COVID-19 & young London – a Challenge London response

16 November 2020

Hannah Wilmot shares statistics and research outlining issues faced by young people in the wake of coronavirus, and considers them through the lens of our six Challenge London themes

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Image credit: Annie Kruntcheva

In April 2020, partners involved in Challenge London – A New Direction's partnership investment programme – met remotely for the first time during lockdown and shared their experiences, challenges and emerging responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Reading through my notes from the meeting, I realised that many of the common concerns related to the six Challenge London themes, and I therefore wrote up my notes under these headings, along with the suggestion that COVID-19 was adding new dimensions to the factors that help or hinder young people's capacity to be creative in our city.

As the summer progressed, research studies began to confirm early hunches and local findings, and Challenge London partnerships adapted their work to meet local needs in new ways. I added more detail to my reflections and early in October 2020, shared these 'new dimensions' with members of the Young Challenge Group to hear their thoughts – I have incorporated their observations into what follows.


COVID-19 has highlighted and widened the gap between rich and poor in London. Digital inequality was an early concern for Challenge London partners with research confirming that in schools in the most deprived areas of England, over a third of pupils had no access to an electronic devise and/or Wi-Fi. Other factors are also critical for home learning such as a quiet space to work and family members' support for school work.

Generation Covid research published in October 2020 paints a stark picture of young people's educational experiences during lockdown, with just 38% receiving full schooling and 25% receiving no schooling at all. Private school pupils were almost twice as likely as state school pupils to receive full school days (74% versus 39%) and six times more likely to have four or more online lessons per day (30% versus 6%). Comparisons of the richest and poorest 20% of households revealed that children in richer families on average spent 75 minutes per day more on educational activities. And the result of these contrasting experiences? Projections suggest that school closures during lockdown will widen the attainment gap by 36%.

Whilst the majority of these issues are beyond the control of Challenge London partners, several took steps during lockdown to minimise barriers to families' access to creative and cultural learning. Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs) were instrumental in assembling creative packs for families who might not otherwise have access to such resources; some worked with schools on distribution, others with food banks.


Alongside physical health, there is widespread agreement that the pandemic has had a detrimental effect on many people's mental health. Research suggests an average deterioration of 8.1%, but the greatest impact is recorded by young people and women; for young women aged 16-24, for example, poor mental health rose by 18.2%. In London, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have recorded higher levels of anxiety and depression throughout the pandemic and lower levels of happiness than their white counterparts. The government has stressed the importance of promoting wellbeing with the reopening of schools in September 2020, but this has often been overshadowed by the imperative to catch up academically.

Adding further to deteriorating wellbeing, young workers aged 18-24 are not only twice as likely to have been furloughed, but are much more likely to have lost their jobs if they were (19% compared to all-age average of 9%). Black, Asian and minority ethnic workers have also suffered higher rates of job loss (22%) following furlough and London has been particularly badly hit.


Cultural engagement plays a role in improving young people's mental health and several Challenge London partnerships are providing training and resources for schools to utilise the creative arts in a Recovery Curriculum. A New Direction has also created a series of resources in this space, suggesting ways to use the creative arts to address the impact of the pandemic for students’ lives and learning. Members of the Young Challenge Group attested to the value of arts and creativity for their own wellbeing but warned against over-emphasising the instrumental value at the expense of 'art for arts' sake'.

New London

The Mayor's London Plan emphasises planning for social infrastructure – education, community, play, youth and recreation services and facilities. What does this look like in the COVID-19 world? Restrictions on socialising and travel and the increase in home working have all created a new focus on the hyper-local and the vital importance of access to green spaces. Remote working also asks questions of minimum space requirements in housing, and fast, cheap broadband may become as important as fast, cheap transport for Londoners.

How can young people have a say in what the priorities for development in London are? And how can Challenge London partnerships facilitate this? One Challenge-funded initiative, Talking Planning, is working with young people to make constructive changes to the planning sector, focussing on issues such as language and dynamics of power.

How can young people have a say in what the priorities for development in London are?

