MOLLY KINGSLEY: Don't shut the school gates again, Prime Minister

Shut the school gates again, Prime Minister, and you will ruin young lives, writes MOLLY KINGSLEY, a mother and campaigner for children’s wellbeing

Prime Minister, if I could say just three words to you this morning, they are these: ‘Don’t shut schools.’

That’s it. The message is that stark, that simple. Britain cannot afford another lockdown that closes our classrooms.

We cannot afford the devastation to ten million children, to their education and their future opportunities, to their mental health and to our economy in decades to come.

Prime Minister, if you allow the school gates to shut, you will be inflicting untold damage on the country at a time when we need more than ever to protect our most precious resource — the emerging generation.

To squander their prospects for the sake of rash political expediency would be unforgivable.

I was shocked to hear Home Secretary Priti Patel refuse yesterday to pledge that schools will reopen in the new year, giving substance to the unattributed statement from a government source on Monday that many children will be barred from returning until February.

Sacrifices

We already knew that the beginning of term would be ‘staggered’, though the science behind that seems shaky at best. What is a staggered opening if not closure for many by another name? The stakes could scarcely be higher. Britain already has a generation of children whose education has been grievously disrupted.

Back in March, when the pandemic first struck, we were glibly assured that pupils could learn from home for a few weeks.

Few parents really believed that: most, like me — a mother with two children under ten — have got far too much respect for teachers to imagine that we would be able to step in to oversee meaningful lessons for long.

But we were facing an unknown, unprecedented health threat. Everyone was being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices.

Prime Minister, if I could say just three words to you this morning, they are these: ‘Don’t shut schools.’ That’s it. The message is that stark, that simple, writes Molly Kingsley

Nine months later, the situation is very different. We now understand that the direct danger to children who are infected with Covid-19 is minimal.

Even Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical adviser, has said that ‘the chances of children dying from Covid-19 are incredibly small’.

The danger is to the elderly and the vulnerable, who must be helped to shield themselves until the vaccine can be administered to all who need it.

But the direct threats to children who are kept away from school for months on end are very real, irreparable and lifelong.

Hundreds of thousands have been struggling with their mental health, terrified by the daily news, haunted by disinformation spreading on social media and fearful of what their adult lives will be like if this continues.

To force more mental suffering on children by separating them from friends and daily routines is simply wicked. It’s indefensible. All children should have a cast-iron right to education, which is critical to the future of this country.

The psychological damage of denying education cannot be overstated. Report after report has highlighted the catastrophic academic, social and mental health effects on children.

Young people have even killed themselves, because the uncertainty and the loneliness have become unbearable. Those deaths should have been so easily prevented.

Of course, if the landscape dramatically changes and hospitals do become overwhelmed, then I accept the Government might have no option except to rethink its strategy. But we’re nowhere near that point.

To force more mental suffering on children by separating them from friends and daily routines is simply wicked. It’s indefensible. All children should have a cast-iron right to education, which is critical to the future of this country. Pictured: Pupils in Doncaster

It is ultimately a question of balance of harms, one that takes into account the fact that the average age of a patient who dies from Covid is over 82 — about 12 months more than the average lifespan in the UK.

I understand that the Government strives to save every life but we must not ignore the damage lockdowns inflict on children.

In fact, I believe that few octogenarians would want the prospect of an entire generation’s hopes to be flushed away, or to know that children were suffering and, in some cases, even killing themselves, as a result of a policy to protect the elderly.

That is why, Prime Minister, you must not cave in to the politically charged agendas of the teaching unions, who have shown little regard for the wants and needs of schoolchildren and seem intent on treating this pandemic not as an educational crisis but as a political opportunity to embarrass the Government.

I believe the great majority of teachers do not subscribe to their agenda. After all, no one should be playing politics with children’s lives.

If anything, like most parents, my admiration for teachers has only increased during successive lockdowns. Helping children to learn requires dedication and skill, drawing on an array of talents. Teachers have to be wise, patient, innovative, entertaining, well-informed and quick-thinking.

Ludicrous

The notion that they can be replaced by a laptop and a busy working parent is ludicrous.

Laptops are tools, not teachers, and working parents now need to be contributing to the economy as never before.

There is no doubt in my mind that a day spent in front of a computer is in no way a substitute for the learning and social interaction of a classroom. It also creates huge problems for working parents.

Only recently, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, stated what every teacher and parent now knows: remote learning is no replacement for a face-to-face lesson.

Younger children are unable to engage with it, and older ones are bereft of the essential social experience of learning.

Although some children may have managed well enough, in most cases they were the ones who were thriving to begin with — and to be doing ‘well enough’ is an underachievement in real terms. They are the children who should be aspiring to be exceptional.

Others will be drifting — or worse. At most risk are the children from underprivileged backgrounds, broken and even violent homes — the ones for whom school was often a sanctuary.

I was shocked to hear Home Secretary Priti Patel refuse yesterday to pledge that schools will reopen in the new year, giving substance to the unattributed statement from a government source on Monday that many children will be barred from returning until February

Chasm

By the end of the summer term, 94 per cent of these vulnerable children had not been in school. Who is looking out for them now? A laptop does not see bruises or deeper emotional problems.

That’s if they have access to a laptop at all. At the start of the year, we were talking about a worrying ‘attainment gap’ between children from different social and economic backgrounds.

That gap is now a chasm. The damage is done, and will last for years. To worsen it would be wilful destruction, and unforgivable.

It’s a fact of life that our children are the future engine of Britain’s economy. Another schools shutdown will take a wrecking ball to that engine, as well as to the futures of millions of young people. It would be one of the greatest political crimes of our lifetimes.

If it was inhumane of the Government to cancel Christmas, cancelling schooling is even more egregious.

Prime Minister, you were elected because voters thought you were brave. Now is the time to do the brave thing, the only right thing for children, and do whatever you possibly can to keep schools open.

Molly Kingsley is the co-founder of UsForThem, a campaign group for children’s welfare.

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