First published in The Times Red Box:
Yesterday, the UK listened eagerly as the prime minister set out his road map for the end of lockdown — including, crucially, the reopening of schools, starting on March 8, with regular testing. As the vaccine rollout goes from strength to strength and a “new normal” sits in plain sight, many will feel cautiously hopeful in the wake of a year of uncertainty and loss.
The nation’s young minds returning to the classroom is certainly a reason to be hopeful, but we must not lose sight of the enormous challenge ahead as we prepare for schools’ return.
It has been a significantly challenging time for children, as schools were closed once again in January. While necessary to protect the health of families, teachers and communities, the impact on children’s life chances is undeniable. Schools are crucial for children’s development, safety and well-being. In her final speech as the children’s commissioner for England last week, Anne Longfield highlighted that more than 840 million days of face-to-face schooling will have been lost by the first week of March. The pandemic has deepened educational inequalities, and this is why we need to come together to build a stronger and more sustainable future for every child.
The government has taken some welcome steps to ensure that children are continuing their education. This includes the provision of 1.3 million devices to support children with remote learning; enabling schools to remain open for vulnerable children; and the £8 million Wellbeing for Education Return programme. But in order to truly build back better and meet an ambitious levelling-up agenda, children must be placed at the heart of recovery.
This time, back to school must mean back for good — not only to facilitate children’s academic catch-up, but also as a means of supporting their mental health by reducing the stress and anxiety caused in part by the uncertainty of future disruption. In a YoungMinds survey of 2,036 young people with a history of mental health needs, 80 per cent said that the pandemic had made their mental health worse.
The UK Committee for UNICEF has set out some key recommendations for getting schools back for good. This starts with working with children, parents and school staff to develop clear and child-friendly guidance on schools re-opening. This will not only alleviate their concerns, but it will also build confidence in the process.
Protecting school staff and the school environment is also crucial for the successful and permanent opening of schools, including ensuring that school staff are listed as high priority as part of the vaccine rollout. School staff at greatest risk, or those living with people at greatest risk, should be protected and supported upon the full return to classroom teaching.
Practical safety measures such as professional cleaning, ventilation, social distancing measures and lateral flow testing are key to reducing the spread of the virus and enabling schools to stay open. Furthermore, the unique needs of different groups of children, including children with special educational needs, must be considered when setting guidance for safe school practices.
Alongside the practical elements of reopening schools, the mental health and wellbeing of children returning must be central to keeping schools open. As expressed by the new national education commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, mental health support must be prioritised, and a holistic approach taken to children’s return to school with their wellbeing at the heart of plans. And, as I have said previously, the government should station a mental health practitioner in every school, available both online and in person when schools resume, offering counselling to pupils, their parents and school staff.
Moreover, let’s look at extending the school day. This is not to say teachers must work longer hours (unless properly recompensed), but instead civil society organisations could be invited into schools to offer pupils professional mental health support, as well as sports activities and academic catch-up tuition.
We have a road map out of lockdown; now is the time for a clear road map on education. We owe it to children to get it right as schools return next month and to break the cycle of “in and out of school” so that we can focus on long-term recovery for children. We need a strategy that includes a focus on mental health as well as closing the attainment gap and the digital divide, to reset the future for children. With a level of disruption not seen in our lifetime and the Department for Education’s departmental strategy expiring last year, now is the perfect opportunity to set out a hopeful, ambitious and long-term vision to level up opportunities for every child.
It is, after all, children who are among the real heroes of this pandemic. They have shown remarkable resilience and empathy by constantly adapting to the changes that the pandemic has brought to their lives.
We owe it to them to put them at the heart of the UK’s pandemic recovery and ensure that their education doesn’t continue to suffer. We owe them the future that Covid-19 has put on hold. And we owe them a plan that ensures that this time when children go back to school, they are back at school for good.