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The government is failing our children, but reopening schools early is not the answer

I THINK it’s important we highlight the state of play for children entering the Covid-19 crisis, as the government neglecting children is nothing new. Since 2010 it has been government policy.

Over 1,000 Sure Start centres, which had the aim of giving children the best start in life often in the most disadvantaged areas, have vanished from our communities. Between 2010 and 2017 reductions in local authority funding meant the “early intervention” allocation fell by 64 per cent.

School budgets have been slashed by £5.4 billion since 2015 alone, with proposed increases in funding barely repairing the squeeze felt since austerity began according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Our maintained nursery schools face an unprecedented funding crisis, with many uncertain about their long term survival, waiting to hear if they will receive necessary supplementary funding beyond 2020. 

Failure to invest in decent social housing has led to over one million children being forced to live in poor or overcrowded housing.

We’ve witnessed the introduction of a benefits cap, the two-child benefit limit, the roll out of the complex universal credit system, a pointlessly cruel benefit sanctions regime, an increase in unstable employment, an increase in zero-hours contracts and pay that has remained largely stagnant for millions of people.

This has all contributed to the harrowing fact that despite living in the world’s fifth-largest economy, the equivalent of nine children in every class of 30 now live in poverty. This was all prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. 

And what does this mean in the real world? I have had the absolute privilege of being a teacher for the past eight years. I have taught in the London Borough of Lambeth and I have taught in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and whilst people like to play on the north-south divide the challenges of our children and our families , whether in the north of England or south, are the same. Parents are often in precarious work, endure low pay, poor quality and overcrowded housing, this can make home life pressurised, and now layered on top is the intensity of this extremely serious health crisis. 

Our schools are still open. They’re open to the children of key workers and the most vulnerable. Every teacher, teaching assistant and support staff colleague I know supports this. Indeed it is the position of my union (the National Education Union).

More importantly every colleague I know wants our schools to return to a full compliment of staff and young people at the earliest opportunity, but only when it is absolutely safe to do so.

Boris Johnson’s dithering and delay over reducing school numbers, when schools were closed throughout the rest of Europe, accelerated the spread of Covid-19. An early return would be a disaster. Social distancing is impossible, PPE that is necessary in early years and special provision in scarce supply. 

We’ve seen the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, demand an exit strategy and call for the full opening of schools to be a priority.

We’ve seen suggestions schools could fully reopen soon from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, supposedly fearing children will be left behind. Whilst I’m sure we can all agree, attending school is vitally important for children, all this talk about fully opening schools early serves as little more as a distraction from the government’s failure to act now to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on our children. 

Since the government seems bereft of ideas at the moment, here’s what it could and should do to alleviate the Covid-19 burden on our children:

  • Increase child benefit: children being home educated during lockdown brings an increased cost on families. Broadband, resources, paper, pens all cost. Child benefit is a fast and effective way to reach families. The Chancellor should answer the call for a £10 per week increase per child as a minimum. 
  • Accessible free school meals: the government’s decision to allocate free school meals vouchers via private firm Edenred has proven chaotic, with many of the 1.3 million children who rely on free school meals facing a delay in access. The government can and must bring this in-house  and provide an accessible way to feed our children instead of depending on the inefficient private profiteers. 
  • Open up golf courses, parks and estates: the answer to overcrowded parks isn’t to close them, it is to open up more space. From school playing fields to private estates, open them up. In London for example, the 50,000 acres of golf course could be opened up with priority being given to those with children who have no outside space or to more than one in 10 families that live in overcrowded households. 
  • Shut down non-essential workplaces: what is essentially prolonging lockdown, along with the delay in adequate testing and tracing, is the fact that the government have continued to refuse to close non-essential workplaces. Untold numbers of workers are forced to continue to work, spread the disease and prolong the lockdown.
  • Mass testing now: Germany has been able to ease its lockdown measures as it has implemented a meticulous test, trace and treat regime. Britain must do the same. The World Health Organisation has set out six criteria for ending lockdown and so far the UK doesn’t meet a single one. 

Of course what really underpins the “open up the schools” mantra is a desire to get Britain back to full profitability as quickly as possible. Of course there are consequences to market collapse, but getting back to business as usual cannot come at the expense of people’s lives. 

Since 2010, children have systematically paid the price for a financial crisis they played no role in creating. The same must not happen now.

The outbreak of Covid-19 and looming economic recession must not be used as an excuse for further increases in child poverty or further funding cuts to schools and services that children rely on.

The government can and must act now. This doesn’t mean prematurely opening schools to all students, but taking decisive action to protect our children and take steps towards repaying a decade of state sanctioned neglect. 

Daniel Kebede is senior vice-president elect of the National Education Union. This column is written in a personal capacity.

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