Returning children to schools

As we consider children’s return to schools, we must plan from the outset how to reclaim an education system that supports the long term wellbeing of every child.

The current argument over how to manage children’s return to school is primarily concerned with the immediate safety of the children and staff returning to those settings. There is no easy resolution of this question.

It will probably not be completely safe for children to return to schools for the foreseeable future. It is certainly not safe for many to be staying at home right now.

We must find the best balance of those two risks as rapidly as possible.

However, it’s not just about weighing up safety at home against safety at school. There is clear evidence that prolonged absence from school can be extremely damaging not only in terms of safety but also in terms of mental health, wellbeing and widening inequality. The Children’s Commissioner’s latest report makes this case strongly.

On the other hand, the evidence of the dangers to children of COVID-19 is far from definitive, but that makes it even more important for the evidence base for decisions to be shared, and uncertainties in that evidence acknowledged. That enables parents to make informed choices about how best to meet the needs of their child.

Schools have remained open throughout the pandemic for vulnerable children, but only about 15% of those places have been taken up. It is unclear how many of the remaining 85% were safer at home than they would have been at school.

In the near future we will reach a tipping point where it would generally be better for children to be at school, whatever their home circumstances, and where it would certainly be better for vulnerable children to be at school.

Identifying the right moment and process for that return to school is a debate that can only be settled by collective efforts by Government, unions, head teachers and others working constructively together with children’s best interests at heart, under no illusion that there is a perfect solution. The plan may need to flex as conditions change, whether over time or between different regions.

Once the approach to safety has been resolved, imperfectly but as best it can be, children’s return must be delivered through a system where all schools are engaged and individual planning takes place for each child, as each child will have experienced and will respond to this crisis differently.

This planning should be based on the following principles:

Reconnect and recover

  • ·Support children to make the links that matter to them, being creative and using online tools as necessary.
  •  Prioritise wellbeing as a key component of recovery so schools and settings can respond to changing mental health needs.

Restore and rebuild

  • Deal with the trauma, shock and adjustment of children returning, recognising that for some children staying at home was easier.
  • Work with children and families to rebuild trust and confidence in the safety of the system.
  • Work with other local services to provide a co-ordinated response to children’s needs.
  • Ensure staff feel confident and safe to deliver high quality education.

Re-integrate and reclaim

  • Give children on SEN support and EHC plans additional support to ensure they are in the best place to learn.
  • Ensure children with medical needs can be safely supported.
  • Look for opportunities to improve systems and processes, take in what we learned from COVID-19 about different ways of delivering the curriculum.
  • Uphold the right of every child to have high quality education, ensuring exclusion rates do not rise.
  • Recognise the rights of children who do not have a school place to return to education.       

These principles may take time to act on as the return to school unfolds. However they must be part of the planning from the very beginning to ensure that we rebuild education systems along the right lines to protect the future of all our children and young people.