Prof Uta Frith: What can science say about the consequences for society of children missing out on schooling for 6 months?

Professor Uta Frith DBE FRS FBA FmedSci

Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development, University College London


As this has never happened before we have to draw on evidence from a time when school education was not compulsory. The simple facts are that free universal education provided such obvious benefits, for health, for social equality and economy, that every country in the world introduced free schooling and never went back on this1.

The benefits of literacy and numeracy are incalculable in building human capital. They are foundational to science, industry, trade and arts. The 6-month gap in education will have set back children, especially those of the age when they are in the midst of acquiring these basic skills. For a 6-year old the present gap represents a full quarter of their legally recognised time at school. Children who lag behind will be particularly penalised. It is known that even the usual summer holiday sets back achievements by about a month2.

What are the consequences for the children’s brain development? We have taken for granted two hidden benefits of schooling whose absence will have harmed the healthy development of executive functions, which are known to underlie such important abilities as flexibility, self-control and social competence3.

Education changes the way we perceive the world and behave in relation to others, and this affects our brain directly. Mental stimulation through learning enhances cognitive development through increasing connectivity in the brain. Abstract skills, logical deduction, counterfactual thinking, general problem solving, are acquired through schooling, and cannot be obtained by being street smart4.

The structure that is essential when teaching groups of children sets boundaries and highlights the value of control and persistence. Structure influences the development of frontal brain regions during primary and secondary school, and if lacking, leads to impulsive and disruptive behaviour5.

The ability to be with peers and being outside the family is another beneficial side effect of universal schooling and considered essential for the development of social belonging and identity. But this is not all, the ability to get advice from trusted adults outside the family can be a life saver for children in problematic home environments. Social relations to peers and to other adults in a diverse society have to be learned, including politeness and tolerance and this learning is vital to create the citizens of the future.

The consequences of a large gap in schooling are waiting to be documented and these effects will occupy social services and mental health specialists for many years to come. Children and young people need to know that the state cares about them. This obvious need has been shockingly neglected.


4th July 2020

[Photo credit @phammi]