Disadvantaged children in most need of getting back into the classroom may come from families most at-risk from coronavirus, charity warns
The parents of children from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be punished if they feel unsafe sending pupils back to school in September, a Yorkshire-based education charity has said.
Disadvantaged families have been shown to be at the most risk of the coronavirus pandemic, with overcrowding in homes, worse health, and ethnicity all playing a role.
And as the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to get all pupils back in the classroom in September, chief executive of education charity Shine, Fiona Spellman, said it is those children whose families may be most at risk who will need understanding and compassion over the return.
Boris Johnson said yesterday getting all children back to school full-time in England next month is the “right thing for everybody”.
And Ms Spellman said: “We’re very supportive of a return to school, but that’s not to underestimate the significant concerns of doing that and schools are saying to us it will take time to build back up.”
She said schools and teachers had gone “above and beyond” during the lockdown to provide support for families not only in education but also the wider support offered.
“We work with schools that serve some of the most disadvantaged places in the North, and we have been concerned by the impact of the school closures on those children,” she said.
“Schools have gone above and beyond, including home visits, providing access to food and welfare that goes way beyond what an online classroom might look to deliver.”
But she said these issues were not new, and came as little surprise to those who work with struggling families everyday.
“Covid has come along and it’s really placed a spotlight on those differing experiences children have, it’s become a lot more part of the debate, and I think that’s actually helpful,” she said.
“Teachers in those schools have already got the hardest job, so in that sense it’s been a welcome spotlight on some of the realities.
“I think crucially everybody is aware that the school closures are not good for children, it’s not what teachers want, it’s not what parents want, the level of disruption to children’s education is one of the ways but I think we are also very aware that the reality is, there’s lots of mixed messaging in what is and is not right to do.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson previously said a return to school will be “compulsory” and families may face financial penalties if they keep their children at home – unless there is a “good reason” for the absence.
But pointing to Bradford, one of the West Yorkshire areas where restrictions have been imposed due to a spike in coronavirus cases, Ms Spellman said it was understandable that parents might be reticent to send their children back to the classroom while also being told their region was at high-risk and they may be more susceptible to the virus.
“It’s very hard to fully reconcile the different messaging. And that great equaliser has become anything but,” she said.
A report from Ofsted in January found primary and secondary institutions in Bradford were falling behind similar schools across the rest of the country.
And around half of children in the Bradford East and West constituencies were living in relative poverty, according to government data released last year.
Ms Spellman said: “It’s the children that need those school places most who perhaps come from families where there’s a stronger concern over what the impact of Covid might be for their household. It’s a risk.
“There’s been talk about reimposing fines and sanctions [for absences] but for headteachers this is about building and maintaining those really good relationships with home.”
She said those kinds of measures should be the “last resort”.
On a visit to a school in east London yesterday the Prime Minister said: “It’s very important that everybody works together to ensure that our schools are safe and they are – they are Covid secure – I have been very impressed by the work that the teachers have done, working with the unions, to make sure that all schools are safe to go back to in September.
“But, basically, the plan is there – get everybody back in September, that’s the right thing for everybody in this country.”
Mr Johnson said it was “not right” that children should spend any more time out of school, adding that it was more “damaging” for pupils who have fallen further behind amid school closures.
Teachers, scientists, opposition politicians and Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield have all called for improvements to testing before pupils return in September.
One school leaders’ union said the Government should have a plan B in place for schools – such as a “week-on, week-off” rota system for pupils – if there are further lockdowns and spikes in Covid-19 cases.
However a leading expert yesterday said children were “very minor players” in the transmission of coronavirus and opening schools would “add little” to the reproduction rate of infection.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “reopening schools is one of the least risky things we can do”.
A Public Health England (PHE) analysis appears to show that Covid-19 outbreaks were “uncommon” in educational settings during the first month after the easing of national lockdown in England.
Downing Street insisted that schools would stay open if possible in local lockdowns.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s correct to say that schools would be the absolute last sector to close in any local lockdown.”