By John O’Neill

SOMETHING is happening in the playground: children are learning to play again. Isolated from friends when school life was under lockdown, Covid left more than lost learning and an impact on mental health in its wake.

At the start of this session, teachers observed a socialisation gap affecting children when it came to being among peers and expressing themselves. By being physically in school, children learn how to socialise with one another, to take their turn, to share, to read others’ intentions, to learn the rules of games, to be a good citizen. Disruption to normal schooling meant many missed out on opportunities to flex these muscles. For example, many Primary 1s starting school for the first time found it tricky to play together, even the simple pursuit of Tig, reflecting a loss in socialisation skills fostered in nursery.

Meanwhile, other year groups which call upon levels of social interaction and personal confidence have likewise been dented by the loss of the socialising norms which punctuate a normal school year and provide the framework to help young people forge a sense of self. It’s clear that the fragmentation of school life since March 2020 is having a ripple effect on personal development.

My 35-plus years in education time and again reminds me that school is not a rehearsal for life, it is life. In social development terms, it is not a time which can simply be regained. Learning cognitive content and skills disrupted by Covid can be caught up on, but punctures to the socialisation experience provide a different type of challenge to retro-engineer.

We urgently need to recognise that school is more than a classroom, it is first and foremost a community, a social experience. It involves interactions between pupils and teachers and amongst pupils across year groups. The social make-up of a school is vital as a good school is not built on academic results, it is built on community and ethos. Get this right and you create the best possible environment for learning. Happy, confident, empowered pupils have the resilience and drive to perform well and meet challenges head on.

Central to this, school milestones that create lasting memories are key: from trips away, to school dances and productions. And yet, these have been missed by many. These seminal moments are the ones that jump out when a school career is reflected on. These are the highlights that make school memorable, bringing pupils closer together as they share new experiences and create connections.

It’s a different kind of loss, a social development loss, and we need to recognise this and give schools more opportunity to address it when guidance on mitigations and what is possible is being crafted. Recovering from this socialisation crisis will happen quicker if more trust is placed in schools to look for opportunities to reinstate milestones with the right mitigations. By increasing the autonomy of schools to make these calls, the way forward will become clearer as one size doesn’t fit all.

John O’Neill is Rector of The High School of Glasgow