Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, has written a powerful opinion piece for today’s Sunday Telegraph urging the Government not to close schools indefinitely.
There is a real consensus that schools should be the last places to close and the first to re-open, and having argued for this since last spring, I welcome it. Because it is increasingly clear that children’s lives can’t just be put on hold while we wait for vaccination programmes to take effect, and for waves of infection to subside. We cannot furlough young people’s learning or their wider development.
The longer the pandemic continues, the more true this is. Ofsted’s work in recent months has shown the cumulative effect of prolonged disruption on many children. We found some younger children had forgotten how to hold a pencil or use a knife and fork, and had regressed in basic language and numbers. In older children, we noted increases in eating disorders and self-harm, and anti-social behaviour problems at some schools. Social media and online gaming replaced in-person interaction more than ever before during lockdown, with all the risks that brings. Children are more sedentary and less fit.
Some commentators suggested that this reflected failures of parenting. And pre-pandemic I have, for example, expressed concern about the increasing numbers of children starting school in nappies and without the most basic social skills.
Yet we must recognise that families have been severely disrupted. The support for parents that normally comes from grandparents, other family members and from friends is largely cut off by Covid restrictions. In much of the country playgrounds and other community facilities like swimming pools have been closed too. Many of the specialist services for children with health and education needs are suspended or very limited. All this is making the job of parenting harder than usual.
In fact the disruption to schooling has shown us quite how important schools are in our society. Schools exist precisely because we collectively believe that there are things that all children should learn but which we cannot expect all parents to teach. In them teachers don’t just teach, they also create the environment in which children willingly learn even the things they don’t know they need to learn, and get satisfaction from it. They are also a powerful equaliser: while children are at school, the disparities in the circumstances of their home lives are minimised.
When children are forced into remote education by Covid, these disparities aren’t just about family income or deprivation, or even about having laptops and good broadband. Our work has shown how much parents’ capacity to support remote education can vary depending on their jobs and their other caring responsibilities, such as for younger children. Even for children with stable and supportive homes, good access to technology and dedicated teachers, learning outside the classroom has been patchy. Surveys of both teachers and parents reveal the difficulty of keeping children engaged with online work, motivating them to get up at school time, and knowing whether they are actually learning when they do tune in.
Lastly, when we remove schools from the picture, not only does learning suffer, but risks of abuse, neglect or exploitation increase. Schools have become society’s collective eyes and ears, keeping a caring watch over those who need it most. Teachers are often the first to spot signs of things going wrong at home.