Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, did not mince words. In a farewell speech given last week, before she hands over to her successor, Dame Rachel de Souza, she accused the government of “institutional bias” against children, and said that in her experience ministers take little interest in the young lives for which they are responsible. With an announcement on the reopening of schools on 8 March imminent, it is essential that the discussion about next steps is not reduced to yes or no answers.
Children who have missed months of school have been deprived of learning to which they are entitled. But to view the impact of the pandemic on them as merely a matter of skipped lessons is one-eyed. Especially for the primary-age pupils for whom learning via screens has been most difficult, making up for lost time cannot simply mean cramming. What has happened to children over the past year – for a six-year-old, one-sixth of their entire life – is more complicated than missed literacy and numeracy targets.
How to make up for the vital socialisation experiences that children have been denied is not straightforward. But increased opportunities for play, both within and outside school, should be prioritised in England as they have been in Scotland, where under-12s were exempted from restrictions on outdoor mixing. While two adults from separate households are allowed to meet under current rules, there is no equivalent provision for children. The recent telling-off by police in London of two boys building a snowman was a low point.
Ordinary loneliness or worries should not be pathologised, and many children will bounce back from setbacks. But professionals as well as parents are rightly concerned about the impact on some children’s mental health of months spent almost entirely with immediate family, mostly indoors – with the threat of serious illness hanging over them. In some cases, bereavements have occurred in awful circumstances. Increased psychological support for young people, either in school or via local mental health services, is essential and must be funded in the March budget.
Growing poverty and inequality pose the greatest threats to millions of children’s chances of a rapid recovery. The impact on them is not the only reason to be angry about benefits set so low as to make subsistence a struggle, and force families to rely on food banks. But when children have missed out on so much that the state is bound to provide outside the home, in the form of schooling but also opportunities such as sports and swimming, the injustice of poor domestic circumstances is exacerbated. Stuck inside, children are far more exposed than usual to the realities of overpriced, low-quality housing and cash shortages.
Schools have a key part to play in getting their lives back on course. But only ministers can deliver the resources needed to ensure that the next generation does not suffer long-term damage.
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