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Considerations for families ahead of the new academic year

Posted on 2 September 2020

A large number of schools in England and Wales have re-opened this week, with many more due to begin their Autumn term next week. Schools in Scotland and a number in Northern Ireland have been open for a few weeks now.

Whilst schools have been working hard over the summer holidays to ensure anti COVID-19 measures are in place ahead of the new term, it is likely that parents, children and teachers alike may still have concerns.

Parents should consider and discuss the measures in place at their children's school(s) and, where appropriate, discuss those measures with their children. It may be that parents have different views as to whether their child should return to school but a decision will have to be made. Where an agreement is proving difficult, liaising with the school as to the measures in place will likely assist.

For separated parents, reaching an agreement may present additional challenges. Where the options above do not assist, discussing the issues with a mediator or another third party may do.

Of course while attending school is a legal requirement, which school a child attends is an issue which requires consultation and agreement between parents. If they cannot agree, some form of dispute resolution will be required, be that via the Courts or otherwise. However, day to day decisions do not require such consultation. Whether your child takes a packed lunch to school or has a school meal is such a decision and it is the writer's view that sending a primary school child to school with a face mask or covering would also fall into that category.  

For older students, university may seem a very different prospect to when they first applied. Even with new undergraduates due to start their first term shortly, many have no idea how they are due to be taught. While Cambridge University quickly confirmed that lectures will be conducted online for the coming academic year, some universities have yet to inform students what their plans are.

Does teaching online fundamentally change the experience of learning and attending university? Those attending the hugely successful Open University may justifiably disagree, but having the expected regular social and physical contact with other students and academics is very different from having online lectures thrust upon them as a result of COVID-19 measures.

Further, mass online education poses the question of whether there is really any need to move away from home to attend university. Staying closer to (or even at) home may be a more financially viable option. As a young adult the decision will rest with the eager student, but no doubt their parents will have a view.

For those who are moving away, there is the issue of where they are to live. Some students have not been told whether Halls of Residence will be open at the start of term or throughout the year. A house share or lodging may be the only option in the immediate term but those arrangements require considerable organisation and enough housing stock to cope with an unexpected and sizeable number of tenants. That said, does not living in 'halls' reduce the financial burden of going to university, or will a lack of stock push rents higher? Certainly this is something to consider.

Given just these two issues, parents and students may decide to investigate their options to defer their place at university for a year in the hope that UK universities are able to respond and react far better in 2021/2022. Most offers for a place on a course allow for a deferral of one year but students must that check with the relevant university and faculty. Traditionally, medical students are discouraged from deferring a place and current undergraduates on many courses at certain universities are being told that the pandemic is not an acceptable reason to defer their second or third year of study. 

For those students keen/due to go to university in the next academic year, it may be wise to make initial enquiries as to the effect 2020 may have for them. Clearly significant deferrals this year will lead to increased numbers next year.

There are lots of issues to consider and discuss before the start of any new academic year but this year is perhaps unprecedented not least given the lack of definitive answers.

In the longer term, some of the issues we are grappling with now may well have serious implications in terms of future employment, the development of talent and the disparity between those children for whom education is their only viable means of advancement and those for whom education is a mere expectation.

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