Education system will focus on mental health and well-being of pupils before learning as schools return to classrooms a year after first lockdown

It could be years before the full extent of the damage that lockdown has had on the city's young people is properly realised.

Monday, 8th March 2021, 6:00 am

The NSPCC said "it has been a truly awful" year for young people while in Leeds, the council's education spokesperson told the Yorkshire Evening Post, ahead of school-gates reopening this morning, that there will be effects of lockdown on children and young people "that we just don't know about".

Schools return to as close to as normal conditions as possible today for the first time in almost a year, and, despite reams of risk assessments and guidelines over lateral flow testing of pupils and mask wearing - teachers say they want to get back to school to check on their children.

Coun Jonathan Pryor, Executive Member for Learning, Skills, Employment & Equality, said: "They want to see how children have been over lockdown. In the council we are discussing what the long term effects of lockdown will have been on children and young people and how we target that over the next years.

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Coun Jonathan Pryor.

"There will be some effects that we just don't know about now, that come to fruition, whether this is mental health or catching up on learning. Equally we are trying to look at what they have missed - not just academically. So much of childhood is about socialising with friends, having that time to play and all those other experiences. Children learn so much from each other. We need to be thinking not just about education and attainment, which is massively important, but development and how they are doing.

"We are coming up to a year anniversary of the first lockdown. We have all had disruption in our lives but when you are that age, a year seems so much longer. If you are five or six years-old, that is 15 to 20 per cent of your entire life. That year is so much more significant in developmental terms than to the rest of us."

He added that children will have had mixed experiences at home depending upon if they have siblings to interact with, if they are an only child, have they only been around older people and what kind of home-schooling experience they had. Some children have parents who are better equipped to home-school, some children won't have had access to the internet or even books.

Taking this into account, Leeds City Council is now also looking ahead to the impact of these factors on attainment and assessment over the next couple of years.

The mental health and wellbeing of children post-lockdown is taking precedence over education as schools return.

Coun Pryor said: "There is debate going on now with government. We called on them to cancel exams this year and I am glad they finally came around to it. Now, what we are calling on them to do is look at exams in 2022. We are optimistic they will be able to sit them but the children sitting these will have had 12 to 18 months of disrupted education. They will not be at the same level as peers in previous years.

"How do we make sure that they get the grades, how do we make sure children in the north are not disadvantaged, that the algorithm benefits private schools? There are lots of potential hurdles and we need to be looking at it now to make sure they are fair."

Referring to the government decision to cancel exams only when infection rates began to spike in the south of the country, Coun Pryor said he was concerned Leeds students would be put at a disadvantage.

He said: "Historically the government has ignored the north/south divide. It frustrates me here in Leeds, it does put children in the north at a disadvantage. I will keep hammering them to make sure our children here in Leeds are treated fairly."

Last week, the NSPCC staged a two-day conference on safeguarding children where it said the government must "turbo-charge" plans for mental health support for children in schools and ensure that wellbeing checks are at the heart of its Covid-19 catch-up plans.

Schools and teachers must be properly equipped to recognise and respond sensitively to children who have had traumatic experiences in lockdown when they return to the class, the charity has urged.

Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said at the online event it had been "a truly awful year for children", with lockdown increasing the risks of abuse and neglect among young people.

Since the first lockdown last year, Childline delivered just over 61,000 counselling sessions about mental and emotional health.

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