Children have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last three months. They have stayed locked down for weeks, unable to see family and friends, missing out on playing outside, on sports, arts or drama clubs. Most have been out of school for three months already, with another three months before they get back into the classroom. Many have been learning at home, but many others have struggled. Some have done little or no schoolwork for weeks.
But it’s not just ‘learning’ children have been missing out on: it is the experience of being at school: the support of a teacher, the friendship forged in the playground. For children, learning isn’t a solitary experience, but a shared one, and there is an ever increasing body of evidence from developmental psychologists that this socialisation is absolutely vital for children. Children’s social, emotional and cognitive development all depends on socialisation – with other children and a wider circle of adults – and without it, both children’s mental health and their ability to reengage in the classroom in September will suffer.
As we emerge from lockdown, and the Government announces changes to social-distancing rules, we need to look at how children can benefit, and quickly.
I welcomed the £1bn government pledge to help children catch up at school from September. That funding must now be targeted at those children who are most in need of help. But most of this support will only come into play six months after many children left school for the lockdown. What do we do in the remaining two and a half months?
While the weeks before September do of course include the usual school summer holiday, the unprecedented nature of the last few months makes it more important than ever that the Government has a plan to create summer activities for children – essential for children who have been starved of social contact with their peers, exercise or learning and stimulation for months and vital for those hard pushed parents who now need to get back to work to get their income back up as furloughing and shielding support is removed.
However, I am concerned that the Government thinks ‘job done’ because it has written a cheque to cover tutoring and catch up classes in the autumn. In doing so it is missing an opportunity, and in many cases the necessity, to get summer schemes up and running in the areas that need them most.
We already know that today’s children are the least active generation ever. Before the lockdown, just one in four boys and one in five girls in England were doing the recommended sixty minutes of activity each day. At the same time, children are spending longer and longer glued to screens. Research by ukactive has shown how many children return to school in September less fit than when they broke up in July. For the millions of children who have been inside for weeks and who haven’t been exercising or playing out, this summer should be a great opportunity to get active.
There are children who have been particularly badly affected. Those thousands of kids living in poor accommodation, with little or no access to parks, and who are not in school so not taking part in PE or playing out. So often these are the children who during the summer holidays are stuck inside too – or even more worrying, if they are older and their parents are out at work, have to be left to their own devices, with little structure to their day and no safe places to go.
They are the children most likely to benefit from holiday clubs, play facilities and sports clubs, some of which I would like to see open in local schools over the summer. These schemes are vital in keeping children active and entertained over July and August, while providing the affordable child care that is even more crucial as parents begin returning to work post-lockdown.
Yet over recent years, in the most disadvantaged areas where they are needed most, they have become much harder to find as funding has disappeared. At the same time, I have been disappointed to learn of local authorities contacting the parents of children with special needs or disabilities to say that they will not be arranging summer activities for their children because of the covid crisis. There are more challenges this year than normal, but this smacks of councils not prioritising the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and giving up too easily.
Its less than a month until the summer school holidays so it is vital that plans are put in place to expand this provision quickly over the summer and target those children and families most in need of them.
There are a number of immediate actions that can be taken.
Firstly, give the green light to those summer programmes that are ready and waiting to run this summer.
We know there are already a whole range of providers of great holiday clubs across the country ready to go, ranging from the larger organisations like the Trussell Trust who run clubs providing breakfast and lunch alongside activities to smaller charities like Play Torbay who run play projects and eco schemes, and offer outdoor cooking, nature trails and creative art.
Unfortunately, the lockdown has left the future of many of these providers uncertain. I have heard from providers of after school clubs and holiday clubs who have no idea whether they will be able to open up this summer at all. They do not know where to turn for advice or help, having to use a Coronavirus helpline which takes them around in circles. For them, only a few weeks away from the summer holidays but with no clear idea of whether they can provide services, this is becoming a crisis.
They tell me they believe that they can open and care for children safely over the summer, but the Government guidance won’t let them. At the same time, their bills need to be paid and some are likely to close down unless they are allowed to bring in children quickly.
So, it is essential that alongside easing of social distancing, the Government provides urgent new guidance to these providers to help them get up and running safely for the summer holidays. Guidance is promised soon but it needs to be workable and it needs to appear fast.
Secondly, the Department for Education should be asking schools to open up their buildings to let community and sports schemes work alongside schools to provide activities and safe places to be over the summer. Let’s use the thousands of sports halls that will otherwise be shut down. Let’s encourage the sports coaches and volunteers who already work with children to get into schools and provide activities – particularly in those inner-city areas where children have really struggled to remain active.
Thirdly, the Government should announce an expansion of the holiday schemes they are already funding. Earlier this year, the DfE announced extra millions for breakfast clubs in disadvantaged areas and for summer holiday activities. The quickest and most efficient thing to do now, only a few weeks away from the summer holidays, would be to expand that scheme from 9 to 50 areas. Further investment from the Treasury will be needed but this is a well evidenced and tried and tested programme. It would save money very quickly and in the long term as it would boost children’s mental health and protect the most vulnerable from grooming and criminal exploitation, allowing them to return to the classroom in September ready to learn.
It would also allow parents to return to work and begin to pay taxes, as well as creating jobs, employing thousands of people who might otherwise be reliant on financial support from the government.
These summer schemes in areas of disadvantage will need funding, but the cost of leaving struggling children and families with nothing for 3 more months is also high. The DfE’s own funds for wrap around childcare in primary schools would be well used in this way – coupled with additional funding from the Treasury, albeit on a more modest scale than some more recent headline grabbing initiatives.
There are other funds that can add to this investment to respond to local need. Some schools will already be planning to run summer schemes, paid for by their own funding, and local authorities will want to use their COVID emergency funds to target those children most in need – often the children who are least likely to turn up for activities.
But most importantly, as so often, there needs to be the political will to make this all happen. We have shown a can-do attitude so often during this crisis. Opening up summer schemes for children who most need them is possible if the will is there.
I recognise that the Treasury has invested generously in school catch up programmes and that will make a big difference – but that does not mean that the job is done. Decisive action to give the go ahead now would give the green light to hundreds of summer sports and holiday activities around the country. Coupled with an expansion of Government’s summer holiday programme to disadvantaged areas, this could make a difference to hundreds of thousands of children.
We should not accept that the summer can’t be used to help some children who are a struggling and to help parents who need childcare to get back to work in August.