Education and Skills

The best thing we can do for Children’s Mental Health Week is to fully reopen our schools

Captain Sir Tom Moore, while capturing the imagination of the nation, evoked memories of his generation’s great sacrifices during the Second World War.  Those making the greatest sacrifices in this Covid-19 conflict are children and young people who are least at risk of becoming ill themselves writes Richard John.

The vast majority of pupils in Wales have missed over half of the 190 statutory school days in the past year, while many will have missed even more due to contact groups self-isolating during the autumn term.  Schools play such a critical role in our society and are so much more than formal education and qualifications.  A good teacher can inspire lifelong creativity, confidence in one’s abilities and a sense of awareness of the world around us. 

The full impact of schools being closed to the majority of pupils is impossible to accurately assess without the benefit of hindsight, but already the evidence of the risk of harm is overwhelming.  In Children’s Mental Health Week, it is more apparent than ever that more children have been dealing with anxiety, boredom and feelings of isolation and the long-term implications of this psychological damage are profoundly worrying.  Many parents are exhausted from juggling the competing demands of home-schooling their children and trying to hold down a job, perhaps home working in unsuitable conditions.

There are significantly increased risks to the wellbeing and safety of children and young people, yet many of the safeguards which would normally be in place to detect abuse are absent.  The combined impact of worklessness, stress, confinement and isolation puts great strain on already fragile or volatile family relationships and levels of parental stress are a key factor in the prevalence of child neglect.  The nature of vulnerability has changed during the pandemic as some children become more vulnerable due to changes in circumstances, while many of the safety nets in school and in networks of family and friends are not available for many children.

Limited access to physical activity is particularly damaging to both mental and physical health.  Children and young people can’t access their local leisure centre, take part in organised exercise or even meet friends in the park.  That lack of social interaction and enjoyable outdoor pursuits is completely foreign to our way of life and is sad for so many children.

One of greatest strengths of our state school system is its capacity to level the playing field and ensure that whatever your background, you have a more equal opportunity to get on in life.  Prolonged periods out of school will only entrench and exacerbate existing inequalities.

For adults and older pupils, distance learning has its merits.  For people juggling work and adult education, distance learning offers flexibility and for A Level students, it can broaden the range of courses on offer where choice is sometimes impeded due to low uptake of subjects such as law, creative arts or modern foreign languages.

My experience of blended learning as both a councillor and as a parent gives me confidence that it is inclusive and of a high standard, but for many primary age children it will never be as valuable as time spent in school.  Be it synchronous or asynchronous lessons, what matters above all is that the standard of teaching and learning is high.  Home schooling has been a powerful reminder to me of the fantastic job our teachers do.  I don’t underestimate the massive demands we’re placing on teachers educating keyworker and vulnerable children in school, preparing live and pre-recorded lessons and meetings for pupils at home as well as, in some cases, home schooling their own children.  The educational deficit once schools reopen will be significant and the greatest risks are to the youngest children.  Even the best possible blended learning will never be a substitute for learning to read and write in the classroom.

The Welsh Government promised that schools would be the last aspect of society to close and the first to reopen and stated that even at Alert Level Four, we should normally expect schools to stay open.  Most of Wales now meets most of the Welsh Government’s own criteria to move out of lockdown into Alert Level Three.  As of 30th January, the average seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 in Wales stood at 125.8, well below the Level Four threshold of 300 and average positivity was at 10.8%, above the 10% threshold, but skewed due to the very high rates in Wrexham and Flintshire.

Schools have been closed in recent weeks not because they were in any way unsafe, but to further reduce community transmission of the virus because the NHS was at risk of being overwhelmed.  The Welsh Government now needs to work closely with teachers to reassure an understandably anxious profession with the latest evidence about the low risks of transmission between children and adults in schools.  While case rates per 100,000 in most council areas are on a par with early October, there are demands from trade unions that schools shouldn’t reopen until all school staff have been vaccinated and that this should take place over half term.  While there’s an emotional case for this to ease anxiety levels, the reality is that if we divert from the prioritisation set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation by vaccinating the worried well, more vulnerable people in their 50s and 60s with underlying health conditions will die.  We must continue to vaccinate the nine priority groups based on risk of mortality, but once complete and we turn our attention to the healthy under 50s, perhaps we should consider prioritising certain professions such as teachers, supermarket workers, bus drivers and other keyworkers.

We cannot allow children and young people to be the collateral damage of this conflict.  Children have suffered enough and the risks associated with their continued absence from the classroom are so great that the case to begin reopening our schools is compelling.  For the sake of their social, emotional and educational needs, I desperately hope we will see pupils returning to full-time face-to-face schooling later this month.

Richard John is Deputy Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and Cabinet Member for Education and Leisure