CHILDREN are back at school – for now. According to Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman, ‘schools are recognising that the best way to rebuild resilience and support their children’s well-being is to make schooling as normal as possible’.
From visiting 121 schools in September, she found a third of them had pupils who have been withdrawn for home-schooling, a fact that she attributes to misinformation on social media rather than the alien school environment.
Sadly, this is not the experience that we’re hearing from parents. The inbox at UsforThem, a campaign for children to return to school normally, and Facebook groups are flooded with stories of children being deprived of water, prevented from going to the toilet and made to eat lunch outside in the rain. We surveyed our supporters and were horrified to find these were not exceptions: one in six schools were restricting access to both drinking water and toilets, one in five were not offering any hot food and two in five were offering a reduced curriculum. Battles with overzealous headteachers mandating masks for pupils in classrooms at secondary school are still raging, and now primary schools are dictating that parents must wear face coverings to collect children from the playground. Safeguarding seems to have been forgotten.
Do we really want our children met by masked rather than smiling adults at the end of the day? Are we living in a society where a teacher won’t give children a glass of water when they forget their water bottle? Is the new normal for a four-year-old to be told that he will put others a risk if he goes to the toilet at breaktime? One thing this crisis has crystallised is how much adults prioritise their own ‘safety’ over children’s welfare.
My concern is that so few parents are objecting to their children being treated like this. It puzzles me, despite grumblings in the playground, how few parents will address these concerns with their child’s school.
I dared to voice my reservations about the school’s measures in my son’s class Facebook group and was told in no uncertain terms by other parents that the school were doing their best, I should be grateful the children were back in school and not be so negative.
Discussion with friends has been revealing. Some parents seem so relieved to have the kids back at school that they turn a blind eye: ‘it’s not for ever’; ‘well that’s how it is now’. I get the impression many people don’t want to hear my protests because the reality is uncomfortable for them. The reality that the people we trust with our kids might not have their best interests at heart is unpalatable. I think we’ve become desensitised to the level of discomfort as well.
One friend said she was shocked to learn her daughter had to sit outside on the ground to eat her lunch. Did she complain to the school? No, she said, she couldn’t take on everyone’s battles. I completely accept that not everyone wants to be leading the charge in the challenge to government but for how long are they prepared to stay silent? Sadly, the restrictions are rarely relaxed, only increased and not to question the school’s rationale is to give tacit agreement that these rules are acceptable.
Parents may fear that by speaking out they will expose their child to negative attention. It’s not easy being the only one to question whether schools are going too far in the name of virus mitigation but you may find that you are voicing what others also feel if you have the courage to speak out.
It’s hard as headteachers may not like being questioned but if we don’t voice our concerns, many will focus only on mitigating the virus risk. They assume all those who comply are happy with what they are doing. We need to balance the fear, reminding them about their safeguarding responsibility and wellbeing duties, which should not be overshadowed by the low risk of the virus.
At UsforThem we’ve a raft of template letters to send to heads, local authorities, Ofsted, MPs and others concerned with children’s welfare. These can help frame your response to your school and hopefully will engage more parents to speak out about the way their children are being treated.
This ‘new normality’ is set to remain. The Secretary of State for Education has told a constituent that schools will be like this until there is a vaccine. So if parents don’t question these practices now, they will stay in place and your child will never sing in school again or do partner work without a mask.
Things don’t change if people go along with them. If parents don’t stand up for their kids, no one else will. The time is now.