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Children in school

Policy briefing

Ever since last August, the Children’s Commissioner has said “Schools must be the last to close and the first to reopen.” This is now a well-used phrase as parents, teachers, scientists, politicians and the media all recognise the massive impact that the lockdowns are having on children’s education, and even more importantly, on their wellbeing. Parents have shared stories of children crying in front of laptops, struggling to motivate themselves to learn from home and of behaviour problems escalating. The Government’s own survey of children’s mental health last summer found the prevalence of mental health problems had jumped from 1 in 9 children to 1 in 6 as a result of the pandemic and lockdown.

Unfortunately it is a lot easier to close schools than to reopen them. Everyone recognises the necessity of reopening schools as soon as possible, but hope alone will not make it happen. What is lacking is a clear roadmap towards this. There is a real danger that schools will remain closed until Easter at the earliest, or even into the summer – not because the virus makes this inevitable, but because of a lack of planning.

The exam question that needs to be asked at the top of government is: how many children of what age could return when and where, under what level of community transmission; and what should we do now to facilitate that? This should be the subject of daily briefings and meetings as part of the No. 10 and Cabinet Office Covid response.

SAGE can provide modelling of different options – and at the end of this note we suggest what evidence would be helpful – but ultimately it is for government to think creatively about what those different options might be, explore all possibilities, come up with a plan, and ultimately make something happen. Below are some options as a starting point for government to refine further.

This document does not set a fixed date by which time schools should be fully open, but it provides a framework for making those decisions. The Government needs to use this framework to create an agile roadmap to welcome back some pupils within the existing headroom, while also generating more headroom using wider measures elsewhere. It also needs to work with schools, unions and local authorities now to refine and deliver this plan. Setting the plan out now not only increases the prospects of schools being able to return, it would also improve trust amongst schools, teachers, parents and children.

Example options for gradual reopening

It may not be currently possible for schools to fully reopen nationally before Easter, but that does not mean it is impossible for some children to go back in some areas on a smaller scale – reopening is not a simple on/off switch.

Whatever the plan is, it must be clearly and transparently communicated now. We need to see an end to information being briefed out to weekend newspapers. Schools and parents deserve to get absolute clarity on plans communicated appropriately through official channels. Alongside the plan to get children back into the classroom there should be a regular Downing Street press conference, led by Boris Johnson, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser, to provide progress updates against this plan and answer questions from teachers, children and parents.

What needs to be in place to support schools

In order for teachers and parents to be confident in returning children to the classrooms, a number of key measures need to be in place:

Once children are back in the classroom, there must be an unprecedented focus on supporting pupils in the wake of this pandemic, both in terms of educational catch up but also in relation to children’s wellbeing. We need to see:

Further evidence to support the roadmap

It is possible to figure out the broad thrust of the plan, in qualitative terms, quite quickly. But in order to narrow down the options and finalise the precise details in quantitative terms, and additional evidence on the costs and benefits of each options may be needed. The Government should therefore:

SAGE should then rapidly assess (taking into account the new variant):