Influence and power

Research over the last 20 years has consistently shown young people are generally optimistic about their futures. However, COVID-19 has dented this optimism, with those in transition (from school to university, or from education to the labour market) in particular experiencing a loss of faith in their own agency. They are worried about their own futures but also about the impact of the pandemic on society. During the crisis, policies that impact on young people have been made rapidly, often behind closed doors, and young people feel their views are of little consequence to decision-makers. Protests in the summer over exam grades were perhaps a rare moment of young people being heard and action being taken in response.

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Virtually all the Challenge London initiatives have youth panels, and these have moved online during the pandemic. Given the findings above about digital inequality, is there a danger that working remotely could exclude certain young people? How can partnerships ensure a diverse range of young people are involved in shaping their plans? A number of partnerships are actively engaging with young people whose voices may be otherwise hidden. For example, the 11 by 11 initiative in Islington commissioned Company Three young people’s theatre company to work with Islington Council’s services for looked after young people in the borough as part of the Coronavirus Time Capsule project.

Preparing for work

The original document setting out the Challenge London themes declared 'The creative economy is booming'. This may still be true for digital technology, but live performance has been hit hard. It may also be true that COVID-19 has increased employers' needs for creative skills such as lateral thinking and problem-solving, however the precarious state of employment in the creative industries has been highlighted with the relatively high rates of self-employment (28.5% compared to 15.5% in non-creative sectors), leaving many individuals struggling to survive.

A survey of 100 young creatives found that 30% had been furloughed, 74% of freelancers had work cancelled (for which they were not being paid) and 59% were revaluating their career path. The final statistic is perhaps most troubling for Challenge London's aim of equalising access to employment in the creative sector; young people from less-advantaged socio-economic groups may be less able to weather periods of unemployment and may, therefore, be deterred from pursuing a career in the cultural sector.

With schools closed to outside visitors and virtually all school trips curtailed, Challenge London partnerships have developed new ways of bringing creative practitioners into the classroom. LCEPs in Barnet, Waltham Forest and Wandsworth, for example, have live-streamed careers events including Q&As with industry professionals. In many cases, events are reaching wider audiences in this online format as recordings can be accessed at any time.

Pressures on institutions

Local networks comprised of schools, youth clubs and cultural organisations are vital in supporting young people to develop their interests in culture and creativity. However, cuts in youth service budgets have been a concern for some years now, and COVID-19 is only likely to exacerbate the situation. Research now predicts that one in five youth centres may not reopen. This raises particular concerns for the most vulnerable young people for whom youth workers are often a vital lifeline. Members of the Young Challenge Group emphasised the importance of partnering with the youth service as a way of supporting diverse young people's needs. As already mentioned, parts of the cultural sector are also in a precarious state and even if organisations survive, they may no longer be in a position to offer free provision to schools and youth clubs.

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During lockdown, families took on a more central role in their children's learning, and Challenge London partners found themselves re-purposing resources for family learning. Local Cultural Education Partnerships, particularly those with strong ties to the local authority, adapted rapidly to local needs, with some increasing delivery (such as art packs and online resources) whilst others had enhanced brokerage roles. Camden Spark, for example, connected teachers and creative practitioners as part of their Buddying & Creative Conversations programme.

Since March 2020 much of the physical infrastructure has been replaced by a digital infrastructure. What opportunities and challenges does this present? Although initially uncertain, virtually all Challenge London partnerships have seen benefits from moving activities online, including record attendances as travel and time barriers are removed. For example, Inspiring Futures, the Barking and Dagenham Cultural Education Partnership, had over 70 teachers sign up for a series of webinars, and London Bubble reported increased attendance from family members and Youth Offending Service staff to an online screening of a film made by young people in their Creative Voices project.

Final thoughts

I'm aware that much of the above makes gloomy reading, but as the Young Challenge Group reminded me, it is much better to have the statistics and know you are making evidence-based decisions about where to target your work.

The Challenge London initiatives are also being amazingly resilient, innovative and generous in how they respond, adapt and share their learning across the Challenge London programme – with a continuing and firm commitment to enabling all young Londoners' capacity to be creative.

At the end of November, A New Direction will share details of eight new investments confirmed through Challenge London since May 2020, including five partnerships new to the programme.

Find out more about challenge London

2020 Review – OUR highlights from across the year

Hannah Wilmot is the Evaluator for Challenge London, responsible for drawing together learning across the programme and providing support on theory of change and evaluation to individual partnerships.