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Concern for vulnerable children and overstretched parents as schools close

19 March 2020


TODAY, Friday, is the last day at school for the foreseeable future for hundreds of thousands of pupils and their teachers in England, Scotland, and Wales, as classes are suspended in the face of spreading coronavirus infection. In Northern Ireland schools will shut from Monday.

For the children of key workers in the community, and those with special needs, however, lessons will continue under the guidance of volunteer teachers. Late on Thursday evening, the Cabinet Office released a full list of what constitutes a key worker shortly. It includes NHS and social care workers, those involved in food production and distribution, school staff, and those working in utilities, communications and financial services.

Workers in “key public services” include “those essential to the running of the justice system, religious staff, charities and workers delivering key frontline services, those responsible for the management of the deceased, and journalists and broadcasters who are providing public service broadcasting.”

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, tweeted on Friday morning: “Many of us clergy and staff will not need to avail ourselves of key worker status to keep our children in school. Please use it only where necessary. But being recognised as key workers at this moment will help sustain energy and morale.”

How long the shut-down will last is unknown. The Government has simply said that it will be “until further notice”. It hopes the move will apply “further downward pressure” on the upward curve of cases of the virus.

Many schools have planned ahead for the shutdown, and moved to online learning or sent children home with learning packs. Others have already shut because of the number of teachers self-isolating.

Parents are facing the prospect of overseeing their children’s daytime education for several weeks, if not months.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said in a letter to members: “These are early days. Most important, I would suggest, would be to try to establish a link with your parents and students, such as a twice-weekly email newsletter in which you explain what’s happening, suggest activities for pupils, build a sense that your school or college remains committed to helping children to remain engaged in learning. A group of edtech experts have begun to co-ordinate resources.”

The BBC and several charities and education firms are offering online resources. The National Literacy Trust has launched an online zone for parents looking for ideas and activities. Home-learning provider Exemplar Education has written to schools offering free access to its online maths tuition programme; and the youth music-development charity NYMAZ is putting together a package of support for online lessons and events.

The Scout Association is offering ideas for 100 free indoor activities, games, and craft activities online. Bear Grylls, the Chief Scout, said he hopes it will help them channel their energy “in a positive way”. The collection, dubbed The Great Indoors, will be supported by “how-to” sessions on Facebook Live with Scout ambassadors, including Steve Backshall and Helen Glover.

The Great Indoors activities collection is available here.

In England and Wales, A level and GCSE exams, due to be taken in May and June, have been cancelled. Information about exams in Scotland is due soon. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said that the Government will work with schools, colleges, and the exams regulator Ofqual “to ensure children get the qualifications they need”.

Pupils who cannot sit exams will be given grades based on teacher assessment and evidence of internal assessment, such as mock exams, which would be checked by exam boards. Mr Williamson hoped the results would be available by August. Quite how that will affect students hoping to go to university, has not yet been clarified.

The British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology (DECP) has published a series of tips for schools and parents. It says that children can sometimes believe they are responsible for events beyond their control, and suggests that parents and carers reassure them that it is the job of adults to keep them safe.

The advice also says that children should be helped to maintain their friendships through calls, online communication and letters, and that a routine and structure can help youngsters feel secure in uncertain times. It warns: “Don’t put too much pressure on doing academic work. Parents and carers aren’t teachers, and it is important to also spend time building relationships, enjoying shared activities and reassuring children.”

The Children’s Society has called on the Government to act “to stop families and children being cast adrift by school closures”. The Society’s chief executive, Mark Russell, said: “A decision of this magnitude will have life changing consequences for families — many of whom are already stretched to the limit.

“We were encouraged to hear that the education of children known to social care because of issues such as abuse and neglect will be prioritised.

”However, we know that many highly vulnerable children are hidden from view and do not benefit from the official status that will mean they can continue to attend school. There must be enough flexibility in the system for schools to ensure that vulnerable pupils who do not have a social worker are able to benefit from ongoing learning and safeguarding support provided by schools.”

Also, he said, “the announcement of a national voucher scheme simply does not go far enough to respond to the scale of the financial challenge facing families as a result of this pandemic. Many parents are will lose income as they juggle work and childcare, and, undoubtedly with children at home, every family will face substantially higher day-to-day costs of living.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in House of Lords on Thursday, said: “For many children in the most deprived areas, school is where they get not just education but food. . . What can the Government offer to enable free school meals to continue during the gap?

“To be moral and ethical, there has to be a vision on a scale with the spending, a vision that recovers ‘us’ and ‘we’ from the era of ‘I’ and ‘me’ — in short, a vision to recreate the notion and reality of society.”

He went on: “We will overcome the virus. Small groups all over the country are showing fresh signs of community spirit and collaboration. It is from those small groups, through to the large-scale government measures, that things will change.”

The Church of England’s chief education officer Nigel Genders, posted on Twitter on Thursday that he was grateful for assurances from the junior schools minister Baroness Berridge that the most vulnerable children and children receiving free school meals would be supported in “real and practical ways”.

He thanked teachers and education leaders who “continue to work tirelessly to support the whole country” by enabling key workers to keep working. “You are hugely valued and appreciated,” he said.

There are one million students in 4644 Church of England schools. In the Chichester diocese, where about 37,000 children attend 155 church schools, education staff were keenly awaiting the Government’s definition of “vulnerable pupils” and “key workers”.

Lesley Hurst, the Assistant Director of Education, Business Development & Management, for the diocese, said: “Our schools will be ready and very willing to respond once they know the nature of the challenge they are facing. The leadership and the uncompromising commitment of the staff teams within our schools has been a genuine source of inspiration.”

Events in the Carlisle diocese this week are typical of elsewhere in the country. The Diocesan Director of Education, Vanessa O’Dea, said: “We will be doing all we can to provide extra resources for our pupils and staff at this time; with new website resource pages already added, which will be further updated in the coming days.”

The website include hints and tips for parents on home schooling with links to several external resources. About 12,000 pupils attend the diocese’s church schools, mostly primaries with two secondary schools, Trinity School and Cartmel Priory.

The Revd Andrew Towner, chairman of the Carlisle Diocesan Board of Education, said: “At this time I would ask that we uphold all our pupils and staff in our prayers. Understandably this is an unsettling and confusing time, especially for younger people, so they need to know they are supported both in practical ways and in prayer.

“I would also praise the work of all school staff who, in recent weeks, have continued to provide such excellent educational service in what has been such an unprecedented and fast-moving situation.” 

The Church in Wales, which has more than 140 schools with 27,000 children, said on Thursday that it was “committed to supporting the efforts of Welsh Government in these unprecedented times as they develop and implement plans to help those most in need”.

The DBE had prepared a prayer for schools as they prepare for closure. It reads: “Our loving heavenly Father, Thank you that you never change, and are always full of love, power and wisdom. Please help us to trust you with our confusions and worries, giving thanks for what we do have, and being generous. Please help us look out for other people, and please bless everyone who cares for us. May your Spirit teach us to live more like Jesus as we trust in him as your King. Amen.”

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