The last week has been one of the most difficult of my teaching career. I feel guilty about saying this. I have been working safely from home. I have not been directly involved in much of the horrendous planning for the return to school and the need to respond to the constant stream of, often contradictory, government guidance.
I have been phoning families and talking through our school offer, so that they understand what their child will experience in school and are able to prepare them for it. This should not have been particularly stressful. Our head had put together, what I believe to be, an outstanding and detailed plan. He had sent out a letter to parents giving all the necessary details down to the minutiae of suntan cream, medication and snacks. The vast majority of families welcomed the call and asked sensible questions. No-one was abusive. So why was it so difficult?
I am suffering a deep dissonance. There are two fundamental beliefs at the foundation of my educational practice. First is the universal right to education and a belief that this should be free to all and delivered in school. The second is summarised in the tag line to the 1989 Children Act: ‘The welfare of the child is paramount.’ For me, the current situation is putting these into conflict.
Like every other teacher in the country, I want to welcome our children back into school as soon as possible. I believe that children are best educated in school and that teachers are the best people to deliver that education. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I welcome the government producing some kind of plan to get children back into school. But what we have does not seem to be based on any understanding of education or how schools work. They do not understand what an Early Years setting looks like or how it promotes learning. They have ignored the difficulties and pressures being placed on Infants Schools. If transition was the governments’ real concern, surely Year 2 would be coming back to school? They refer to the importance of getting back to the teaching of early reading, but do not understand that to teach reading successfully you need to sit with a child and share the text. It is not taught by children sitting at desks and an adult standing at the front. In fact, almost no successful teaching for Years R and 1 looks like this. Teaching is not a social distanced activity. It is about relationships. To build these relationships with young children, we need to be near them; to get their attention and support their focus, to share and celebrate their work and to model and explain the learning. We can’t teach effectively without this.
Not only do I doubt the educational effectiveness of what we have been asked to do, I have significant concerns about the impact on children’s welfare. Welfare is a complex concept. It covers physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing and safety.
The government’s expectation that schools will ‘work with and support the relevant (vulnerable) families and pupils to return to school or college, where attendance is appropriate.’ is missing the point. There are many vulnerable children who are safer and will have their needs better met at school. For the rest, the majority are already in school or it has been decided that it is not appropriate for them to attend for other reasons e.g. shielding of family members. Schools have been focusing on and supporting children with EHCPs, Looked after Children, children with social workers and others throughout this crisis. The risk assessments we and other schools have developed are dynamic and have been changed to meet children and families’ needs as the crisis has continued.
The real problem is that we don’t know about many of the families most in need and at risk or they don’t fit the criteria of ‘vulnerable’ making them hard to reach. There has been a terrifying increase in reports of domestic abuse. This is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg, with many incidents unreported. There are increases in substance misuse, particularly alcohol, and in food poverty. In the back of our minds is the horrible awareness that the majority of abuse suffered by children is at the hands of a member of their family. Yet, we are not able to identify or support these families, so many of these children are going to be left to suffer at home unseen and unheard.
However, we are asked to focus, as part of the vulnerable group, on children with EHCPs, rather than on support to this more nebulous group of at risk families. Many children with EHCPs and others with special needs are already in school. For the rest, many are thriving at home. There are more who are safe at home and participating in some learning. I am concerned that we are not promoting these children’s welfare or education by encouraging their early return to school.
School will be very different. Children may not be with their friends, their teacher or even in their familiar classroom. There will be little movement in school as much of the learning will be at a desk or in a restricted space. Many of the resources and books will be missing. For those with difficulties managing change or who are routine bound, these changes will be highly anxiety inducing. Moreover, they are likely to be temporary arrangements. As more children are expected to return to school, these children will be expected to undergo further changes; each adding anxiety and confusion. For those with learning difficulties they will be expected to return to class without their normal educational support. An adult cannot sit beside them to prompt, explain or reinforce learning. We are setting these children up to fail and so potentially causing them significant harm. Many of these children will express their anxieties and frustration physically and this will impact their safety and that of those around them.
There are further emotional and psychological risks for young children returning to school. We spend hours teaching young children to share, but now we are going to tell them that they must not share. How long will it take to undo that contradictory message? We are not going to be able to hug children who are hurt or let them touch each other. This will be made even more difficult and psychologically harmful when we are trying to comfort children suffering loss or separation. These young and vulnerable children will get a message of rejection and that their emotions are not recognised or important.
We are at risk of harming many of the children who are returning to school in June as we cannot meet their educational, psychological or emotional needs properly. Further there are questions about their physical safety. The majority of these children, including many in Year 6, will struggle to understand social distancing and their hand washing is ineffective. Many of our classrooms are too small for effective social distancing, so children and teachers will be in closer proximity than the government recommendations for other settings. As a friend put it: how come I can be in a class with 15 four and five year olds, but cannot visit my granddaughter of the same age? The rules are inconsistent, and this leads to physical risks which we don’t fully understand and anxiety which is hard to manage.
I know that this is an impossible balancing act. I fear that we will only know when we have got it wrong and not if we have got it right. The ‘getting it wrong’ is very high risk and could result in significant harm or the death of a child or adult. We need to accept the hard truth that in the current situation, there are children whose welfare and learning is best promoted by them staying at home and not attending school. At the same time, we need to be constantly vigilant to support children who are at risk of going under the radar, so their needs are not being met and their risk of abuse at home is unseen. These are the children who need to be in school. We need to be supporting parents to make the best decisions about their individual child’s welfare and education. My stress comes from knowing that we haven’t got this right, and that the government’s lack of engagement with teachers means that children will come to unintentional harm in our schools and avoidable harm in their homes.