How to keep schools open during future crises – Robert Halfon

BETWEEN the start of the pandemic and July 2021, British children were out of their classrooms for almost half of the available school days as a result of nationwide shutdowns and isolations.

Should there be greater safeguards in place to keep schools open?

Those closures wielded a hammer blow to our children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing. My Schools and Educational Settings Bill will safeguard the education, mental health and life chances of those already hardest hit and of future generations.

Let me take a moment to give special thanks to the teachers and support staff who did all they could to keep children learning over the past 18 months. I especially welcome the support for the Bill of Children’s Commissioners past and present, of two former Children’s Ministers and significantly, of the parents group UsforThem, which has campaigned day and night to keep schools fully open.

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Over the last 18 months, the four horsemen of the education apocalypse have galloped towards our young people, threatening their futures and holding them back from climbing the ladder of opportunity.

Robert Halfon is chair of the Parliament's Education Select Committee.

The negative impacts of the pandemic are stark. School closures have contributed to a widening attainment gap and worsening mental health, not to mention numerous safeguarding hazards and diminished life chances.

Research published by the Education Policy Institute has shown that at national level the average learning losses for primary school pupils were 3.4 months in maths and 2.2 months in reading. For disadvantaged pupils, learning loss was even greater.

Schools and educational settings play a vital role in safeguarding our young people from harm. Without that safety net, too many vulnerable youngsters have slipped through the cracks. Devastating figures from the Centre for Social Justice show 100,000 children have failed to return to school, for the most part, since schools reopened.

It is estimated that school closures will cost our young people between £78bn and £154bn in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes, and those figures are for an optimistic scenario.

Should there be greater safeguards in place to keep schools open?

I come to my Schools and Educational Settings (Essential Infrastructure and Opening During Emergencies) Bill. Currently, the term “essential infrastructure” is used in our legislation to describe the facilities and systems necessary for a country to function, and upon which our daily lives depend.

It would be inconceivable to close power stations, hospitals or food retailers during a time of crisis, and rightly so – they are lifelines to our communities.

The educational devastation of the last 18 months has made it abundantly clear that schools must also be seen as lifelines. In guidance issued in 2020, the Government defined educational institutions as “essential infrastructure” along with providers of power, healthcare and water.

But despite this nominal definition, during the first and third lockdowns schools were closed to most pupils while other essential infrastructure remained open.

It is our duty now to treat our schools as essential infrastructure, both in word, and more importantly, in deed. To that end, this Bill will recognise and define educational settings as essential infrastructure in practice by enshrining in statute that we must never close our schools again, save in the most dire and exceptional circumstances.

Furthermore, the Bill will put in place a triple lock of protections. First, we rightly follow the science and advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that we must also follow the advice provided by those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.

Secondly, any proposed school closure must be debated and approved by Parliament. Thirdly, in the event of an agreed closure, every three weeks that schools remain closed, the Education Secretary must return to Parliament, having sought the advice of the Children’s Commissioner, to seek its re-approval for a continued closure.

This triple lock will ensure that the needs and rights of children and young people are considered and upheld. It will mean that the relevant experts are consulted and their advice acted upon. We owe it to our young people to safeguard the educational futures that Covid-19 put on hold. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.

Robert Halfon is a Tory MP and chair of Parliament’s Education Committee. He has tabled the Schools and Educational Settings Bill – this is an edited version.

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