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.
If there were an Oscar for campaigning I would, without hesitation, give it to the pressure group Us for Them. Set up in the height of the pandemic, by a group of families worried about school closures and the damage to children, these parents – with minimal funding – have fought night and day on behalf of pupils.
Maligned in some left-wing quarters as “right-wing extremists”, “anti-vaxxers” and “Covid deniers” (all untrue), Us for Them has worked tirelessly to get children back into school. Especially when it was unfashionable to do so. Its representatives have taken on the might of the education unions, the sleepy establishment and sections of the Labour Party. They have presented their case cogently and coherently in newspapers and on television. All whilst keeping up a relentless social media presence.
Sadly, as parents, they know first hand of the horrific impact that the “schooldown” has had upon pupils. Falling educational attainment, a mental health epidemic, safeguarding hazards and future loss of lifetime earnings. Us for Them speaks with passion and real emotion because some representatives’ own children have been affected, especially in terms of their mental health. Us for Them puts significant pressure on the Government to get our children back into school and learning again.
You do not have to agree with everything members say, but their fundamentals should be cast in stone: the last year has been a national disaster for our young people. Never again should we shut our schools – except in extreme circumstances. Moreover, everything possible should be done to repair the damage over the coming years and months.
Parents and children have been lucky to have a trade union like Us for Them working hard in their interests. Unlike some of the education unions, Us for Them’s campaign was not about opportunistic politics and challenging the Government, it was just focused on the children. If you listen to one podcast this week, turn on the latest Telegraph Planet Normal. In this episode, Us for Them parents set out why they formed, what they have done and all that they have achieved. I am glad to have met some of these remarkable individuals.
Groups, such as Us for Them, that champion the rights of parents and children are needed more than ever. Last Friday, in my constituency surgery, I met a parent who told me that her child of five, having heard the “wash your hands” mantra, now has a new compulsive obsessive disorder in that she keeps cleaning her hands. So much so that they are sore and bleeding.
My constituent’s other child has also developed significant anxieties. Both had been perfectly healthy and happy children before school closures. I regularly visit schools, and every time I speak to pupils many of them tell me that their mental health suffered significantly during the lockdowns.
Even before Coronavirus, there was a significant rise in the number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties. Social media likely played a large part in causing this increase. Unless remedial action is taken, this has the potential to become a national emergency post-Covid. It is good that the Government has ploughed more funds into mental health and guaranteed an extra £17 million for schools.
However, more needs to be done, including a nationwide assessment of children, not just in terms of their lost academic attainment but also the impact on their mental health. That way, the Department for Education would know the true extent of the problem and have the ability to develop policies accordingly. Although there are now more mental health professionals in schools, they need to be placed in every educational establishment to help pupils, parents, teachers and support staff. We cannot afford to sweep these problems under the carpet any longer.
The fallout from school closures has created other problems too. Research from the respected Centre for Social Justice, shows that 93,500 children have not returned to school (or are in school less than 50 per cent of the time) since full reopening in March. I call these pupils “the ghost children” because they are lost to education.
The welcome £3 billion catch-up programme will not help these children. They are not in school to benefit from the investment. The Government needs to look at parental engagement programmes, like that of the Feltham Reach Academy, to try and get these pupils back into school. The Government should also see whether the Troubled Families Programme could expand its reach to cover absent school children.
Meanwhile, in schools, we have Argentinian levels of hyperinflation in terms of lost learning. Last week, 640,000 children were sent home because of Covid-19 rules. This figure sat at 385,000 the week before. Pupils in Year 10 have been missing one in four face-to-face teaching days. If proper examinations are going to take place next year, what is the solution to ensure a level playing field for the hundreds of thousands of students who have missed lessons? Perhaps that is a question for another day. No doubt Us for Them will have some ready answers.