Dear Nadhim Zahawi, children need to express grief about Covid as well as to ‘catch up’

I had a conversation with a teacher the other day. She asked me what she and other teachers could do to help children with the trauma of the pandemic. This pulled me up sharp. She explained that the children in her class had been deeply affected by what has happened over the last 18 months. She thought some of them were troubled, at times distressed, and that this was showing up in the way they were behaving towards each other.

She wasn’t talking about whether the children were “behind” at school. This was about that very unfashionable idea “the whole child” – not the tested and measured child, evaluated purely on the basis of their performance in tasks set by people in offices far away.

When we see children in a school playground or in a park, it’s easy to imagine that the past year and a half has washed over them. They run about, whooping and laughing. This teacher made me think about what might be going on under the surface.

Let’s ask ourselves some hard questions: how many school-age children have had direct experience of losing a sibling, a parent, a grandparent, a close relative or carer? How many children are close friends with a child who has had that experience? How many schoolchildren have had direct experience of people suffering the long-term effects of Covid? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand? More? I ask myself and you: do we think that the effect of this can be ignored? We are, after all, talking about the psychological impact of widespread bereavement.

I’ll be honest: I hadn’t thought of this before. Mea culpa, I guess I’ve been a bit obsessed with using poetry for myself as a way of dealing with Covid and indeed with how your government has – or has not – dealt with it. I felt guilty that I hadn’t thought about children.

It threw me back to thinking about the school-age child I have. What effect did it have on him that for several weeks, day after day, he didn’t know whether he would wake up in the morning to hear that his dad had died? I can tell you, to have a conversation about such things with your own teenage son is not easy.

One reason why we’re not talking about this stems perhaps from the media burble about Covid being a mostly mild illness for children. Somehow this has led us to imagine that what’s going on in children’s minds must be mild, too. And more: the landscape of loss and grief is obscured by happy talk about vaccinations, along with people in parts of the media constantly referring to “getting back to normality” – one sign of which is, after all, being in school. Are we in normality now? Popping up on my Twitter feed are accounts of many children being off school.

What I’m talking about here is something that is both personal and social. It’s very easy to shunt personal problems off into the private sphere as if they are a matter for the individual or a matter of “personal choice”. With a pandemic, it becomes very clear – albeit hardly talked about – that there is social trauma going on. So loss might be felt personally and privately but the experience is translated and mediated again and again through the talk in families, between friends, and in the mass media chat. It can be translated by silence when that talk doesn’t even take place, in which case children are left on their own to try to process what has happened.

What do five-, six-, seven- or eight-year-olds make of the idea of a virus? We’ve been asking young children to understand that someone can have the virus but then not show any outward signs of it. And yet, people you know and perhaps love, die of it. Trying to explain it can make it sound like evil magic: it can get into your cells, it can spread and multiply but it’s not actually alive. It can hang about in the air. You can breathe it in but you can’t see, hear, taste, smell or touch it. We’re expecting children to understand all this. Or to put it another way, we’re expecting children to deal with it, handle it and carry on in life and school while they’re being asked to “catch up”.

The reason why this subject cropped up in my conversation with the teacher is because we had been talking about poetry. She knew I had written poems for children about the death of my son and the persecution and murder of my relatives in the Holocaust, so it was fair enough that she should ask me about what teachers could do about the trauma of the pandemic. Might poetry help?

Reflecting on what the teacher had said, I imagined some kind, neutral, safe forum in which children and young people could share what they thought about what had happened to them and their relatives. More than that: they could talk about their general fears, panics and imagined scenarios about what might happen next or in five years’ time, and so on. I conjured up a situation in which children wrote down words or phrases on bits of paper, handed them in to be jumbled up so that anonymity could be preserved. Then the teacher (or convenor) could read some out and children could talk about what they had just heard in pairs or in groups or in circle-time. There’s a problem with this, though, which the teacher pointed out to me: is there time in the curriculum?

This brought something into sharp focus. Your predecessor, Michael Gove, altered education in England so that it now pursues what he and others called the “knowledge-rich curriculum”. One casualty of this has been the arts. The arts have been squeezed in two ways: knowledge about the arts has been favoured over practising the arts, while the number of school hours actually spent on the arts as a whole has shrunk. But the arts are precisely the kind of arena that gives us the space to explore and reflect on matters like personal and social trauma. The arts point to possibilities of finding ways of coping or overcoming difficulty and distress.

So let me put the question to you: if the curriculum is too busy to notice what’s happened to children, what are we going to do about it?

Yours, Michael Rosen

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