Don't let them down

Jack McConnell on closing educational gaps post- lockdown

Earlier this week, the government’s phased return to schools in England commenced. A welcome return for most children to the familiarity of friends and playgrounds, favourite teachers and regular routines. But for some, the lockdown will have impacted on their educational progress and mental health.

School closures will have unearthed and exacerbated tensions within many homes, but children who were already vulnerable will have been impacted the most. Even without the upheaval of the Covid 19 pandemic, a University of Bristol study last year proved yet again that children who have ever been 'In Need' or in care face significant educational attainment gaps. Absence and temporary or permanent exclusions are also shown to worsen academic performance.

Many of these children will have been “hidden” from the view of professionals and trusted adults who would normally be well-placed to identify them and provide support – including teachers, NHS staff and youth workers. The national domestic abuse charity, Refuge, stated calls to their helpline were up ten-fold. Yet figures published in April by the Department of Education highlighted that just 5% of vulnerable children entitled to a place in temporary emergency schools were turning up. So, what will the return to class mean for them and how best can we ensure the impact of the closure is minimised?

To start, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the ‘trauma gap’. alongside the learning gap. Protecting and supporting those youngsters will be crucial upon their return. Many families are under increasing financial and emotional pressure, while others may be experiencing poverty and domestic abuse for the first time. A Barnados’ report highlights the multiple pressures on mental health – from anxiety about the virus, to family conflict, to exposure to harmful materials online. Importantly, BAME children and young people are more likely to experience bereavement, to be caring for unwell relatives, to worry about contracting the virus, and to miss out on support.

Our country has celebrated the determination and effort of the NHS to get through this crisis with recruitment, volunteers, donations and a general ‘all hands-on deck’ approach. Likewise, the government’s actions to minimise the impact for businesses and self-employed earners were welcome not only for the financial reassurance, but also for the vast and robust mobilisation of multiple Whitehall departments towards a common goal. Now we need education to receive the same leadership right throughout the systems in all four nations.

We need National Plans of Action across the UK to help the most vulnerable, those that have fallen behind and those whose family circumstances may have changed for the worse during the pandemic. As Anne Longfield, Commissioner for Children in England, has stated, the Covid-19 response “shows that coordinated action and political will on funding can have a transformative impact. The 'new normal' … is an opportunity for similar brave action.”

Such plans will need to be creative and flexible, as well as strategic and targeted. But most importantly, they will need to be immediate; and implemented with the same drive and collective sense of support that many mustered when our NHS was in need and jobs were on the line.

The provision of extra classes and teachers should be explored. Additional tutoring for those who have fallen behind should be offered. Volunteers should be assembled to alleviate some of the burden from teachers and teaching assistants. Guidance and advice from third party organisations, including front line charities, should be both listened and adhered to.

We must engage creatively with these children and young people and find flexible and feasible methods to ensure their development. To do otherwise, writing them off as the ‘Covid Year’ and just deciding to reset again come September, will undermine and destabilise the entire education system for many years to come. Worst of all, it we will let down those who need our help most - an unforgivable outcome of the sacrifices made over recent months.

Lord Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale is a Labour Peer. He tweets @LordMcConnell

Published 3rd June 2020

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