We need a plan to better support children if schools have to close again
Just weeks ago, families may have been thinking their children would be returning to school in 2022 with the worst of the pandemic behind them.
But by the time schools broke up for Christmas, parents and children were facing huge uncertainty due to the Omicron variant.
The Education Secretary could not guarantee that schools would reopen in January and some headteachers told parents to prepare for a return to online learning. A week later, little has changed.
The prospect of further school closures is a big concern. Previous closures had an enormous impact on young people. While there may have been benefits for some – for example, if they were being bullied – overall, the impact was harmful.
Fewer than one in 10 children eligible to continue attending school did so. Many young people were out of sight of the teachers and school staff able to spot when something wasn’t right – as well as from extended family, friends and other professionals.
Some children were left lonely and isolated. Our Good Childhood research found that during the first lockdown more than a million children were unhappy with their lives and earlier this year that a quarter of a million were still struggling to cope with the pandemic.
School closures were bad news for families in poverty as children lost access to free school meals. Despite schools’ best efforts, families were left with often sub-standard food parcels and difficulties accessing food vouchers. Some struggled to access online learning because they couldn’t afford devices or connectivity, even as the government scrambled to offer the laptops needed.
For some children, school closures meant there was no respite from risks at home such as neglect and domestic abuse. Some young people were at increased risk of exploitation into sexual activity or crimes such as county lines drug dealing and our services reported increased attempts to groom young people online.
Young people are facing a mental health crisis with or without further school closures.
With previous school closures having had such a damaging impact, we want the government focus to be on keeping schools open. But if this proves impossible for public health reasons, much more needs to be done to protect children.
Councils should ensure contact with families from schools and social services continues so that vulnerable children do not vanish from view and that they are encouraged to attend school where possible. Where risks become apparent, it’s vital young people get timely help.
There should be a plan for Free School Meals, which should be accessible to parents subject to No Recourse to Public Fund (NRPF) conditions which mean that even though they work and pay tax they aren’t eligible for benefits. All children should be guaranteed access to online learning and no family shouldn’t be left waiting weeks for devices or connectivity.
Young people are facing a mental health crisis with or without further school closures. We want the government to speed up the roll-out of mental health support teams in schools and fund early intervention hubs where children can get immediate help with their well-being before they reach crisis-point. Too many are turned away by stretched children’s mental health services or face unacceptable waits.
This situation would be difficult for any government, council or professional and the first wave of school closures was unprecedented. Some welcome efforts were made to mitigate the impact, although mistakes were inevitably made. But overall, we didn’t feel that children were sufficiently prioritised.
If schools have to close again, lessons must be learned. From the government down to local councils and other services which support children, plans need to be put in place so that things are different this time. If that happens, we can prevent further harm to children’s safety and well-being, and ensure they emerge with hope for the future.
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.