On 8 January 2021, Mishcon de Reya hosted a roundtable with key stakeholders in the education and charitable sectors to discuss mitigating the impact of school closures. Head of our Education Group Robert Lewis reflects on the discussion.
Schools in England are now online for most pupils for at least seven weeks, a situation which will likely have significant negative long-term consequences on children and the wider community. While the Christmas holidays were spent with fierce debate about the merits or otherwise of keeping schools open during a pandemic, the conversation urgently needs to move on to how those negative consequences can be mitigated.
Following a roundtable discussion with key education and charitable stakeholders (a summary of which can be found here), we believe any approach should be framed by addressing the short, medium and long term consequences. At its core, we need to re-consider our approach to education and childhood in general. As one of our participants highlighted, we urgently need a consensus about what a good childhood looks like.
Studies into the impact of school closure in spring and summer 2020 have already identified its significant negative consequences. Many children received little to no education and struggled in the absence of the structures and routine provided by school. Many young people did not cope well, resulting in increase in eating disorders, self-harm, depression and suicidal thoughts as reported by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. School safeguarding teams struggled to monitor and support vulnerable children. Children lost crucial time developing their social skills. Disadvantaged children fell further behind their peers, with the summer exams fiasco compounding a situation that was already dire before the pandemic. Meanwhile, many working parents struggled to support their children while also meeting the demands of their work.
Framing mitigation into short, medium and long term helps to prioritise action and also identify the groups most in need of urgent support. In the short term, it should be acknowledged that schools are much better equipped than ten months ago; remote learning is much improved, schools are actively targeting vulnerable children to support them attending school and safeguarding teams are working hard to continue helping and monitoring their pupils. More needs to be done, however. We urgently need to address the question of who can physically attend school, with many schools reporting large numbers of parents claiming to be critical workers leading to accusations of unfairness and inconsistency. Electronic devices should be distributed to all pupils, every effort needs to be made to avoid repeating the same mistakes as last year in relation to exams and a proper plan needs to be put in place to ensure those sitting exams in 2021-22 have sufficient time to catch up on missed learning. Short term measures should be prioritised to those groups most in need, including children from vulnerable groups and older students who have less time left in formal education to make up for the negative impact.
Addressing the medium to long term consequences provides greatest scope for creative thinking. As one of the participants in our roundtable identified, our education system was not working for many children before the pandemic hit. School closures have exposed existing problems as much as they have created new ones. Poorer pupils have always suffered education setback during the long closure in the summer, many pupils are held back by the digital divide and we have an education system more geared towards rote-learned examinations than creating a positive, and meaningful, childhood.
The good news is there is plenty of time left in formal education for younger children to not only have the consequences of school closures mitigated but to have their post-pandemic education enhanced in a way that is better than what came before it. Participants at the roundtable made proposals about how we can improve education in the months and years ahead, including recruiting qualified former teachers to enhance learning outside normal school hours, providing dedicated time for all students to participate in physical exercise and re-thinking the school year so some children are no longer left behind during the summer holidays.
We hope this is just the start of the conversation. Children and young people are least affected by the direct health consequences of COVID-19 but have arguably been impacted most by the measures taken to limit the pandemic. We owe it to them to build a better future as recognition for the sacrifices they have made largely to protect the health of older generations. We owe it to them to build back a better childhood.