House of Commons, Coronavirus Statement:
I begin by thanking the Health Secretary, his Ministers and his advisers for all they are doing, working day and night to try to keep the country safe.
While I understand the Government’s health measures, I really worry about school closures. We need to know whether a risk assessment has been done of the loss of learning, the impact on mental health and the safeguarding hazards for children not in school.
Not so long ago, 1,500 members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health wrote that school closures significantly affect children’s wellbeing. We now know that there has been a huge, fourfold increase in eating disorders among young people, partly due to school closures and social isolation. Children’s groups and charities have warned of a new frontier of vulnerabilities: children out of school exposed to online harms, county lines gangs, and tough situations at home, such as domestic abuse. We also know that school closures put enormous pressure on parents’ livelihoods and wellbeing as they have to juggle their work while looking after their children or reduce their hours.
I urge the Government to consider the following. First, they should ensure that teachers and support workers are given priority for vaccinations alongside NHS workers, solely for the purpose of getting schools open sooner rather than later. Secondly, more resources should be put into mental health, having practitioners in all schools to help with the fallout from closures and isolation so that pupils, parents, teachers and support staff can access mental health support whenever they need it. Thirdly, the Department for Education and Ofsted should partner with schools as candid friends to ensure quality remote education for all pupils. The chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, has said that one day of national school closures equals around 40,000 child years in total. That is a grim statistic.
As a country, we must make a choice: do we value the coming generation of our young children or not? Will we risk their life chances of climbing the educational ladder of opportunity by shutting real schooling from their lives? We need a guarantee that the plan for schools to reopen after the February half-term is signed in blood and not just a guideline. While we absolutely have to be careful of this awful virus, we cannot risk an epidemic of educational poverty and mental ill health affecting our younger generations for years to come.