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Re-opening primary schools could be a life-line for vulnerable children

Clare Jerrom on why returning to school could be a life-line for disadvantaged children

The question of primary school children starting a phased return to school from 1 June may have divided ministers, teaching unions, schools and parents across England but it is undoubtedly in the best interests of many vulnerable children.

Government ministers including education secretary Gavin Williamson are keen for children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to begin a phased re-entry to schools from the beginning of June, as Reception and Year 1 are at key stages in the beginning of their education and may find self-directed learning more of a challenge while Year 6 is a key stage for 11-year-olds preparing for the transition to secondary schools.

Furthermore, these age groups have been selected amidst claims that older children are more likely to have higher numbers of contacts outside school so pose a greater transmission risk.

Gavin Williamson has sought to reassure parents saying that the government’s plans are based on the “best scientific advice with children at the very heart of everything we do”.

Schools closed on 20 March for all pupils apart from the children of key workers who are needed in key services across the country including the NHS, care homes, prisons and delivering food supplies. Schools also stayed open for vulnerable children such as those allocated a social worker or in care although Department for Education statistics showed that just 5 per cent of vulnerable children were attending school.

Teaching unions have raised concerns as to whether schools are safe to open. A joint statement from AEP, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, NSEAD, Prospect, UNISON and Unite last week to the education secretary said: “We all want schools to re-open, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so. The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “The NEU understands the importance of education to all children and particularly the most vulnerable. That is why teachers, leaders and support staff have been working throughout the pandemic caring for vulnerable children in schools and supporting children learning at home.

“We all want schools to open – as soon as it is safe to do so. The NEU’s five tests do not require a vaccine, which will be many months away. Today the government responded to our tests. We will look at the evidence supporting their response and make an informed judgement as to what extent they have been met.

The British Medical Association backed the NEU’s five tests with the BMA’s Public Health Medicine Committee saying that ‘until we have got the case numbers much lower, we should not consider re-opening schools’.

On Twitter, the BMA posted: “We’ve written to @NEUnion to offer our support to teachers and education professionals who are urging caution over plans to reopen schools before there is clear evidence to support the safety of such a move.”

Parents are, understandably, fearful as to whether children will be safe in schools:

- What is the scientific advice that the government are basing their decision on?

- How can social distancing be adhered to, especially with smaller children? Head lice is rife amongst the smaller children because they get close to each other, they learn through play and they touch each other. What about social distancing out of the classroom during break times?

- How can parents explain to one of their children that they are able to return to school yet their brother/sister in a different age group can’t go back?

- Why are schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland not re-opening, when England is?

- How can children go to school, potentially alongside 15 other students and staff, yet cannot see their grandparents if they are aged over 70?

It is paramount that parents have the opportunity to share their concerns with their schools while trying to seek assurance. The government also needs to be transparent about the research it is basing its decisions on. The move will undoubtedly free up more parents to get back to work thus providing a much-needed boost for the economy. If we face a depression, child poverty will soar thus placing vulnerable children at greater risk. It can also help some parents juggling home educating while trying to work from home.

But for children in care, it could prove a life-line. Many children allocated a social worker are at risk of neglect and abuse and social workers are struggling to see children on their caseloads for a variety of reasons:

- Many social work teams are operating with less staff than normal, while those with underlying health conditions are self-isolating/shielding so there are less social workers to go round.

- The majority of referrals for children’s services are received from schools. With schools currently only open to the children of key workers and children already known to children’s services, referrals are not being made meaning that many social work departments have experienced a decline in referrals since lockdown.

- While vulnerable children are able to access a school place, DfE statistics showed that just 5 per cent of vulnerable children are attending schools.

- Secondary legislation has been introduced without consultation or Parliamentary approval in response to the COVID-19 pandemic relaxing statutory duties of social workers.

- Families wishing to evade intervention from children’s services can justifiably say that they are self-isolating and refuse entry to social workers. While previously, social workers would have the back-up of the police to visit families refusing to engage, the self-isolating rules provides some families with a reason not to see the social worker.

The government has faced calls for the secondary legislation to be revoked by the children’s commissioner for England and Labour leader Keir Starmer has tabled an early day motion calling for it to be annulled. The children’s rights charity Article 39 has also threatened the DfE with legal action over the secondary legislation.

However, school is essential for vulnerable children, not just in terms of education given that many children in care have poorer educational outcomes than their peers, but socially and in order to provide them with a refuge from the difficult times they may be experiencing at home and an outlet for children experiencing neglect or abuse.

WillisPalmer has been warning since lockdown began that a lengthy lockdown period could be more detrimental to vulnerable children than the virus itself.

The issue of the toxic trio is massive and was, prior to lockdown, one of the greatest issues facing children’s services and social workers. Yet lockdown has meant families, sometimes with difficulties, are cooped up, fearful for their health, worried about finances, with little social interaction and pressures mounting. Mental ill health for most people will be exacerbated under lockdown measures. But troubled families may be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol and we know that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have sky rocketed since lockdown began.

While it is down to each individual parent to decide whether their child should return to school, there are massive advantages for vulnerable young people. If they have been experiencing neglect or abuse, witnessing domestic abuse, barely eating one hot meal each day, exposed to substance abuse and maybe left to fend for themselves and/or care for younger siblings, school provides the much needed change of scenery. It provides the opportunity for that child to feel equal to their peers. It enables them to learn. It provides them with at least one hot meal a day. It provides them with a structured schedule and normality. It gives that child an opportunity to play and learn with other children and some social interaction. Above all, it provides children who are being neglected, mistreated or abused the means of an outlet to talk to someone about the atrocities they may be experiencing at home.

So while each parent needs to make an informed decision on whether they think it is right for their children to return to school, it is unquestionably the right decision for vulnerable children. Alarmingly, their lives could depend on it.




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