A documentary exploring the lives of four Essex teenagers living through the pandemic will help shape future services for vulnerable children – and has been hailed as an example for others to follow.
Last summer Essex County Council (ECC) joined forces with academics from the University of Essex to discover what life was like for young people during COVID-19.
In-depth interviews covering a range of topics including mental health and wellbeing, relationships and education have uncovered a real concern about returning to school after six months of lockdown.
To capture this transition back to education, the academic team recruited four young people and their families to film their lives over a two-week period. Filming too place the week before they returned to school and the first week back.
In the final film – called ‘We’re in This Too’ – the teenagers provide honest accounts of their lives and share thoughts, hopes and concerns.
The film has been shown in schools and to professionals working with young people across the county. It will be available to watch publicly in September.
Nic Blower from the department of literature, film, and theatre studies at the University of Essex was part of the team.
He explained: “By using a self-shot documentary and allowing the young people to tell their own unique and authentic story, we successfully captured the attention of both professionals and young people across Essex.
“The insight this film has given to the professionals working with young people will help shape and inform future policies and decision making.
“But one of the most powerful things to have come out of this work is the impact the documentary has had on young people.
“Actually watching other young people their age talk about difficult issues, and be open and honest about their feelings, has empowered them to speak out, share their feelings and even seek support where they wouldn’t have considered it before.”
Dr Andrew Hammond, a sociologist at the University of Essex, added: “The film also highlights that lockdowns were not necessarily bad for all young people and that school is not always unquestionably a happy place.
“We have some evidence from this project that lockdown could in some cases have helped siblings and families build stronger connections while not necessarily bad for mental health.”
Research fellow at ECC Gemma Warsap said: “The documentary has become a ‘call to action’ and the insight from the film, and resulting workshops, have been used to shape and inform several programmes of work.
“These include the county council’s post-COVID-19 recovery plans, the development of the new mental health strategy for children and young people, the new early years strategy and young people’s personal development programmes across Essex secondary schools.”
The film has since won a national award in the Local Area Research and Intelligence Association (LARIA) awards in the category of ‘most engaging communication of local area research or analysis’.
The LARIA awards are specifically designed to showcase best practice with award winners demonstrating “excellence in research and analysis that is making a real difference to the people they serve.”
The multi-disciplinary project involved academics from the Department of Psychology, School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Science, Department of Language and Linguistics, Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies and Department of Economics.
It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account.
ECC has said it is committed to helping children catch-up from the effects of lockdown and at the beginning of June held the first meetings of its new Essex Education Task Force to address the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19 on children and young people’s education and emotional wellbeing.
The Task Force will initially be supported by a £1.5 million investment from the county council’s reserves, of which £500,000 will be allocated specifically for children’s mental health.
The group also includes members from ECC, early years, primary, secondary and special schools, further education and the voluntary and youth sectors.
Their aims include addressing key areas such as language development, mental health and wellbeing, the loss of extra-curricular activities, the ‘digital divide’, post-16 and post-18 education, training and employment, as well as support for vulnerable children and young people and those with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND).
Reading will also have a special focus.
In addition, the group will seek to influence and shape national education policy for the benefit of Essex.
Councillor Tony Ball, ECC’s cabinet member for education excellence, skills and training, said: “After an incredibly difficult year for children, young people and the education sector across Essex, the first meeting of the Task Force is an important turning point and we are looking ahead to the future with hope and optimism.”