MP Robert Halfon details his bill to prevent emergency school closures over Covid

Health / Sun 7th Nov 2021 at 01:49pm

EARLIER this week, Harlow MP Robert Halfon in his capacity as chair of the education committee, raised a ten minute bill that looked to create a “triple lock”, i.e three things to happen before a school can close due to Covid.

The full transcript of the bill is below.

The bill would effectively see schools be treated like “emergency infrastructure”.

On Saturday morning, YH spoke to Mr Halfon about the reasons for promoting the bill.

Mr Halfon said: “I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for educational settings including early years, schools, colleges and universities to be classified as essential infrastructure and remain open to all students during public health and other national emergencies;
and for connected purposes.

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. The majority of the country’s universities switched to remote learning, with many students still not having returned to full face-to-face teaching. Those closures wielded a hammer blow to our children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing. The mechanisms this Bill will put in place 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 and our children learning in the classroom as they should be.

It is beyond doubt that for those who engaged in online learning, less material was covered than would have been covered in the classroom. Moreover, many children could not participate in online learning at all. School closures and the move to online learning increased the existing inequalities between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better-off peers. The facts speak for themselves and testify to what parents know instinctively. A tablet is no substitute for in-person schooling and the inspiration and guidance that teachers and support staff provide. A laptop cannot replace the enriching, nurturing and skills-building environment that the school community gives to our children, enabling them to thrive and develop to reach their potential. A screen cannot replace the social interaction and friendships that are the essential building blocks of childhood. Perhaps worst of all, school closures increased the existing inequalities between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better-off peers. We must face and address head on the brutal reality that school closures have been a national disaster for our children.

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. 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. Even prior to the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they took their GCSEs. The pandemic has turned the attainment gap into a chasm, undoing the significant amount of progress made over this last decade.

Recent 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, with 4.2 months lost in maths and 2.7 months in reading. A tsunami of mental health problems now threatens to overwhelm our young people. One in six children now has a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine in 2017. The Department for Education itself has concluded that the evidence for the impacts of school closures on mental health and wellbeing is “substantial” and “consistent”.

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 that 100,000 children have failed to return to school, for the most part, since schools reopened. During the first lockdown, 94% of vulnerable children were not in school. A significant increase in social service referrals, domestic abuse and child safeguarding concerns has been reported between April 2020 and March 2021, which the directors of children’s services across the country have linked to the pandemic restrictions and the closure of childcare settings.

It is estimated that school closures will cost our young people between £78 billion and £154 billion in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes, and those figures are for an optimistic scenario. In the worst case, as much as £463 billion could be lost. Report after report speaks to these harms, but they were not an unfortunate inevitability of an international public health emergency. Our children have missed more than double the amount of school as children in other countries, including France, Spain, Austria and Lithuania. British children have missed more school than any other country in Europe except Italy.

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 for children, families and society, 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. This will mean that before any national or regional closure, the advice of the Children’s Commissioner must first be sought on whether such a closure is necessary, and laid before Parliament. 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 the House. 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. It will ensure that this House is fully involved and accountable for any decisions to close schools and disrupt schooling. Lastly, it will make certain that any disruption will be tightly time-limited. These measures are no less than our children deserve. Diogenes once said that

“the foundation of every state is the education of its youth”.

We must learn from our experiences over the course of the pandemic to ensure that we prioritise children’s education. 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.

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3 Comments for MP Robert Halfon details his bill to prevent emergency school closures over Covid:

Concerned teacher
2021-11-07 14:54:28

Can you please point out where the health and well being of the staff are going to be protected? Is it ‘triple locked’ that schools will be given the appropriate support in PPE and additional funding? The empty thanks have been plentiful alongside the blaming and vitriol. Please remember that the adults in school go home to their own families and have their own vulnerabilities. Whilst MPs sit on Zoom education staff are in work. Please ensure you limit the amount of funerals that the families of school staff need to attend.

2021-11-08 00:29:49

Children themselves are less likely to be adversely affected by illness due to the virus but as anyone who has worked in schools will testify, they are remarkably efficient at spreading viruses of all kinds including the Coronavirus, many are asymptomatic. Schools, especially secondary schools are environments where a teacher may easily have 200 close interactions with students a day, a 1000 a week (so are at high risk) and on top of that students mix within and across year groups. In short schools are places where there are more interactions than in most other settings. Children catch viruses in school and take them home where they infect families Hence the rush now to get school children vaccinated. The problem with the criteria approach proposed is that should the virus undergo a more infectious and deadly variation then this approach will create a deadly delay. Plus it's difficult to trust a government that said masks weren't effective and was told that children were highly likely to be vectors at the beginning of the pandemic by teachers and by experts and other countries that had learned the lessons from SARS. We need to be prepared for any variants and the next pandemic by changing the approach to education using blended learning, the potential to use educational technology to make learning more individualised and by bringing youth workers into schools to help provide a better and broader educational and life experience for children. The triple lock represents triple danger and shows, as with exams and the curriculum that the government doesn't trust teachers. That's why the system fails to provide the high skill highly educated people needed for the high wage high skills economy the government says we need.

2021-11-08 08:53:07

The problems with distance learning are well known but the benefits for the many children who get bullied and find the rough and tumble of schools difficult, as a teacher that taught through lockdown and the ups and downs of partial closures there were many children who sit in the middle of secondary classes who were able to blossom, feeling able to ask key questions and have 1 to 1 attention almost whenever needed. Blended learning plus can work. The idea of having youth workers in schools is one that can work extremely well especially when extended to music, drama and sports and activities like D of E. It already happens very successfully in some Community Schools. The school buildings provide a good base for activities from early morning to late evening outside of the normal school day and can provide activities at safe distances in large indoor and outdoor spaces, particularly useful during a pandemic to help social development and tackle the rapidly growing issues of mental health, wellbeing and physical fitness problems: issues that were a significant problem before the pandemic. A new view of how secondary schools can work needs to be developed, large classes that trudge together round 5 or more different subject departments per day is a model based on a factory production model, we now have the technology to change this and provide more individualised learning better tailored to the needs of individual students. We need a flexible Open access online education dimension with resources and tutors to supplement school based learning. The pandemic provided a shake up and the potential to bring the uk education system into the 21st century, unfortunately too many in government are out of touch and are sending the system back into the old normal, a normal that was already failing under the guise of rigor, rigor mortis was setting in as teachers had ever more duties and burdens placed on them by government. Readers will be glad to know virtually every teacher underwent a few hours training on how to spot terrorists in the classroom at great expense but can't be trusted to assess work for GCSEs. This on the grounds that students do better when assessd by teachers and when project and coursework are part of the system, might that be because when sitting three or four exam papers per day in static highly stressful exam halls, students don't perform their best in such artificial environments, the world of work doesn't work this way so why expect children to suffer such conditions, the rest of society doesn't work this way and even work for many has been blended? Add to this terminal assessment is intellectually terminal.

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