We should introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against future school closures
Readers will have heard me say before that school closures have been nothing short of a national disaster for our children. Between the outbreak of the pandemic and July 2021, pupils have missed 58 per cent of all classroom time.
The herculean effort made by educators and school staff is not to be dismissed. But as we all know, the classroom is the best place for our children to learn and develop to reach their full potential.
Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already eighteen months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they took their GCSEs. But school closures turned the attainment gap into a chasm.
Research published by the Education Policy Institute has shown that primary-aged pupils’ average learning loss was 3.4 and 2.2 months for maths and reading respectively. Moreover, it is estimated that school closures will cost our young people between £78 and £154 billion in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes.
We owe it to our young people to safeguard the educational futures that Covid-19 put on hold
Report after report speaks to these harms, but they were not an unfortunate inevitability of an international public health emergency. Children in Belgium missed just 4 per cent of their schooling, whereas British children missed more school than any other country in Europe except Italy.
The facts speak for themselves and testify to what we know instinctively as human beings and parents.
A tablet is no substitute for in-person schooling. A laptop cannot replace the enriching and skills-building environment that a school community provides. A screen cannot replace the social interaction and friendships that are the essential building blocks of childhood.
This is why today, I am introducing a new Ten Minute Rule Bill to protect millions of pupils and students from the disaster of future school shutdowns.
Let me be clear. I am not a lock-down sceptic, I am a school-down sceptic.
My Bill seeks to define schools and education settings as “essential infrastructure” alongside other premises such as power stations, hospitals and food retailers which are core services, fundamental to the smooth running of the country.
The Bill will also introduce a “triple lock” of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency.
The “triple lock” would require the government to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on the necessity of closing schools, hold a debate and vote in Parliament to agree the measure. Then, in the case of a proposed extension, seek the further advice of the Children’s Commissioner and a further vote by Parliament every three weeks, to place a strict time-limit on any future disruption.
We rightly follow the science and advice from SAGE and the JCVI when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that we must also follow the advice provided by the Children’s Commissioner and those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.
I am grateful to have the backing of Children’s Commissioners past and present, as well as two former Children’s Ministers, Edward Timpson MP and Tim Loughton MP for the Bill.
Dame Rachel de Souza commented, “we must do everything we can to keep children in school and this Bill provides the opportunity to do just that.” Anne Longfield noted, “Never again must schools have to compete with pubs, theme parks and Primark to open...We should be in no doubt that keeping children in educational settings is a priority, so I support this Bill.”
We must learn from our experiences over the course of the pandemic to make sure that we prioritise children’s education moving forwards. We owe it to our young people to safeguard the educational futures that Covid-19 put on hold. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Committee.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.