This has been the most disruptive year of most of our lives. The way we work, go to school and do the weekly shop has changed in ways that we never expected, and the impact on children and young people cannot be overstated, writes Mia Rees.
During the first lockdown, schools were closed and parents had to juggle the combined tasks of working from home and teaching their children. Children at proactive schools had work sent home and got support from their teachers, but this was not the case across the board and the Welsh Labour Government were slow to act.
Most of the resources that children were encouraged to use were online which in turn highlighted the lack of digital equipment in some households and of decent internet in others. At this time I worked with parent groups to raise the joint concerns of poor quality resources and the digital gap some families were experiencing. Some Councils and Education Consortia listened and took action but others shrugged and said it was “up to schools”. This complacency shocked me.
The hardest conversations I had during this time were with the families of children with Additional Learning Needs. It seemed that overnight they had lost their support networks and their children were upset and confused. For these families schools closing was so much more than a loss of learning.
I was delighted that all corners of the UK committed to allowing children back into the classroom for the autumn term. Of course, it was never going to be back to ‘business as usual’ and schools and colleges in Wales worked their socks off to try and implement the latest guidance. Naturally, there were stumbles with very large numbers of children being sent home after one positive test in a number of schools, but it was widely thought that these cases where outliers and schools were still learning.
Unfortunately, in too many schools these issues persist. There are still schools in Wales sending home over 300 pupils after one positive test. This is unnecessary and over the top; even the largest schools in the country have managed to send home 30 pupils a time – not 10 times that! I have spoken to parents whose children have gone back to school for only one day before being sent home again with one Year 11 pupil getting only have five and half days of classroom teaching this term.
My worry is that our young people are missing out. They are missing out on the quality, classroom-based education they deserve. They are missing out on structured lessons which impart knowledge and the friendships which support emotional development. And they are missing out on learning that they will need to process onto the next stage of their lives whether that is University, an apprenticeship or the world of work.
The impact will be felt by these children for years to come. But it doesn’t need to be like this.
I have worked with Headteachers which have excellent procedures in place meaning that they send the smallest possible number of children home if there is a positive case. I have spoken with dedicated and hardworking teachers who have “dual streamed” their lesson plans for the year meaning that all lessons can be taught either in the classroom or at home depending on what the situation allows. These schools are amazing and I commend their staff and all they are doing. But unfortunately, this is not the experience of all learners.
The latest news that some local Councils have decided to close their schools early for Christmas – some closed as early as the 9th December – has been a further blow. They should still receive structured online learning but take-up will be dependent on the child, and in most cases if they have a parent who can support and oversee their work. Many won’t and this will mean that more learning time will be lost.
The Christmas break is an opportunity for the Welsh Labour Government to review what has gone wrong this term and learn from schools who have stepped up to the plate. If not then in January we will be in the same situation with pupils missing out on learning unnecessarily and the disruption of this year will continue to have ramifications for our young people and their families for years to come.
Mia Rees is the Welsh Conservative Senedd Candidate for the Cynon Valley.