The importance of getting our children back to school
It's great news that schools will be reopening on March 8 as the first step in the process of lifting the lockdown restrictions.
I have consistently said that getting pupils back into classrooms and the physical learning environment must be our top priority, and I'm delighted that the Government has agreed with me on this issue.
We have a moral obligation to our children and young people to ensure that they're not disadvantaged in the long term by measures we've taken to protect society at large. It’s not just their educational attainment that is improved by being in school, but also their social, emotional, and physical health and development. The additional £1 billion for catch-up funding from the Government will help to address lost learning, and time spent in classrooms will be a major boost for mental wellbeing too.
It’s important that schools are kept as safe as possible for staff, students, and their families. The extra testing capacity that’s being delivered to schools allows pupils to be tested with rapid turnaround tests twice a week, alongside regular testing of school staff. I know from conversations with teachers and school leaders that staff have already gone to great lengths to make their schools safe for everyone, and are ready to welcome pupils back next month.
Being in school isn't the only thing that children have missed out on during this lockdown. Many families rely on wraparound childcare, children's activities and school sports to enable them to go to work or undertake caring responsibilities, and I’m pleased that these will all be allowed to take place from March 8.
Nurseries have remained open throughout lockdown to provide a vital service to many families. The Government has provided rapid turnaround tests for nursery workers at central sites and it’s right that from March these tests will now be delivered directly to nurseries, allowing staff to be tested at work.
From March 29, as restrictions on outdoor socialising are eased, the rule of six (or two households) is returning for public and private outdoor spaces such as parks and gardens. An exemption to this is being made for parent and child groups, which will be able to meet outdoors with up to fifteen people, excluding children aged under 5.
I was pleased to speak in the debated about a national education route map for schools and colleges in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Education Route Map: Covid-19
"There is no more urgent task for Government right now than getting children back into school. I am delighted with the Prime Minister’s announcement that schools can reopen from March 8, and I welcome the additional £700 million of catch-up funding, setting out a clear framework towards recovery.
Many children have suffered greatly over the last year, prevented from going to school, banned from seeing grandparents and kept indoors, inactive, isolated and spending hundreds of hours in front of a screen. Our children have not only missed out on learning. In many cases, they have lost confidence, motivation and purpose. I know that the Government have gone to great lengths to deliver online learning and support families financially, but I want to reflect for a moment on how society as a whole has allowed this harm to happen to our most vulnerable and most voiceless citizens during a pandemic that poses almost no risk to children’s physical health.
Over recent years, we have prided ourselves on our enlightened attitude to children, critical of the Victorians for their view that children should be seen and not heard. But this year, in 21st-century Britain, our children have been both unseen and unheard, with the harms that many have experienced only now becoming apparent. That is why we must strain every sinew to restore what has been lost to our children.
I am heartened by the Government’s commitment to prioritise catch-up over the coming years, but this recommitment to children must extend beyond the academic. This year, we have seen how much more our schools offer than just the three Rs, and many families have all but collapsed without the social, relational and even medical support provided by schools.
Perhaps our brilliant schools have for some time been masking a deep social crisis: a crisis in family life. The charity Mental Health Innovations reports that in its conversations with children under 13, 55% say that they have no one else to talk to. Many families are in crisis, led by a steady, stealthy degrading of the role of families and the value of parenting. The trend towards more and more parents working longer and longer hours has done wonders for our GDP but caused harm to our children.
Being a parent is one of the most important roles that any of us can have and has more long-term impact on society and the economy than almost anything else we do. But parenting takes time, effort and a huge amount of emotional resilience—resources that are in short supply when stressed parents are working long hours in a tax system that does not recognise family responsibility, and they have little energy to spare.
I welcome the Government’s dedicated and ambitious approach to academic catch-up in schools, but if we really want to restore to our children what has been lost, we should also look again at how we can empower and support parents to deliver their crucial role in our children’s success."