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Children in art class at school

The coming weeks will be an exciting time for millions of children in England. It’s almost six months since most children were in school, and many children will be glad to be with their friends again, though perhaps nervous about what it will be like to be back. For some time children have watched the world around them starting to go back to some sort of normality – parents starting to go back to work, shops and local amenities starting to reopen – and now it is their time. As parents and children do the last minute back to school shop there will be an element of understandable trepidation in the air but also a sense that this is the start of a next phase, of trying to get back to normal, though a normal that’ll be different from the past and an understanding that this new way of doing things will last as long as the virus is with us.

Over the last few days I’ve visited some primary and secondary schools to speak with head teachers and teaching staff about their preparations. I think children and parents can be reassured that teachers and school staff are doing all they can to make their schools as safe as possible, and to keep things as normal as they can be in the circumstances. I know that every year schools work incredibly hard to put everything in place for the new school year, and of course this year there are so many extra things to do to get schools ready.

The teachers and school staff I spoke with have been working tirelessly to organise how children will move safely about the school.  There are new entrances and exits, one-way systems, staggered start times and breaks, and new arrangements for lunch.  Staff have meticulously measured and rearranged every classroom, physically shifted furniture and storage in and out, and installed plastic screens for teachers if needed – no mean feat for the large school with 80 classrooms I was shown around. Additionally there is a new emphasis on hygiene with washing facilities, hand sanitisers and desk cleaning regimes which will be part of everyday life for every  student when the school doors open.

Schools and their staff know the spotlight will be on them over the next few weeks and they have risen to the challenge. As I wrote earlier this year, I never cease to be impressed by the dedication of teachers and the care and consideration they have for the children they teach and look out for. We are asking our teachers and school staff to continue to do what we asked NHS workers and supermarket workers and so many others to do in March: help our society to keep going by carrying on with the vital job that they do.

The incredible efforts made by many schools during the lockdown period – staying open for the children of key workers or children who are vulnerable – won’t be forgotten. I often think about the teacher I heard speaking on BBC Breakfast of her sleepless nights worrying about the children who were in danger of falling off the radar during lockdown. Or the teachers and staff who delivered food parcels to children at risk of going hungry. This dedication, going that extra mile, is endemic in our schools, and one of the reasons why I am confident schools will be doing all they can to open on time for all children. This must include those children with SEND, and I have blogged about that issue in it’s own right today, also here on our website.

I do understand why some teachers and parents may be nervous, which is why I have long called for testing and better tracking and tracing. It is for the scientists and public heath officials to say how many children should be tested and how frequently that should be, based on local circumstances.  But I would like to see more testing readily available in schools, and if they can make it a routine feature (along with things like temperature checks) then that will be a considerable source of reassurance for parents, children and teachers and help us to control the virus.  Head teachers need to be able to keep their classrooms open and minimise any disruption a potential infection may cause – that’s why swift testing is so essential.

I am, however, pleased that over the last few weeks there has been a cross-party recognition that opening schools for all children in September must happen, and that the damage that would be done to many children – particularly the most vulnerable or those who are already facing disadvantage – by keeping schools closed in the autumn term would be enormous. When you consider recent evidence from the Education Policy Institute that the gap between the most vulnerable children and the average student appeared to have stopped closing, before Covid happened, levelling up has never before been so vital.

It is welcome too that the Prime Minister has now made this a top priority. While I am disappointed that more effort was not made before the summer and during the summer holidays to get more children into school, we are where we are. There must be no sliding back and there can be no excuses – schools must be open to all children. Home-schooling children previously at school must no longer be the norm. It’s an often-used phrase, but in this instance it really couldn’t be more true: failure is not an option.

We should also be clear, opening schools this September is just the beginning. We have to make sure they stay open – and if there are local outbreak problems schools must be the last to close, after pubs, restaurants and shops. It is good to see this is also an argument with cross party support and I see no reason why it shouldn’t happen if there are local areas that go into lockdown. As long as the virus exists in this form, it is possible there will be outbreaks and local lockdowns. It is possible too that some of these outbreaks could even happen in a school. If it does, and the whole school has to close as a last resort, then plans should be in place for structured home learning until the schools reopen again, including ensuring that all kids get can get online to learn. The default position though must never again be that all schools are shut.

Amidst the usual August rush of buying school uniform and new shoes, labelling PE kits and filling in forms, some parents are still unsure about sending back their children, which is why the Government has now started a campaign of information and reassurance. It is important to be honest with parents: until there is a vaccine, we can never say that anywhere is 100 per cent safe. However, we can say that schools are not as risky as other indoor environments outside the home. This is because schools involve more children than adults and fixed groups of people rather than the general public. There will also be higher levels of hygiene and safety controls in school.

My argument remains: if it is safe enough to keep theme parks, pubs, shops and restaurants open then it is certainly safe enough to keep schools open.

Of course, many children will be worried about returning. Some have not been to school for almost six months. For younger children this feels like an extraordinarily long period of time. While some children did get back into school for a few days or weeks before the summer, many did not and will be unsure or uncertain about how things will be. That’s why we have produced a children’s guide to returning to school, which I hope they will find helpful.

It is important too that we recognise that for some children, going back will be incredibly hard. It may take time to settle in, some may be disruptive, some may just have forgotten what it’s like to be in a large class with other children or have become so used to not having structure to their day that going back to school is overwhelming. Some will be so anxious about school that they are refusing to go back at all. I know teachers are preparing for this and I hope that schools will be very careful about how they handle children who are struggling to cope. It would be a tragedy if the return to school leads to a rise in school exclusions or in more children being educated at home when it isn’t really what the family wants.

Some children will also find that the last six months has had a negative impact on their mental health and I repeat my long-standing belief that an NHS-funded school counsellor in every school should be available for every child who needs one. The children’s mental health system will struggle to cope for as long as we are failing to provide early help to tackle problems before they become crises.

None of these potential difficulties can be a barrier to reopening schools and I hope even those parents with concerns will recognise that keeping children out of school for months or until there is a vaccine is not sustainable. This has already been the longest disruption to full time education since World War II. There are so many studies warning of the detrimental effect that keeping most children out of school is having on their learning, their development and their social skills. Children have made enormous sacrifices over the last six months. They stayed at home, they didn’t see their friends, they missed lessons and activities, sport and play in school. While home schooling worked for some, for most it is no substitute for the structure that school brings. Now it’s their turn to get all the support possible to return to something closer to normal.

So as we prepare to open schools to all children again, we should thank teachers and school staff for their hard work and commitment, and secondly, we must acknowledge the sacrifices our children made to help keep us safe and suppress this virus. Getting them all back into school is a vital step and one none of us, for the sake of the country’s children, can afford to falter in taking it.

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