Our children need stability and security to flourish
Miriam Cates MP | Sunday Express
Children should be seen and not heard; so goes the Victorian adage.
But of course in modern Britain, we have a much more enlightened attitude to our children’s welfare. Don’t we?
Until the coronavirus pandemic, our society placed enormous value on children’s education. We believed that school attendance was so critical to a child’s life chances that we even fined parents for their children’s absence from the classroom.
Another sign of this concern for children was our commitment to keeping them safe. ‘Safeguarding’ had become the watchword for everyone working with young people, with strict policies ensuring all signs of harm are quickly reported.
Yet these apparently unshakeable commitments to our children’s education and safety seemed to evaporate overnight when we closed schools last March. The treatment of our children since then has left me wondering how deeply we really care about them at all.
The implications of school closures are frightening. Between March 2020 and April this year, pupils missed more than half of classroom time and sadly poorer children lost out even more than their wealthier peers.
As a parent and a former teacher, I find it almost laughable that we have pretended that online learning is a substitute for being in school. Primary school children struggle to engage well with online lessons (I speak from exasperated personal experience) and for secondary school children, only the most highly motivated and well-supported students can make meaningful academic progress online.
We can see this from recent reports into how far our children have fallen behind. 200 000 children will leave primary school this year without being able to read, and students in some areas were almost 6 months behind in maths after the first lockdown.
But the educational impacts of school closures are eclipsed by the safeguarding implications, particularly for Britain’s most vulnerable children. When I was a secondary school teacher, one of the most severe punishments for bad behaviour was ‘isolation’, where a student would be separated from their classmates and forced to work alone. There’s a reason why isolation, or ‘solitary confinement’, is used as a punishment by societies the world over; being alone for prolonged periods of time has a severe and well-documented impact on wellbeing.
And yet for much of the last 17 months, many of our children have spent six or more hours a day at home alone, resulting in serious harm for so many. There has been a 77% increase in the number of self-generated sexual images of children on the internet, a doubling of paediatric referrals for eating disorders, and an increase in depression and anxiety.
For far too many children, home is not a safe place; I know of schools in my constituency where teachers have been so worried about the safety of certain pupils that they have made frequent home visits, hoping (in vain) to catch sight of vulnerable children. Even before the pandemic there were nearly 2.2m children in England living in households affected by domestic abuse and addiction.
These are not temporary hiccups to children’s education; the damage caused by isolation will be serious and lifelong.
Of course I welcomed the return to school in March this year, but let’s not pretend things have been back to normal. The psychological impacts of strict anti-mixing rules in schools, not to mention face masks and frequent testing are severe. Many tears have been shed in our house when the dreaded email arrives from school, informing us that ‘your child's bubble is closed, and they must now isolate’ and this anguish is being repeated in hundreds of thousands of homes across the country. Imagine waking up every day, not knowing whether you’ll be allowed to leave your house, see your friends, or receive an education?
Children need stability and security to flourish; instead we have forced them to live in limbo, and even blamed them for spreading the virus to those they love.
I welcome the announcement this week that there will soon be an end to contact isolation for under 18s. But we must ensure that school returns to and continues as normal, whatever happens in the autumn term. Chris Whitty has implied that some COVID restrictions may remain in place until next spring, and we can be sure that once cases of flu and COVID rise again in the autumn term, there will be many who call for schools to close once more.
But if we really value our children and our future, we will resist this call with everything we have. How will our children ever trust us again if we use their education and welfare as a ‘tool’ to manage COVID, a disease that poses almost no risk to the young and against which all vulnerable people have now been offered a vaccine?
Edmund Burke wrote famously that society is a contract ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. If we close our schools again, we will threaten the future of our whole society and tear up this contract.
Children should be seen, and heard, and valued. Our children are our future, and we can never again ask them to make such terrible sacrifices.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Express in July 2021