Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week until 24th May, 2020. The theme for 2020 is ‘kindness’.
So let’s not comment on the former Education Ministers and MPs, the great-and-the-good and the-recently-resigned, involved in the Mail’s continued hatchet job on teachers. They probably believe that they are standing up for vulnerable children when they talk about the “damage that may last a generation“. Yet the evidence of much of their voting, and policy design to-date, suggests it’s much more about getting people back to work.
Of course there are massive implications for children in families unable to work or living with the stress of financial insecurity on top of limited home schooling. But policy makers should be honest about the return to school as an economic lever, not use children’s vulnerability to pressure professionals to return to full-school early, or make up statistics to up the stakes.
The rush to get back to full-school for the youngest of primary age pupils has been met with understandable resistance, and too few practical facts. Going back to a school in COVID-19 measures for very young children, will take tonnes of adjustment, to the virus, to seeing friends they cannot properly play with, to grief and stress.
When it comes to COVID-19 risk, many countries with similar population density to the UK, locked down earlier and tighter —and now have lower rates of community transmission than we do. Or compare where didn’t, Sweden, but that has a population density of 24 people per Km2. The population density for the United Kingdom is 274 people per square kilometre. In Italy, with 201 inhabitants per square kilometre, you needed a permission slip to leave home.
And that’s leaving aside the unknowns on COVID-19 immunity, or identifying it, or the lack of testing offer to over a million children under-5, the very group expected to be those who return first to full-school.
Children have rights to education, and to life, survival and development. But the blanket target groups and target date, don’t appear to take the Best Interests of The Child, for each child, into account at all. ‘Won’t someone think of the children?’ may never have been more apt.
Parenting while poor is highly political
What’s the messaging in the debate, even leaving media extremes aside?
The sweeping assumption by many commentators that ‘the poorest children will have learned nothing‘ (BBC Newsnight, May 19) is unfair, but this blind acceptance as fact, a politicisation of parenting while poor, conflated with poor parenting, enables the claimed concern for their vulnerability to pass without question.
Many of these most vulnerable children were not receiving full time education *before* the pandemic but look at how it is told.
It would be more honest in discussion or publishing ‘statistics’ around the growing gap expected if children are out of school, to consider what the ‘excess’ gap will be and why. (Just like measuring excess deaths, not only those people who died and had been tested for COVID-19.) Thousands of vulnerable children were out of school already, due to ‘budget decisions that had left local authorities unable to fulfil their legal obligation to provide education.’
“The St Giles Trust research provided more soundbites. Pupils involved in “county lines” are in pupil referral units (PRUs), often doing only an hour each day, and rarely returning into mainstream education.’ (Steve Howell, Schools Week)
Nearly ten years on, there is still lack of adequate support for children in Alternative Provision and a “destructive narrative of “us versus them”.
The value of being in school
Schools have remained open for children of key workers and more than half a million pupils labeled as ‘vulnerable’, which includes those classified as “children in need” as well as 270,000 children with an education, health and care (EHC) plan for special educational needs. Not all of those are ‘at risk’ of domestic violence or abuse or neglect. The reasons why there is low turnout, tend to be conflated.
Assumptions abound about the importance of formal education and the best place for those very young children in Early Years (age 2-5) to be in school at all, despite conflicting UK evidence, that is thin on the ground. Research for the NFER [the same organisation running the upcoming Baseline Test of four year olds still due to begin this year] (Sharp, 2002), found:
“there would appear to be no compelling educational rationale for a statutory school age of five or for the practice of admitting four-year-olds to school reception classes.” And “a late start appears to have no adverse effect on children’s progress.”
Later research from 2008, from the IoE, Research Report No. DCSF-RR061 (Sylva et al, 2008) commissioned before the then ‘new’ UK Government took office in 2010, suggested better outcomes for children who are in excellent Early Years provision, but also pointed out that more often the most vulnerable are not those in the best of provision.
“quality appears to be especially important for disadvantaged groups.”
What will provision quality be like, under Coronavirus measures? How much stress-free space and time for learning will be left at all?
The questions we should be asking are a) What has been learned for the second wave and b) Assume by May 2021 nothing changes. What would ideal schooling look like, and how do we get there?
Attainment is not the only gap
While it is not compulsory to be in any form of education, including home education, till your fifth birthday in England, most children start school at age 4 and turn five in the course of the year. It is one of the youngest starts in Europe. Many hundreds of thousands of children start formal education in the UK even younger from age 2 or three. Yet is it truly better for children? We are way down the Pisa attainment scores, or comparable regional measures. There has been little change in those outcomes in 13 years, except to find that our children are measured as being progressively less happy.
“As Education Datalab points out, the PISA 2018 cohort started school around 2008, so their period at school not only lines up with the age of austerity and government cuts, but with the “significant reforms” to GCSEs introduced by Michael Gove while he was Education Secretary.” [source: Schools Week, 2019]
There’s no doubt that some of the harmful economic effects of Brexit will be attributed to the effects of the pandemic. Similarly, many of the outcomes of ten years of policy that have increased children’s vulnerability and attainment gap, pre-COVID-19, will no doubt be conflated with harms from this crisis in the next few years.
