shameful if society’s elders put the safety and life chances of their own generation before their obligation to the young. Whether we have children of our own or not, I hold to the view that it is our civic duty, as society’s elders, to individually and collectively give our young the best preparation for the challenges of adulthood that is within our powers. Animals know this instinctively; what’s happened to homo-sapiens?

It wasn’t always like this. Some native American tribes required that the tribal council consider the impact of every decision on the next seven generations. Thinking about the ones we are living with right now would be a start.

Sure, we are all now focused on climate change and whether there will even be a world for future generations to live in, and that’s as it should be. But it is possible for two things to be important at the same time. How we fulfil our generational obligation to our young should be just as important. We certainly owe them a viable world to inherit, but are we not equally obliged to bolster their chances of successfully negotiating the ups and downs of adulthood?

Lockdown wasn’t a malicious plot. The world was understandably in panic mode at the time. We didn’t know what this covid thing was capable of. But I feel that other factors crept into our decisions that betrayed the older generations’ disconnect from the needs of the young.

One of these factors is society’s understanding of the purpose of schools. We all know, if we make the effort to remember, that schools are about much more than qualifications. Pupils of secondary school age are going through the biggest changes in their bodies and brains of their lifetimes. Everything seems to be in a state of flux and for some, lessons are a backdrop to all the other stuff that feels at the time to be much more compelling at that age.

As one 16 year old told me last week, “School for me was only about seeing my mates. I wasn’t bothered with lessons.” He left with no qualifications, but through the trial work placement we arranged with a local engineering company, he lapped up the direction provided by his in-work mentor and has now secured an apprenticeship. He may not have flourished academically, but he has come into his own having learned from old hands in the workplace who knew instinctively how to bring the best out of a bouncy eager teenager who couldn’t sit still in the classroom.

It sometimes seems like we regard schools as a hybrid child-minding service/qualifications-factory. If our kids don’t turn out as we would wish, we blame the teachers. Yet the schools I have met recently are doing stoical work to manage the explosion of complex post-lockdown needs within the limitations of the secondary school system. Anxiety is rife and manifests itself in many guises. The month of May is exam season and any invigilator will tell you about the variety of arrangements schools are putting in place to cope with the diverse exam needs of this dramatically swollen cohort of pupils.

Others blame the parents. This is an equally breath-taking, simplistic and lazy analysis of who is responsible. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a popular truism. How the young turn out is a core responsibility of being an adult, whether they’re your kids or not. Since lockdown ended, I have met too many lone mums living in darkened flats, coming to the door in their dressing gowns mid-afternoon, breaking down in tears over what has happened to their son or daughter. Lockdown not only left a lifetime scar on their children, it left their families in tatters. No social workers, no health visitors, no neighbours to pop in, and only toxic social media for company.

So finally I return to that headline, ‘hang their privileged heads in shame’. I would guess that most of those in positions of power on lockdown decisions, whether they were politicians, public servants or acclaimed experts, were disproportionally over 50 – and probably still are. These decision makers, born in the 50’s and 60’s, belong to what is known as the post-war ‘baby boomers generation’. This was a unique generation because of its sheer size.

The maths, and therefore the consequences, are alarming. In the baby boomer years the UK birth rate was nearly a million each year over this period. That is nearly double the birth rate in the 70’s and 80’s. After a modest rise in the 90’s, it dipped again after the millennium. So what is the relevance of these statistics for the piled-up disadvantages of the young today?

The argument goes that because of the magnitude of that baby boomer generation, and the opportunities that became available to them in the post-war rebuild, when they came of age, they shaped society after their own needs. No surprise then that when we were hit by a worldwide plague-panic they continued to prioritise their generation’s needs over those of the young.

Baby boomers now own four-fifths of the UK’s wealth - 25% of pensioners are now millionaires in terms of their assets. They, in their turn, will bequeath their wealth to their children, and the gulf between rich and poor will exponentially widen with every subsequent generation. Add to this the legacy of the carnage inflicted on the working class in the 80’s who missed out on the windfall of post-war opportunities, is it any wonder that the future is looking bleak for their grandchildren?

So unless these elderly baby boomers, and their offspring who will reap the rewards of their booty, act individually and collectively to fulfil their duty to society’s future generations, they will go down in history as not only the most privileged generation the world has ever seen, but the most selfish. ■


A girl on placement at Mimi’s Bakehouse and Craig, formerly of Leith Academy, with Keith from Leith Plastering


How we fulfil our
generational obligation to our young should be as important as climate change


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