Robert Halfon: I’m not a lockdown sceptic. But I am a “school-down” sceptic – and fear for the impact of these closures.

27 Jan

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Media speculation in recent days has suggested that pupils may not be back into the classroom until after Easter. This is despite the previous indication that schools and colleges would reopen after the February half-term, when Lockdown III was announced on January 4.

To be clear, I am not a lockdown sceptic. In fact, I voted for all the Government measures to control the virus. However, I am a “school-down” sceptic. I worry enormously about the impact that prolonged school closures will have on the mental health, social development, academic attainment and safeguarding of children.

The Times this week published a letter from leading clinicians and paediatricians, warning that: “Anxiety, depression and self-harm are all at frightening levels” among our young people, and that: “Parents are showing signs of psychological stress and even breakdown as a result of the pressures of trying to home-school their children and sustain their jobs and businesses”.

At the end of December, Dr Karen Street, an Officer for Mental Health at the RSPCH, wrote about the harrowing 400 per cent increase in eating disorders among young people, in part due to school closures and social isolation.

Mental health is inextricably linked to children’s ability to learn and their attainment outcomes. The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing also predicted their later academic progression. For example, children with better wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage two score 2.46 points higher (equivalent to more than one term’s progress) than pupils with poorer wellbeing.

We know that education inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The IFS’s New Year Message report stated that “a long-term consequence of the pandemic will be to halt, or even reverse” the closing of the attainment gap.

So now, more than ever, children need to be in the right headspace to learn.

The Department for Education’s roll-out of more than one million devices for children on the wrong side of the digital divide will undoubtedly make a difference. But for all the laptops in the world, children need to have the motivation to open them, study independently at home, and have the support from parents, which may not always be possible if the parents are struggling with work, alongside looking after their kids. Millions of laptops also doesn’t necessarily mean we deal with the huge mental health problems now faced by many pupils.

So, what is needed? A mental health practitioner available to pupils, parents and school staff, stationed in every school, both online and in person. Place2Be, for example, worked with 33,000 children and young people last year and delivered 29,869 support sessions for parents. The charity’s impact assessment states that 81 per cent of those with severe difficulties showed an improvement in their mental health.

What’s more, those pupils receiving one-to-one support were able to keep pace academically with their peers (of the same attainment and background characteristics), suggesting that the possible negative impact of their mental health difficulties on their learning were mitigated.

While the Government has invested more in mental health, after the Coronavirus, there is going to be a radical rethink as to how children are supported with mental health and counselling.

A growing source of unease for many pupils, parents and school staff is the lack of certainty or a plan for school reopenings. We need an educational route map out of Coronavirus for schools and colleges.

No one expects a specific date for reopening. Of course, decisions should be guided by the scientific evidence on community cases and transmission rates.

However, school and college staff, pupils and their parents deserve a clear explanation of the criteria and the conditions that need to be met before the Government reopens schools, so that they can prepare.

Public Health England officials concluded this week from its monitoring of infections in schools that: “There’s a strong case for primary schools to reopen” after the February half-term, “once infection rates start falling and are sufficiently low to allow easing of national lockdown measures” and that the “evidence is building to show that primaries are a safe environment.”

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told my Education Select Committee last week that: “School children definitely can transmit infection in schools. They can transmit it in any environment. But it is not a significant driver, as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections. Rather it is the other way round, that if there is a rise in community rates, you will see a rise in children as well.”

For all these reasons, we must get schools open again and sooner rather than later. In areas of the country – or in primaries – where the science suggests it would be safe for schools to reopen, they absolutely must do so.

Regular testing of pupils and staff will be important to keep schools open safely. That is why I, alongside Miriam Cates MP, and nine other MPs, wrote to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation should also look at making teachers and support staff a priority for vaccinations – purely, on the basis it will mean schools can open sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, there is a growing coalition to get schools reopen again – not just the parent group, UsforThem, but children and young people’s charities.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has added to the calls for clarity, saying: “Children are more withdrawn, they are suffering in terms of isolation, confidence levels are falling, and some have serious issues…Families will need hope and clarity about what comes next, and that of course is what the speculation we’re hearing really feeds into, that confusion.”

It is worth noting that not all teaching unions are opposed to educational professionals being back at school. As Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Today programme on Monday: “Without anybody jumping the queue over vulnerable people… if you’re able to give the reassurance to those people working in schools and colleges that they’re not suddenly going to disappear into self-isolation because of vaccinations, starting with the staff, that would be reassuring I think so that we can get some continuity. Similarly, if we are able to do that with children and young people, the same thing.

“But, I don’t know that we need to wait for [vaccinations to reopen schools]. I think if we’ve got a very clear idea of what the scientific principles are, which then lead to the educational principles, could we not have more young people coming into school as appropriate, rather than this revolving door we’ve got at the moment?”

I recognise that the Government is firefighting in dealing with the Coronavirus, but surely one of the most important functions of the engine of the State is to get our schools and colleges open soon. The Secretary of State for Education and the Government should form an education “coalition of the willing” to get all children learning full-time again.