By Jane Millichip

Imagine being a Gen Z (age 7-24) student right now. Your Prime Minister, MPs, government advisers and the national media have all repeatedly referred to you as a “lost generation”. Members of SAGE warned you would be “catastrophically hit” by the “collateral damage” of the Covid crisis. And to top it all, in February, the Institute of Fiscal Studies declared that Gen Zs on average salaries will earn £40,000 less in their lifetimes; a doom-laden prediction made worse by the prospect of crippling future tax rises.

Those in their mid and late teens have witnessed GCSEs and A Levels cancelled two years in a row, and waited patiently whilst the so-called adults come up with an attainment assessment plan that doesn’t play postcode lottery with their futures, such as last year’s abominable grades algorithm.

To all politicians, media commentators, and general blabbermouths, I urge you, please stop talking about our young people as if they are not in the room. Do not write them off with doom-mongering. They can hear you, and it’s not pleasant. And if you say it often enough, it might just become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Please stop the wild extrapolation too. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) report claimed the reduction in face-to-face teaching caused by the recent school closures could result in £350bn in lost lifetime earnings for the UK’s 8.7m schoolchildren. The IFS based this alarming prediction on a long-running World Bank review on the return on investment we derive from education. 

The concept of the rate of return on investment in education is similar to any other investment. It is a summary of the costs and benefits of an investment expressed in annual (percentage) yield. Returns on investment in education are based on human capital theory, which promotes the idea that investments in education increase a person’s future productivity.

The World Bank review concludes that the average global rate of return to one extra year of schooling is 8% in advanced economies, such as the UK. In order to calculate the cost to an individual of losing six months in-person education due to Covid, the IFS halved the annual rate of return, and applied 4% discount to a person’s lifetime earnings (based on current average salaries) to arrive at the £40,000 loss of income.

If this seems like an extrapolation too far – it is. I read the World Bank review, and it uses the metric of cumulative years of schooling to calculate the return on investment in education. However, it does not contemplate the impact of an interruption in a student’s education, such as the one we have endured during Covid. The IFS 4% discount to earnings assumes no learning has taken place during six months of home-schooling, and it does not allow for students to ‘catch up’ in any way. There is simply no data in the World Bank review to calculate a student’s ability, or inability, to ‘catch-up’ following a hiatus in study.

The IFS hypothesis also assumes that knowledge is acquired solely in a sequential manner. This does not consider the modular learning associated with A Levels, for instance. My A Level student son is no less intelligent because of six months study from home. He may have a less profound knowledge of a couple of Biology modules than he might otherwise have. But does this really equate to a £40,000 loss of earnings across his lifetime? I think not.

No doubt, this year of Covid has tested our ability to deal with large-scale disruptions. We also know that it has discriminated against some communities more than others. We have big challenges ahead. But I am mystified by the almost ghoulish delight taken by some politicians and commentators in hyperbolic scaremongering about our schoolchildren.

In recent weeks, I have been encouraged to see educators respond to the negative stereotyping. Far from being a “lost generation”, today’s school children will be the “bounce-back generation”, says Peter Hyman, co-director of Big Education and co-founder at School 21. In a recent Guardian article, he said: “Children are resilient and become more resilient if treated with respect, listened to and given the chance to use their imagination, make connections and find their feet.”

Similarly, Ruth Wilkes, principal at Castle Newnham Federation in Bedford, said in an email to parents that her students are “the crucial generation”. During the lockdowns, she said, pupils will have “built resilience and an awareness of the fragility of our world”.

The IFS report proposes a national programme to increase school hours and term times, cramming students to make up for the lost six months of normal schooling. But instead of trying to fix our children, maybe we should be fixing our society. Rethink how the economy should evolve, and redefine the skills, education and training required to support it. Develop the competencies and values needed for a more resilient society. Renew our commitment to Sustainable Development Goals as set out by UNESCO.  Put sustainability and the environment at the heart of education, and education at the heart of sustainability. In crisis comes the opportunity for profound change. 

So, let’s hear it for the bounce-back, crucial generation – our brilliant, resilient Gen Zs.

Jane Millichip is a television executive and a Trustee of SEEd