Reopening schools is vitally important

This article was written by Damian and published in the Herald group of papers on the 25th June 2020:

"It would be hard to over-state the effect of this extended period away from school – not just for children’s education overall, but for the attainment gap, for wider social reasons, and the effect on families.   

There are also real health issues – mental and physical – for some children from being out of school for so long.  

Schools have done an outstanding job in converting programmes of study to remote learning in very short order.   

And parents have done an amazing job in bringing the school room into the front room, often while doing their own work from home as well.  For many it has been very, very hard. 

It was right to prioritise the first and last years of primary school to return as we know those years have an even bigger leverage effect on outcomes.  And in secondary, there is an obvious extra need for those coming up to key exams.   

But it is so important for all children to be able to get back to school – safely for them and for their teachers, school staff and families. 

But I recognise that the constraints are significant and bigger than is sometimes thought.  For most schools it isn’t just about premises space, but about staff; the key limiting factor has been the group size of 15, which has been necessary as part of tackling the virus.  In secondary, there is the issue that pupils tend to travel much further on average to school, and many go by bus. 

Over time, with continued progress against the virus, the constraints can ease, which would open the door to children being back for the new academic year in September, which is the government’s intent. 

I have called for maximum flexibility for schools so that those that could welcome back more children are able to, and I know how much individual schools here in East Hampshire will need that degree of flexibility. You can’t have a single national plan in education, because there are 21,000 schools, of all shapes and sizes, each with their own issues.  

Meanwhile learning at home continues to be important.  It’s hard to keep up momentum and motivation for so long, but schools have really focused on that.

There are also resources online from the BBC and many others, including the virtual Oak National Academy launched by the Department for Education in April.

The Government has also made £100 million available for extra laptops and routers for those most in need, and the £1bn Covid catch-up plan launched last week will help schools fund programmes  to help pupils to cover work missed during the lockdown. It is right that headteachers will decide how the money is spent, but I’m also pleased there will be a National Tutoring Programme. 

But important though online learning has been, it is no substitute for being in class with a great teacher at the front of the room.  It will be hard to achieve, but it is essential both to get all children back on track, and to re-narrow the attainment gap, that will have widened this year. Next academic year is going to be probably the most pivotal in our lifetimes."