Corinne Card still remembers watching her son Harry standing in the garden by himself, trying to follow football training over Zoom. “It was such a sad sight,” says Corinne, from Brighton. “All his usual football training had stopped because of lockdown and he was really missing it – football was his whole life.”
Corinne’s two older children, Harry and Zoe, were nine and six when the Covid pandemic began, and when they returned to school, she realised they had been affected in different ways.
“Harry was having trouble sleeping, suffering with repetitive thoughts, which I think was linked to anxiety,” she explains. “And he really struggled with sitting down in class once school reopened. For Zoe, she had issues with friendships and for a brief period she was mean to one of her friends. It was very out of character and I think it was because she’d had such limited contact with other children.”
Since the pandemic, teachers up and down the country are only too familiar with the relatively minor issues that Harry and Zoe experienced. More than two in three teachers say pupils’ behaviour has declined since the pandemic, and a 2022 study found that 86 per cent of school leaders had seen an increase in low self-esteem and 76 per cent had seen an increase in depression among their pupils.
Dr Timothy Cook is the headteacher of Liskeard Hillfort Primary School in Cornwall, and he and his team continue to deal with the fallout from Covid, particularly when it comes to attendance and children’s social development.
“We’ve seen that children are less emotionally developed than we would have expected them to be – for example, we’re seeing behaviours in year six that we would have previously expected in year four,” explains Cook. “We’ve had to do much more around friendship building and ensuring children can interact with one another and take turns. And it’s the same further up the school, where we have older children struggling to play nicely.”
While for some children the Covid lockdowns meant more time with family, and the chance to experience remote learning at the kitchen table with mum or dad, for others it was a devastating loss of structure, safety and socialisation. Repeated studies have shown that children who were already disadvantaged fared worse, and the Department for Education believes it could take more than a decade to correct the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.
Navit Schechter is a CBT therapist who specialises in working with families. She’s seen a 10-fold rise in child referrals since the pandemic and a major increase in children suffering with anxiety and low self-esteem. “We know that the interactions we have as we grow up influence how our brain develops. That crucial time with peers was taken away and often replaced by being alone on a device, because of home-schooling or because parents had to work and there were no other activities. If you take a child who has been used to getting dopamine fixes from a screen and put them back into normal life, they’re going to struggle with regulating their emotions.”
At Liskeard Hillfort, part of Cook’s strategy for getting children back to where they need to be – forming happy and healthy relationships with adults and children – involves sending around 40 children a year to one of the outdoor centres run by charity Go Beyond. It gives the most disadvantaged children the opportunity to spend time away from home, working in teams and challenging themselves through activities such as abseiling and surfing – all at no cost to their family.
“There are a lot of children who simply won’t have any type of break unless they go on a Go Beyond break,” explains Cook. “In just a few days, the experience of being outdoors, working together, sharing the load and doing physical and demanding challenges brings the children together. Often these are children who might spend the whole weekend sitting indoors, playing on the Xbox, not really doing anything. The difference you see in them is huge.”
Go Beyond is one of the Telegraph’s chosen charities this Christmas, and the money it raises is spent on giving once-in-a-lifetime experiences to children who might otherwise never get to have fun and escape the worries and pressures of home.
Jane Truscott, who leads on pastoral care at Liskeard Hillfort, explains: “Sometimes we’ll say to children, ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ and they look at you blankly, but with Go Beyond, they come back full of stories. Their sense of achievement gives them an absolute lift. They come back with a real spring in their step because they’ve learnt a new skill. Being able to share that with their classmates is very powerful.”
Not only does Go Beyond boost children’s confidence, it also raises their sense of self-worth. A survey of children who attended a Go Beyond break found that 78 per cent think “good things will now happen in their lives”. This is vital in a Cornish community such as Cook’s, which is home to some of the most deprived children in Europe.
“A quarter of our children here at Hillfort are in the bottom 10 per cent of deprivation nationally,” says Cook. “But we are also one of the most culturally isolated communities. Because we’re geographically isolated, there is no popping to the theatre or an art gallery – you have to travel to Truro or Plymouth, which is not always possible for families. Lots of our children have never been to a beach. The stereotype of Cornwall is that it’s all fun and pasties and ice cream, but actually it is culturally isolated and that makes Go Beyond an oasis in a cultural desert.”
Another challenge for some of his pupils is a lack of ambition and expectation, says Cook. “With Go Beyond, the staff are lovely young people in their 20s, who take on the role of a big brother or sister. All of a sudden, the children have role models and expectations,” he explains. “All children have aspirations – to be vets or astronauts or doctors – but where do they get their expectations from? Go Beyond can fill that gap for children, and show them what they’re capable of and what their future could look like.”
Anisha Reed manages a team of social workers in Wokingham, Berkshire, and she has seen the impact of Covid on children and young people of all ages.
“We call them ‘the Covid generation’ because it’s affected such a large cohort, from Covid babies who developed separation anxiety as toddlers and young children, through to teenagers struggling with anxiety and the return to school and exams. And they’re still suffering – we will see the ripple effects for years to come,” she says.
Reed, who is a trustee of Go Beyond, says the charity saw an influx of referrals after the pandemic, as more children than ever reported suffering with anxiety. Reed says that the charity’s skill is in really getting to know the children who are coming, and understanding the challenges they face.
“We sometimes have young carers or children with protection plans in place – a Go Beyond trip provides them with a level of respite from their home situation. Each individual’s needs are shared before they come on the break and the team is very mindful of each child’s vulnerabilities.”
As a result, every child leaves with a new found positive sense of their own place in the world. “We push them out of their comfort zone but in a very supported way, which helps build their resilience and confidence. The journey they go on in just one week is huge.”
Go Beyond is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Race Against Dementia, the RAF Benevolent Fund and Marie Curie. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2023appeal or call 0151 284 1927