Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that our schools will re-open to all children on March 8. As a former teacher and a mother of three, I know just how important it is to get our young people back in the classroom, and it’s absolutely right that the Government is prioritising the welfare of our children in the roadmap out of Covid restrictions.
When coronavirus first hit our shores a year ago, we knew little about its impact on young people and as a precaution, schools were closed to all children except those who are vulnerable or have key worker parents. In January, the infectiousness of the new variant and intense pressure on our hospitals sadly meant that schools were shut again to most children.
However, the situation has now changed substantially. Firstly, unlike last year we know that Covid poses almost no risk to children’s health. Secondly we have now vaccinated 20 million of those most vulnerable to serious illness, greatly reducing the risks of the disease to the population as a whole. Infection rates continue to fall, and so the potential benefits of keeping schools closed are now outweighed by the serious negative impacts on our children.
We are becoming increasingly aware of the many different ways in which children have been affected by school closures. Despite enormous efforts by schools to adapt to online leaning, and over 1.3 million devices supplied by the Government, virtual lessons are no long-term substitute for being in school. Primary school children have struggled to access classwork unsupervised (I know this from experience) and even for secondary school children, it is very challenging to make meaningful academic progress online.
Lost time in the classroom has had an impact on children’s attainment. There has been a lot of focus on the effects of school closures on students in examination years, and the pandemic has brought uncertainty and anxiety to both this and last year’s GCSE and A Level cohorts. But academic disruption also has a serious impact on younger children; any delays in learning to read, write and add up can have knock-on effects for a child’s whole school career.
That’s why I’m delighted that Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed by the Prime Minister and Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to work on our national catch-up programme, and I welcome the significant commitments already announced last year, including a £1.3bn catch up support fund, and that today the Government has set out a further £400m plan to help young people catch up on lost learning due to the pandemic.
This builds on £300m announced in January for existing tutoring and catch-up plans to help all our children get back on track with a boost to their learning. Importantly, this will include opportunities for music, sport and outdoor activities, in recognition that our children have missed out on so much more than the ‘three Rs’.
It is becoming increasingly evident that school closures have not just affected children’s learning, being away from the school environment has also had a big impact on wellbeing.
Our schools offer vastly more than just academic education; it’s the holistic experience of school, especially interacting with others, that gives children motivation and a sense of purpose, and prepares them for successful adult life. As a mother, it has been painful to see my children missing out on their education, but what has been far more heart-breaking is to watch them becoming demotivated, less active and lonely.
My kids have had it easy compared to many, and the damaging effects of lockdown on children are emerging every day with reports of increases in eating disorders, mental health problems and self-harm. This is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to prioritise the return to school ahead of all other measures in the roadmap he announced on Monday. As he rightly said, all the evidence shows that the best place for our young people to be is in the classroom.
I know there will be some who are concerned about how re-opening schools may affect Covid transmission rates, and it is right to take necessary precautions to make sure we don’t see a return to the rapid rises in cases that led to the current lockdown.
As children return to school from March 8, secondary school and college students will take three lateral flow Covid tests, with primary school teachers continuing to take two tests a week. Secondary school and college pupils will be provided with two home tests every week.
Testing regimes have already been set up across all education settings. A few weeks ago, I visited Ecclesfield School in my constituency, where soldiers from 21 Engineer Regiment were training teachers and support staff to deliver rapid testing in the school’s sports hall. Across the country over four million tests have already been conducted in schools, colleges, and universities. These measures will reduce the risks of transmission between teachers and pupils within schools and in the wider community, maximising the safety of all educational settings.
Re-opening our schools to all children could not be more vital for their emotional, social and academic development. We must now focus all our efforts on recovery with a catch-up programme that gives every young person the opportunity to succeed.