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10 Nov, 2020 17:26

It’s clear that shutting UK schools in the pandemic was a massive mistake that Britain can’t afford to make again

It’s clear that shutting UK schools in the pandemic was a massive mistake that Britain can’t afford to make again

The NSPCC and OFSTED have each just published a report on the terrible impact the first lockdown had on children’s education, but their findings were hardly surprising. What is a surprise is why they were so silent at the time.

Slowly, evidence begins to emerge. Today, it’s the turn of OFSTED, the body responsible for inspecting the UK’s educational establishments, to appear in the witness stand. Its newly released report, based on 900 visits to schools and nurseries, details the extent to which children fell behind with their learning and social skills as a result of the first lockdown. According to Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, “Older children have lost physical fitness as well as reading and writing skills, and some are showing signs of mental distress, which can be seen in an increase in eating disorders and self-harm.” 

Yesterday, it was the turn of the children’s charity, the NSPCC. Its report warns that young people were left feeling isolated, anxious and insecure, after being cut off from their usual social support networks. They noted that some children had developed eating disorders for the first time, while others with existing eating disorders had reported their symptoms had worsened. 

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Last week, the group No More Marking released findings from its assessment of the writing skills of 116,000 Year 7 pupils. They found that, on average, pupils were 22 months behind what would typically be expected from children their age. Not only did children not make educational progress during lockdown but they may have gone backwards, forgetting knowledge and skills they had previously learnt.

News that effectively closing schools for months on end had an impact on children should shock no one. And let’s not forget: it wasn’t just schools that were closed. Extracurricular activities, music and sports clubs, swimming pools, leisure centres and playgrounds all shut down too. Lockdown meant that even hanging around with friends at home or in a park was forbidden. 

We are now being bombarded with sensational headlines about escalating mental health problems in older children, and younger pupils forgetting how to use a knife and fork or regressing to wearing nappies again. It’s true that, while parents undoubtedly did their best under extremely difficult circumstances, many children will have experienced prolonged periods of boredom, loneliness, frustration and perhaps anger or anxiety. 

But it’s important we keep in mind that for the vast majority of children, this will not lead to mental health problems. As Spielman points out, some youngsters even found lockdown a positive experience. A majority “neither thrived nor significantly suffered”, but have slipped back in their learning to varying degrees. Some, particularly those whose parents needed to continue with full-time work, who live in cramped accommodation without a garden, who did not have access to a laptop or wi-fi to complete schoolwork, or had a pre-existing learning difficulty or mental health problem struggled most of all.

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We hardly need research or Ofsted inspectors to tell us this. From the moment the first lockdown was announced back in March, it was evident that online lessons were a poor substitute for the face-to-face interaction and discipline of a regular school day. Worse still, as many as four in ten children had little or no contact with a teacher at all during that time, meaning millions of predominantly state-school pupils did almost no work at all. 

But where were Ofsted, the NSPCC and other children’s charities and organisations back in April? Why weren’t they demanding schools reopen in June and July? Throughout lockdown, the silence from those who are supposed to champion children’s interests was deafening. If it hadn’t been for the parents who started UsForThem, the voice of children wouldn’t have been heard at all. 

Fortunately, children are resilient. With plenty of opportunities to play, learn and just be around other people, there is no reason that this spring and summer’s lockdown should do irreparable damage to either their education or mental health. But for this to be the case, children’s lives need to get back to normal as fully and as soon as possible. 

It’s good to see that, despite the best efforts of the UK’s leading teaching union, the NEU, schools have remained open during this second lockdown. However, although schools are technically open, increasing numbers of healthy children are being sent home for two weeks at a time because a classmate has tested positive for coronavirus. Half of England’s secondary schools have so far sent children home to self-isolate. This disruption makes it more difficult for children to get back into the daily routine of schooling. Wales has already announced it will be cancelling all GCSEs and A levels in 2021. We need to be asking whether this is the best course of action for children who do not have the virus themselves.

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Again, it’s not just schools. In this second lockdown, all children’s activities from scouts and brownies to football training and swimming lessons have ground to a halt. Birthday parties and family gatherings have been cancelled. In the run-up to Christmas, there are unlikely to be nativity plays, carol concerts, pantomimes or trips to Santa’s grotto. All of these small things make a big difference to children’s lives. 

Most will quickly get over the negative effect of this year’s school closures, but the longer Covid restrictions continue to impact them, the slower this process will be. And the more we now treat all children as if they are potentially mentally damaged, the more likely this is to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They will come to consider themselves not as resilient but as vulnerable. Right now, what children need more than anything else is normality.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.