Ministers have been warned that children’s education is being forgotten while theme parks, pubs and shops are being allowed to reopen, after the government admitted most pupils will not return to the classroom until September at the earliest.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, suggested the government should be putting as much effort into getting children back to class as it is towards making sure the economy is up and running as the coronavirus pandemic passes its peak.
“I am worried that education has not had the priority that the economy has, business and jobs, or indeed the NHS. I also think children are in danger of being forgotten in this lifting of lockdown. We’re seeing a situation where theme parks are going to be opened in a month, shops, pubs, restaurants, but still children not back in school,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
She said it was a “disruption we’ve not seen since the second world war” and warned that “the education divide is broadening” and “almost a decade of catching up on that education gap may well be lost”.
“We have to avoid … that a generation of children leaves school in five years’ time where the disadvantaged children have much poorer prospects because they weren’t given the support they need to learn during this period.”
Longfield spoke out after it emerged that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, will make a statement on Tuesday saying it will not be possible to get all primary schools in England operating again before the summer holidays. Currently, some have welcomed back reception, year 1 and year 6 children.
Longfield said the reports were “a huge disappointment for those children who’d expected to go back into school before the summer and now may not”.
“It does mean that the vast majority, probably about 8 million children, very likely won’t return to the classroom until September, which means that, again, there will be a huge variation in their learning over that period.”
She said children would remain isolated, with many living in “fragile” family environments.
She told BBC Breakfast: “We know that there’s a real variation in learning. We’ve got some children, more affluent children, especially those going to private schools, who are literally attending Zoom schools from nine till three in the afternoon with lessons as normal.
“And we know that 90% of disadvantaged children aren’t going online for more than two hours, if that. We also know there’s about a million children who just don’t have the tech or the broadband to be able to learn in this way.”
She added: “Children are isolated, missing their friends, real mental health concerns, and also concerns about safeguarding when they’re at home.”
Robert Halfon, the Tory MP and chair of the Commons education select committee, also expressed surprise that England was prioritising reopening pubs over ensuring children could continue their learning in school.
Speaking to Today, Halfon said: “I think we’re a strange country in which we turn a blind eye to mass demonstrations all over in every city, we campaign for pubs and cafes to open and yet we say to open schools before September is too risky when all the evidence – from the World Health Organization, from many other European countries, from the chief medical officer in the UK – suggests otherwise,” he said. “We are potentially damaging children’s life chances.”
Williamson is due to give a statement to the Commons about the government’s plans in the early afternoon.
Helen Whately, the care minister, told BBC Breakfast the government does not “want to take risks that might increase the infection rates”, but recognises that being out of school is a particular problem for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and that the education gap “can widen”.
Whately struggled on Sky News as she was pressed on whether the government had done enough to protect care homes from Covid-19, insisting that “at all points in this we have followed the scientific guidance”.
The interviewer, Kay Burley, replied: “You take [scientists’] advice and then you make the policy – you can’t stick this on the scientists.”
The MP responded: “But I can, because …” before correcting herself to insist that was not what she had meant to say.
“What I mean to say is that we have taken the scientific advice at every stage of this process – we have taken the scientific advice and then judgment is made about what is the right decision to take.”
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