Schools are vital - not just for education, but for a range of wider support services for children and young people which directly impact on their physical and mental health. And, for some vulnerable children, their safety and visibility to those services set up to look after them.
Children benefit from interaction with friends and access to support networks and services that help them to remain healthy and well.
That’s why, over the past week, thousands of paediatricians signed our open letter calling for the UK’s governments to all have clear plans for getting children back to school.
In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, governments have published plans for making progress on education and schools as they ease lockdown restrictions. In each of the devolved nations, we are in contact with key stakeholders including Ministers, government officials and other decision makers to ensure that the voices of paediatricians are heard in these conversations.
There’s another group, of course, who need to be heard. It’s essential that we listen to the views of children and young people – and that governments do likewise. We’re listening to children and young people’s feedback through our RCPCH &Us network.
Schools in Wales are set to welcome more learners back into classrooms at the end of June. However, 29 June isn’t a "big bang" that signals a return to business as usual. The Education Minister for Wales, Kirsty Williams, has said that while she expects a majority of learners to have some face to face contact in Welsh schools from then, it’s unlikely that schools will have more than a third of their previous capacity at any one time. She’s described the period before the summer holiday as a “check-in, catch up and prepare period”.
There has also been confusion as to whether this is a three- or four-week period; the Welsh Government had hoped to extend the term by a week, but this may now vary from one local authority area to another.
A plan for delivering full time, face to face education for most children therefore remains a challenge.
Schools have been asked to plan for a return of 11 August, with a contingency of part time study in school and home learning - "blended learning". However, we welcome the First Minister’s commitment to bringing back 100% face to face education as soon as it is safe to do so, and we’re looking forward to seeing more detailed plans on how this will be delivered.
In the meantime it's crucial that work to mitigate the effects of this pandemic on children and young people is prioritised to ensure that the outcomes of this period are not seen for years to come.
We welcome the recent publication of Northern Ireland Re-opening School Guidance - New School Day aimed at providing a planning framework for the restart of schools in August/September and the announcement from the Minister for Education that it is a key departmental priority for all pupils to return full-time to school as soon as it is safe to do so.
In NI the Executive have confirmed that the start of term will now be 24 August for Primary 7, Year 12 and Year 14 pupils and we commend the Department on their aim to return all eligible children in remaining year groups to school by the normal school starting date. We will be writing to the Minister for Education in response to the newly published guidance.
We've also highlighted with the Department of Health the need for a greater focus on children and young people in the overarching Health and Social Care Recovery Plan as part of a broader recovery plan for children and young people.
The UK’s devolved governments have all published plans for at least partial recovery in their education systems, which we very much welcome.
What we’d like to see now are more detailed plans for the next stage as part of wider recovery plans for children and young people in each nation.
Our open letter was clear - we need decisive leadership from governments to make sure that children get the best start in life.