Students aren't failing, they're caring

Students aren't failing, they're caring

Students aren't failing, they're caring

by Caroline Hunt

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Last week, an article in the Times claimed that two thirds of students were “failing to participate” in online classes. However, while the figure may be accurate (with research from the Sutton Trust suggesting that only 34% of children have taken part in live or recorded online classes), the sentiment is not.

This idea that students are ‘failing’ to participate gives the impression of a stereotypical disengaged teenager lying in bed, refusing to work while their teachers sit patiently at their screens waiting for them to attend their lessons. But this assumption is not only wrong, it’s an example of the precise cultural tendency to overlook and undervalue caring responsibilities that has arguably so reduced the UK’s ability to cope with this pandemic.

Long before coronavirus hit the UK, a whopping one in five secondary-school age children acted as a carer for a sick or disabled relative. Nearly a third of those children took responsibility for high-level caring and for a large number, their school attendance and educational attainment were affected even during ‘normal’ times. Now imagine what life is like for those children under lockdown, attempting to care for their vulnerable relatives under extremely difficult circumstances and with their usual extended support networks restricted.

Meanwhile, lockdown will mean that many students (especially those who are the children of key workers or single parents trying to work from home) must take on new caring responsibilities for siblings or dependent relatives. As ever, these responsibilities will not be spread evenly among the population but will disproportionately affect those families at the sharp end of intersecting inequalities - whose children were already likely to be the most disadvantaged when it came to their education. 

These students are also less likely to have access to the resources they need to join online lessons, such as an internet connection and enough computers for each child in the house. But while the government has announced plans for some deprived students to have access to laptops on loan and calls are currently underway for a “catch up premium” to prevent poorer children from falling behind when schools return, the more hidden issue of care is yet to be addressed.

Care has always been a deeply gendered issue. Even at a young age, girls are already more likely to have caring responsibilities than boys. Meanwhile 90% of single parents in the UK are women, as are over three quarters of NHS staff, 82 percent of care workers and the majority of unpaid carers. It is their children who are likely to be most affected by the spillover of caring requirements as lockdown continues. 

The gendered attitude that care work is something women ‘naturally’ do has been central to the way in which it is undervalued, with the special skills and knowledge it involves routinely overlooked. And that undervaluing, in turn, has led to the depletion of our health and social care systems, leaving us far less able to tackle the crisis we now find ourselves in.

As the coronavirus has swept through the UK we have seen attitudes to care work begin to change. Nurses and carers, both termed ‘low-skilled’ by the government just a few months ago, are now considered key workers. In the longer term it is vital that this change in attitude persists. Nurses and care workers must be better valued and better remunerated. Unpaid carers too, including the many school age children who are now taking on so much, must be given a better deal. 

In the short term, though, let's stop jumping to conclusions about the nation’s teenagers. For a young person to act as a carer, cope with this pandemic and keep up with online classes is quite the ask. Children’s mental health in this country was already in crisis, and many are shouldering responsibilities far beyond their years. Let’s not add to it by blaming students for any ‘failure’ to engage. Like the rest of us, they are doing the best they can.

Caroline Hunt is the Women's Equality Party Spokesperson for Equal Education. 

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