Those of us following the discussion around education in the time of Covid are beginning to notice that many view education as a race. Ideas such as ‘lost’, ‘behind’, ‘catch up’, ‘accelerate’ and ‘fast track’ conjure up images of children competing against each other to reach a pre-defined learning ‘finish line’.

If education is a race, then it’s not hard to see how so many are disadvantaged before they’ve even left the starting block. These children have further to go, and a more circuitous running track to follow. They need to work harder and longer than their peers to have a hope of reaching that finish line.

How must it feel for a child with special educational needs, or a history of trauma, or a background of disadvantage, to see the race apparently end and others triumphantly lift their trophies while they are still running their hearts out with the finish line on the distant horizon?

To stretch the metaphor possibly beyond its breaking point, if we are to see education as a race, then at least let’s acknowledge that it’s a marathon, and not a sprint. More than that, it’s a marathon with many routes and no finish line.

Last year, despite the devastating impact of Covid-19, there were 1.7 million adults participating in government-funded further education and skills training in England alone. In a normal year, there might be more than 2 million. In 2017-18, 59% of students at UK higher education settings were aged over 21.

How many of you reading this have acquired new learning and skills long after you left school? How many have retrained to advance or change your employment? How many have learned new hobbies, interests and activities in adulthood? Education and, in the widest sense, learning, truly is lifelong.

Covid-19 has disrupted the education of children across the nation and, if we focus only on reaching arbitrary ‘finish lines’ at 16, 18 or 21, then this does look like a looming disaster. In a child’s short life, a year’s delay may seem insurmountable.

Yet in the fullness of a person’s lifespan, will mastering times tables next year instead of this year really put their whole education and future career future in jeopardy? Only if we collectively decide that your level of achievement at 16 or 18 is the only thing that matters.

So, in the wake of Covid-19, let’s collectively decide to do things differently. Let’s keep expectations high, but acknowledge that some may need more time, space and support to reach those expectations. Let’s recognise that different people excel in different things and choose to value what can’t be easily measured, as well as what can. Let’s create an environment where learning is about setting personal bests rather than breaking world records.

Most importantly, let us show children and young people that learning, education and personal growth is not a competition, has no cut-off point, can occur anywhere at any time, and has value and worth beyond league tables, results and statistics. The marathon of lifelong learning is not always easy, but it can accommodate many false starts, diversions, and changes of pace, and is rewarding and enriching beyond measure.

Author: Rebecca Brooks, AUK Education Policy Advisor