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This month sees the return to school of many of the UK’s children. In the first countrywide school shutdown in modern British history, pupils left their classrooms for the last time on Friday March 20, three days before lockdown was imposed nationally. The months in stasis haven’t been healthy for anyone. Held back from school and living with adults facing unprecedented pressures, children have found themselves trapped on a frontline concealed behind closed doors. Now, as they emerge into the community, we are about to discover the impact that time at home has had on their wellbeing, their education and their future.

Working parents have had to juggle many competing demands, amid radically altered circumstances. Operating from a kitchen table, a bedroom or the sofa, parents have had to explain to younger children that they’re at home yet working, and supervise home-schooling for older children. These problems have been exacerbated by financial fears, worries about loved ones and delays in buying household essentials.

On May 14, the Office for National Statistics said that in the period April 24 to May 3 parents were finding home-schooling increasingly difficult, with the number saying it was putting a strain on their relationships up to 33% from 25% the week before. The ONS noted: “More adults also thought the well-being of their child or children was being negatively affected, rising to 41% this week from 32% last week.” Working parents have been troubled by anxiety, and it’s not always easy to hide it from the kids.

Anxiety in children

Clinical psychologist Dr Georgina Clifford is the Director of London Trauma Specialists, a clinic specialising in trauma and PTSD. She told Working Voices that anxiety can be defined as a “fear of something happening in the future,” which is “relevant in the current pandemic because we are faced with a situation where no-one really knows exactly what’s going to happen.” Dr Clifford says children can find it hard “because there are a lot of things they’re missing. Certainly for younger children, the lack of peer support, the lack of those positive relationships with teachers, with other family members and this enforced social distancing. It probably will have a longer-term impact in terms of them having to readjust back into those relationships.”

While adults possess the language to express anxiety, children usually don’t. Dr Clifford says anxiety often manifests itself in children in more physical ways. They might talk about a tummy ache or feeling a bit sick or not feeling very well or behaving in unusual ways such as getting unusually angry or upset more than they would have done previously.

Lessons in leadershipImage credit – LittleHoots

Locked up in lockdown

Some children, cocooned in a safe, protective environment, have thrived in the extended periods of family time. For many kids however, things have been very different. Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “This crisis is highlighting deep-rooted inequalities that have been papered over for decades. Vulnerable children and families – and those already experiencing disadvantage – risk becoming the forgotten victims. Without intervention this crisis will be devastating for a whole generation – their mental health, safety, education and job prospects are on the line.”

On May 7, the World Health Organisation said it was “deeply troubled” by reports that calls to European domestic violence hotlines spiked in April by as much as 60%. Psychologist Georgina Clifford says in normal times “for a lot of children school is a protective factor, school is the place where they go for stability and positive relationships”.

A few children have still been able to attend school due to their own personal circumstances. This may be because one parent (or both) is a key worker, it also may be for other family reasons. Other forms of professional support have also been necessary during lockdown, particularly in association with children’s mental health, though help has sometimes been in short supply. Between March 20 and 25, the charity YoungMinds surveyed 2,111 people aged under 25, who had a history of mental health needs. Of the 83% who said the pandemic had made their mental health worse, 32% said it had made it “much worse” and 51% said it had made it “a bit worse”.

In a second survey, published on May 14, YoungMinds found that one in four children and young people with mental health problems has stopped receiving help as a result of the disruption caused by the coronavirus. Lockdown restrictions have limited access to NHS services, private providers, helplines, school counsellors and charities. “The pandemic has turned the lives of millions of children and young people upside down. Many young people are finding it hard to cope with isolation, a loss of routine, anxiety about the future, a disruption to their education, and in some cases difficult or traumatic experiences at home,” Emma Thomas, chief executive of YoungMinds, told the Guardian.

Lessons in leadership

Lessons in leadership

Thomas’s comments bring us back to the issue of children returning to school in the coming days and weeks. The government, under pressure to kickstart the economy, has decided to begin the return to school with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. Sending 5 and 6 year olds back first doesn’t reflect the nation’s burning need to properly educate its young. It’s more about childcare. Sending Year 6 back has also sparked debate.

These decisions were announced by Boris Johnson in his statement on May 10. Working Voices Insights has already commented on the shortcomings of his speech. Johnson’s thoughts on schools lacked the leadership that teachers were looking for. There was insufficient reassurance, little explanation behind why certain year groups had been chosen over others, and a lack of clarity on the relevant science and data. In the ensuing leadership vacuum, around 35 local councils in England advised their schools to resist opening on June 1, a rebellion backed by the National Education Union, the country’s biggest teaching union. According to Teacher Tapp, a pollster, 60% of state-school teachers say they are “nervous” to return.

In response to the teachers’ concerns, information was later published by the SAGE scientific advisory group. This suggested children are far less likely to be severely ill, but there was contradictory evidence on how likely they are to be infected or to spread the virus. The doubts lingered on and the unions remained unconvinced. Paul Whiteman of the NAHT head teachers’ union told the BBC there is still no proof that reopening schools now would be a “wise thing to do”. Then, a week after Johnson’s announcement, the teachers’ concerns were shared by the British Medical Association, at which point the Children’s Commissioner stepped in. Anne Longfield, offering a little leadership , urged the unions to “stop squabbling” and get children back to school. “We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school,” she said.

Parents across the country are facing tough decisions, balancing the wellbeing of their children with concern about vulnerable family members and the need to get back to work. The fact is children will need to return to school at some point. Vaccines and a complete end to social distancing may not come about over the summer. Amidst the ongoing difficulty, there needs to be trustworthy reassurance from a strong voice of leadership. Teachers, schools and the government have a few short weeks to do a better job than they have so far in mutually agreeing sensible working practices. Together, they must lead parents towards an agreed plan of action in sending all children back to school and they must do so soon. September is a deadline that’s fast approaching.

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