Let's equip young people for a new now

Chris Simes

Chris Simes is Managing Director of Collingwood Learning, a creative educational company that work with young people and adults on social and developmental issues. The Smashed Project (smashedproject.org) is an alcohol education project that is live in 25 countries worldwide and has reached 900,000 young people. Real Safeguarding Stories (realsafeguardingstories.com) is a tool for professionals to deliver safeguarding training across the UK. Collingwood Learning won Education Exporter of the Year at the ERA Awards 2020, and the Best Partnership Category at the LGC Awards 2019.

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My Grandma was becoming a teenager at the start of the second world war. Now in her nineties and ensconced in a lovely care home in South Devon she plays the role of an aging matriarch from an Agatha Christie novel to a tee. With several biblical resurrections to her name I am beginning to wonder whether she will outlive me, let alone the generation between us. 

But the brain is softening and the mind wanders. She finds recent events hard to pin down, but childhood memories of the war flood back with full clarity. The planes flying over her rural Sussex village towards London, and the fear that they might drop their remaining bombs on their way back from the latest blitz on the capital. The men going to war, the family losses, the lifestyle changes. More surprising to a Grandson are the later teenage accounts involving the romance with the Canadian airman. But that is between us, and anyone else she has told. 

This article is not intended to trot out clichéd comparisons with our current pandemic using language around being at war. The Coronavirus experience is altogether different. But there are some lessons we can learn for young people’s sake. Coronavirus is here to stay for a while. Teenagers, whether in lockdown or not, will live under its shadow for years to come. Their normal routine has been disrupted and will continue to be. Certainties around their social life, interests and futures have been thrown out of whack. Parents are watching the news every night and worrying about jobs, money, relatives, and friends. The prism of social media provides an equal dose of isolation and envy as well as much needed connection. 

The teachers we work with are working their socks off to support vulnerable young people – those with challenging family backgrounds, or simply lacking online access. But aren’t all young people vulnerable right now? For many teenagers, the rainbow making is probably a bit childish, and pot banging on a Thursday somewhat excruciating. More pressing will be seeing pictures online of the boyfriend you cannot see in person. Why was he allowed to go out? Or the suffocating relationships with family. Or maybe the uncertainty of exams. Of course we care!

The fear of missing out is at an all-time high. Stress at home is at an all-time high. Routine is shattered, future plans are on ice. Fear of the unknown and fear of loss is real. At that crucial point in your life where growing independence leads to new experiences, relationships, and greater self-awareness a menacing portcullis has slammed down in your face. And worse still, you can see through the bars. Options? People with far more experience than me will tell you how this pattern break will cause and heighten insecurities that will manifest in so many behavioural and attitudinal outcomes. 

At that pivotal moment in her life, Grandma’s experiences of the war as a teenager have left an indelible mark. She will never lose those memories and feelings. They have certainly influenced her whole life, from missed educational and career opportunities to how she thought, behaved, and the choices she made. 

The only comparison here is that neither situation is temporary, and its social, economic, and political impact will be long term. How we respond to young people’s needs now, whether as teachers, parents, or as government, may well define the mental and physical health of the next generation. To do this well will take bravery. We as educators need to accept that returning young people to a version of normality is unfair when normality as we experienced it is now a fantasy. Academic achievement needs to be re-prioritised, allowing significantly more focus on creating emotionally resilient, objective, ethically engaged individuals with a toolkit of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that they can use to understand rapid change and adapt to it. 

As statutory PSHE education limps back into the curriculum it will be down to the education community whether to educate young people under an overarching context of emotional health and well-being or whether to simply bolt on a few topical subjects to an already crowded timetable. The appalling rise in domestic violence because of lockdown makes me want every young person to be able to recognise abuse and know what to do about it. An important ambition of course, but it falls well short of developing a social cognition, confidence, and objectivity to make informed choices in a variety of challenging situations. 

This century will be defined by the human race’s relationship with the world around us, and the choices we all make in relation to that will determine if and how we thrive as individuals and as a society. Coronavirus is the perfect cross-curricular case study. We have a golden opportunity to produce young people who through this experience understand how the products they buy, the jobs they might do, and the way they live will influence the transmission of animal based disease to humans in a far flung country. I am sure that Grandma would be equally keen for the next generation to break those cycles of ignorance.

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