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Schools should close for as short a period as possible, says Anne Longfield

Ministers must ‘strain every sinew’ to get schools open again quickly, the children’s commissioner for England has urged.

Now the government has announced schools will close, it is vital that this happens for as short a period as possible, Anne Longfield has stated. Schools should open again quickly and certainly before non-essential shops, theme parks, pubs and restaurants – but also sustainably.

“We need to act now to save children’s education and wider development throughout the rest of the school year, and to ensure that their life chances are not damaged further,” said Ms Longfield.

Being out of school causes more harm to children the longer it goes on, she added, with the most vulnerable children being most disproportionately impacted.

In her blog post, Ms Longfield highlights that last year, more than 575 million school days were missed. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered most, with less contact with teachers and less work marked and over half of teachers say the disadvantage gap has widened as a result of the first national lockdown.

The children’s commissioner outlined that:

- Teachers estimated that their pupils were on average three months behind by last September, rising to four months in the most deprived schools.

- Children with special educational needs and disabilities were hit even harder. Even by July, 72% of those with an EHC plan were still not in school, despite them being allowed to attend, and countless others with additional needs but no EHCP were struggling to learn at home.

- Children with a social worker were also able to attend, though just 8% were attending on average in the months of the first lockdown. These children need to be in school to ensure they can keep learning but also for their wider wellbeing.

“A second national closure of schools will see a repeat of all of this, compounding problems that have not been addressed since the first lockdown. The impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health has been particularly worrying. In 2017, 1 in 9 children were found to have a mental health disorder. This jumped to 1 in 6 by last summer. As we do everything we can to tackle this virus, we must remember also that while children are less at risk from the virus itself, they are at real risk from the measures we take to prevent transmission, and that risk cannot be ignored,” said Anne Longfield.

The challenge, she adds, is to balance multiple competing harms and risks, and to weigh up different costs and benefits which will vary over time and across different groups of people.

The children’s commissioner for England is calling on the government to take the following measures:

- Publish a clear forward plan for how education will be delivered over the next three months in order to give children, families and schools clarity, certainty and the ability to plan.

- The government must ensure children have the laptops, broadband and data they need to learn remotely, and support schools to provide full online learning and learning at home.

- Schools should be reopened ahead of other sectors of society and the economy, with primary schools being the highest priority to reopen.

- More widely, the rights and entitlements of vulnerable children, including those with SEND and those with a social worker must be protected.

Given the government’s decision to cancel exams, the Department for Education should urgently outline how children will be assessed this summer, and clarify plans on BTECs and SATs. The government must also help those children whose mental health will suffer, by making sure every school has an NHS-funded counsellor, as quickly as possible, as an absolute minimum.

“We must learn from some of the mistakes that were made during the first lockdown, when children’s needs and right to an education were side-lined for too long and not enough political energy was put into reopening schools for all before the summer. Keeping children out of school for months once again would be a catastrophe for millions of children, and a real failure of government. The default position should always be that schools are the last to close, and the government must put long-term plans in place to make sure they are the first to open,” Anne Longfield concluded.

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