Schools to face huge challenges as they prepare to open classrooms after 6 months - Joe Howes

21st September 2020

Blog

While schools prepare to implement new procedures and policies to reduce the risks of spreading COVID-19 when students return this week, this will not be the only issue they are facing. Not by a mile.

For many children and young people, the pandemic has only amplified the difficulties that already existed in their lives, increasing their isolation and forcing them to spend many hours in homes that lack the bare essentials and comforts most children take for granted. There were already, for those on the lowest incomes, a complex interconnection of issues within the home which means some children have huge challenges to overcome long before they sat down at a school desk to try to complete a productive day of learning.  An increase in pressure on one or more of these issues impacts others. And the pandemic has done this on a number of fronts, all at once.  

The full extent of these problems are laid bare in Buttle UK's State of Child Poverty Report 2020. The report describes how increasing problems with: access to basics such as food; parental and children’s mental health concerns; levels of domestic abuse and neglect, and a lack of IT equipment and internet access, have combined to mean that many children, whatever the efforts of their teachers, will have had little or no education for 6 months.

This will widen an attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers that a recent report by the Education Policy Institute suggests had stopped closing for the first time in a decade, even before the pandemic struck.

It will be schools, in many cases, who will be the first to identify and deal with the accumulation of issues that have built up since lockdown, when children finally return back through the school gates this week.  All children will have to adjust back into the routine of school, but for those described in our report the challenges of returning from the isolated, chaotic and possibly even abusive home environments, are going to create huge pressures on teaching staff and wider school communities.

Having helped hundreds of families during lockdown, we are acutely aware at Buttle UK that the provision of a laptop to vulnerable children is not in itself enough to make this a level playing field. Nevertheless, the disparities in the digital landscape during lockdown has brought the importance of connectivity into sharp focus. It is depressing that charities like Buttle UK, are having to step in and connect families in Britain - the world’s six-biggest economy.  While there has been some movement over recent months on the perception that internet access is a necessity rather not a luxury, the Government’s laptop scheme is struggling to meet demand. There is clearly still a long way to go to address the ‘digital divide’

There has been no dedicated child poverty strategy for many years now. The crisis has made the lack of this strategy so much more apparent. However, it has also demonstrated the huge value of our public services, and how communities are able to come together to support those that are most vulnerable within them.  Now is the time to look at how we harness these things in the plans for the recovery. Buttle UK therefore support the call from the End Child Poverty Coalition for the Government to set out a clear and ambitious child poverty strategy. However, if we do nothing else: 

We need a holistic approach to supporting children as they go back to school. While the Government’s National Tutor Programme is welcomed, children will need help that goes beyond just catching up academically, and also supports their wellbeing. 
We need new, longer-terms solutions to the ‘digital divide’, ones that draw on resources and innovation within the private sector.
And we need new initiatives that bring together charities, and other sectors, to find ways to collectively tackle the complex issues facing the most vulnerable children and their families. Too many of us are trying to solve these problems in isolation.

There has been no dedicated child poverty strategy for many years now. The crisis has made the lack of this strategy so much more apparent. However, it has also demonstrated the huge value of our public services, and how communities are able to come together to support those that are most vulnerable within them. Now is the time to look at how we harness these things in the plans for the recovery. Buttle UK therefore support the call from the End Child Poverty Coalition for the Government to set out a clear and ambitious child poverty strategy. However, if we do nothing else: 

  • We need a holistic approach to supporting children as they go back to school. While the Government’s National Tutor Programme is welcomed, children will need help that goes beyond just catching up academically, and also supports their wellbeing. 
  • We need new, longer-terms solutions to the ‘digital divide’, ones that draw on resources and innovation within the private sector.
  • And we need new initiatives that bring together charities, and other sectors, to find ways to collectively tackle the complex issues facing the most vulnerable children and their families. Too many of us are trying to solve these problems in isolation.

While we wait for such a Government led strategy to materalise, Buttle UK have secured funds to support children and their families now with help from a range of donors including, National Lottery, Comic Relief, the Masonic Charitable Foundation and others. We have built a £5m COVID Response war chest, and though this is clearly not enough to meet all needs, it will be used to support as many children as we can. It is also there to make things a little easier should there be a second wave of the virus. 

Our ‘Chances for Children’ grants, of up to £2,000, are designed to meet the specific needs of children, and they go directly to the families that need them. They can pay for a range of items and costs. These could include a combination of household essentials, a child’s bed, a laptop and internet access. Depending of the easing of lockdown restrictions, they can also include extracurricular activities, therapy or extra tuition.

This is a relatively small financial intervention, but extensive evaluation has demonstrated its value in building safe and nurturing environments, that better meet learning and development needs, as well as promoting wellbeing and helping in building stronger support networks.  Our grants are made by working in combination with local support services. By doing this we target funds to further the outcomes services are already aiming to achieve for children and young people. It is a very practical, collaborative approach, tailored to the specific needs of the family.

Since the crisis began Buttle UK have already spent over £1.2m on Chances for Children grants, which has included: £340,000 on IT equipment and internet access; £160,000 on educational books and toys; £132,000 on home appliances and £126,000 on children’s beds.

Not all families were the same going into this crisis and they are certainly not the same coming out. As we attempt a recovery from COVID, there are clearly going to be some very big challenges facing the most vulnerable sectors in society. Without considering the interconnectedness of issues, additional funding alone will not address them. We know that whilst the Government cannot do everything, it can show leadership and put children at the heart of recovery. To do this as we go through a recession is going to take imagination and collaboration between statuary, voluntary and private sectors. But if we are going to make a dent in these seemingly intractable issues we must act now. Otherwise, there are children returning to school this week that risk becoming a lost generation. 

Watch CEO Joseph Howes talk about the State of Child Poverty Report 2020 HERE.

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