The risk of the acceptance of misattributing this gap in outcomes, is a willingness to adopt misguided solutions, and deny accountability.
Many experts in children’s needs, have been in their jobs much longer than most MPs and have told them for years the harm their policies are doing to the very children, those voices now claim to want to protect. Will the MPs look at that evidence and act on it?
More than a third of babies are living below the poverty line in the UK. The common thread in many [UK] families’ lives, as Helen Barnard, deputy director for policy and partnerships for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation described in 2019, is a “rising tide of work poverty sweeping across the country.” Now the Coronavirus is hitting those families harder too. The ONS found that in England the death rate in the most deprived areas is 118% higher than in the least deprived.
Charities speaking out this week, said that in the decade since 2010, local authority spending on early intervention services dropped by 46% but has risen on late intervention, from 58% to 78% of spending on children and young people’s services over the same period.
If those advocating for a return to school, for a month before the summer, really want to reduce children’s vulnerability, they might sort out CAMHs for simultaneous support of the return to school, and address those areas in which government must first do no harm. Fix these things that increase the “damage that may last a generation“.
Case studies in damage that may last
Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020’
“These regulations make significant temporary changes to the protections given in law to some of the most vulnerable children in the country – those living in care.” ” I would like to see all the regulations revoked, as I do not believe that there is sufficient justification to introduce them. This crisis must not remove protections from extremely vulnerable children, particularly as they are even more vulnerable at this time. As an urgent priority it is essential that the most concerning changes detailed above are reversed.”
CAMHS: Mental health support
“Specialist services are turning away one in four of the children referred to them by their GPs or teachers for treatment. More than 338,000 children were referred to CAMHS in 2017, but less than a third received treatment within the year. Around 75 per cent of young people experiencing a mental health problem are forced to wait so long their condition gets worse or are unable to access any treatment at all.”
“Only 6.7 per cent of mental health spending goes to children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). Government funding for the Early Intervention Grant has been cut by almost £500 million since 2013. It is projected to drop by a further £183 million by 2020.
“Public health funding, which funds school nurses and public mental health services, has been reduced by £600 million from 2015/16 to 2019/20.”
Child benefit two-child limit
Source: May 5, Child Poverty Action Group
“You could not design a policy better to increase child poverty than this one.” source: HC51 House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee
The two-child limit Third Report of Session 2019 (PDF, 1 MB)
“Around sixty thousand families forced to claim universal credit since mid-March because of COVID-19 will discover that they will not get the support their family needs because of the controversial ‘two-child policy”.
Source: the Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
“The cuts [introduced from 2010 to the 2012 budget] in housing benefit will adversely affect some of the most disadvantaged groups in society and are likely to lead to an increase in homelessness, warns the homeless charity Crisis.”
Legal Aid for all children
“The enactment of the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has had widespread consequences for the provision of legal aid in the UK. One key feature of the new scheme, of particular importance to The Children’s Society, were the changes made to the eligibility criteria around legal aid for immigration cases. These changes saw unaccompanied and separated children removed from scope for legal aid unless their claim is for asylum, or if they have been identified as victims of child trafficking.”
“To fulfill its obligations under the UNCRC, the Government should reinstate legal aid for all unaccompanied and separated migrant children in matters of immigration by bringing it back within ‘scope’ under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Separated and unaccompanied children are super-vulnerable.”
Source: CIPFA’s annual library survey 2018
“the number of public libraries and paid staff fall every year since 2010, with spending reduced by 12% in Britain in the last four years.” “We can view libraries as a bit of a canary in the coal mine for what is happening across the local government sector…” “There really needs to be some honest conversations about the direction of travel of our councils and what their role is, as the funding gap will continue to exacerbate these issues.”
No recourse to public funds: FSM and more
source: NRPF Network
“No recourse to public funds (NRPF) is a condition imposed on someone due to their immigration status. Section 115 Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 states that a person will have ‘no recourse to public funds’ if they are ‘subject to immigration control’.”
“children only get the opportunity to apply for free school meals if their parents already receive certain benefits. This means that families who cannot access these benefits– because they have what is known as “no recourse to public funds” as a part of their immigration status– are left out from free school meal provision in England.”
“the reduction in hospitalisations at ages 5–11 saves the NHS approximately £5 million, about 0.4% of average annual spending on Sure Start. But the types of hospitalisations avoided – especially those for injuries – also have big lifetime costs both for the individual and the public purse”.
“Figures obtained by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Knife Crime show the average council has cut real-terms spending on youth services by 40% over the past three years. Some local authorities have reduced their spending – which funds services such as youth clubs and youth workers – by 91%.”
Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:
“These figures are alarming but sadly unsurprising. Taking away youth workers and safe spaces in the community contributes to a ‘poverty of hope’ among young people who see little or no chance of a positive future.”