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What about the children?

By Les Walton CBE
Chair of the Association of Education Advisers AoEA

The regular Government press briefings quite rightly regularly report on the impact of the Coronavirus on the NHS and the economy. Increasing we are now hearing commentary on the impact it will have on the future life chances of children. Rather belatedly, in mid -March,  the Children’s Commissioner talked about the impact of the virus on children. “While it is a relief that the virus does not seem to make most children unwell, children are aware of the possible impact on them..”. I am suggesting that whilst it is right to focus on the physical impact on children, this quote tells me two things. We are still perpetuating the belief that the virus affects children less than adults and that we have a full understanding of the impact this terrible situation will have on the future of our children, particularly the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

 The majority of adults have had the good fortune of moving though the school system without being disrupted by major catastrophic events. Of course there are those amongst us who remember the devastating impact of war on children’s lives. Some of us will also remember the fear within 1940s and 50s  classrooms when the polio epidemic spread through schools. Without doubt, no matter how much educationalists and support services work to mitigate the impact of the Pandemic on our children’ , our concern for the future life chances of our children must be paramount.  

Children are dependent on the care, empathy, and attention of adults who love them.  They are also reliant on the care, empathy and attention of teachers and colleagues within the education and caring services.  These attachments will be disrupted during the epidemic.

Grandparents may no longer be available and family members who are required to serve on the front line will not be there for them.  There will be the emotional unavailability of depressed or distracted parents and carers who have to deal with the imposed isolation, particularly those who live in cramped and already restricted environments.

We hear the cry from our Government Ministers: ‘stay at home or go to work’.  Some of our children will not be at school, nor will they stay at home.  A certain proportion of children affected by the virus will lose all adult protection - “unaccompanied children,” as they are known in refugee situations.

The pandemic will adversely affect the life trajectory of children far more than that of adults.  Children will lose the opportunity for education, never to be replaced.  The argument often heard for the ‘rapid improvement’ of our schools is that children will never have a second chance.  Consider the impact of the outbreak on our children, who will lose a vital opportunity of schooling and of a social life.  Long after the virus has departed, these lives may never attain the potential they had before.

We are so wrapped up with the view that children seem to be ‘less affected by the virus than adults’ that we have simply forgotten the fact that hundreds and thousands of children will be particularly vulnerable to the deadly combination of loss of schooling and loss of caring.  

Schools are more than learning or exam factories. They give meaning to children in their construction of themselves in their world.  The moral structure supporting our children, provided by schools, is dismantled.  They will also lose their community and its culture during isolation from school, sometimes replaced by new, unsafe and possibly dangerous influences .

What shall we do in order to make the Coronavirus less damaging to children?

We must:

  1. Implement the international humanitarian law regarding the protection of children in crises. We must apply this to our children today.
  2. Ensure that the economic interventions that government propose consider the impact on children.
  3. Attend to the learning needs of all children and identify how their limited access to the curriculum may be addressed.
  4. Reinforce the need for special consideration for children who are vulnerable and have special needs.  This will include the provision of facilities for education and play, and special help for families
  5. Institute additional measures to reduce the potential exploitation of children who may not have the powerful support systems so ably delivered by schools and key partners.
  6. Ensure that the health infrastructure of children’s lives is not disrupted.  Particular consideration should be given to children when accessing health services.
  7. Safeguard children’s interests when planning the ‘post virus’ world. Children must be given special consideration, particularly when being re-integrated into ‘normal schooling’.

Please do not think that at the end of three months or six months they will simply turn up in their uniforms and be the same children who left.  There will be a need for educational and psychological rehabilitation.  Also, remember they may be the people who, in the future, will lead our strategies  to prevent a recurrence of such a catastrophe.

I know there have been tremendous efforts to make the Coronavirus situation less damaging for children. Educators are attempting to feed disadvantaged and vulnerable children and keep children safe, both physically and psychologically.  We are also using new technology to reduce the digital divide by promoting accessible and engaging on-line learning.  The curriculum is being re-examined in order to identify how the gaps in learning may be addressed.  New ways of promoting deeper involvement and collaboration with families as co-educators of children are being introduced.  Schools are also reaching out to support the communities they serve through a range of initiatives.  For example, students within Northern Education Trust schools are delivering books to care home residents and exchanging letters with those who are isolating.

We must applaud our teachers, support staff and related education services.  However, these efforts should continue and be strengthened.  I absolutely understand the need to address the health and economic demands of our present situation.  Whilst it is so important to focus on the NHS and the economy during the daily news briefings, we must never lose our focus on the impact on our children’s futures.

It is time for educational professionals and society to redefine our perception on the impact of the virus.  We are not just talking about the loss of reading and writing lessons, we are talking about the loss of our children’s futures.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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