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Going the distance

Ben Birchall/PA

Going the distance

For weeks now, the children in our street have used it like a playground. With commuters no longer using the road as a rat run, bikes whizz past the gate, footballs fly through the air, paving stones are covered in chalk and our pup usually has a little crowd of toddler fans poking their grubby little fingers through the bars of the fence so that he can lick whatever sticky mess remains there.

Life has changed under lockdown.

And seeing kids playing together in a road that would normally be off limits is something rather lovely. New friendships have been forged among children normally caught up in the frenetic routine of city life, in which parents are rushing to and from work, and where adolescent near neighbours, separated by a parental choice of schools, have never met.

All of that has been a plus.

But I also pass three schools every day on my cycle ride to the office and empty playgrounds are a reminder of how much we have lost.

Instead of the cacophony of excited children, there’s the gentle fluttering of homemade notes tied to the gates with bits of coloured wool. Bright rainbows scribbled in smudgy crayon on pages torn from lined exercise books that say thank you to teachers, expressing how much they are missed, and encapsulate a sadness for children who should be in class but who are now stuck at home.

And we know that not all homes are happy ones. Schools, as the footballer Marcus Rashford reminded the Prime Minister in a salutary lesson on the haves and the have-nots, are often there to feed the belly as much as the mind.

There are enough past reports, enquiries and investigations into the drop in educational attainment of the poorest pupils during even the short weeks of school holidays to inform us of the potential damage done over the last few months of lockdown.

And tragically, there is no doubt that any advances in closing the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children will have gone into reverse, affecting their outcomes for many years to come.

All kinds of inequity have been exacerbated by this pandemic, but for children already vulnerable, the consequences are severe. For many of them, school is the most stable and secure part of their lives, and the relationships made with teachers and friends are vital to their mental and physical wellbeing.

But this lockdown has cut across it all.

Friends, particularly with adolescent sons, have talked about them feeling lost, of needing the physicality of other boys and girls. Younger children have been left distressed by rules that prohibit the usual hugs and kisses, and all children will have experienced the damaging effects of isolation and the hell of loneliness that for many is too hard to bear.

The long-term effects on our children of this lockdown are still to be truly realised, but already, parents who fretted about what was going on in the heads of bored teens kept away from the rigidity of the classroom now worry about the explosion of bad behaviours as their stir-crazy offspring seize on the easing of restrictions to push the boundaries of freedom way beyond what they would have done before.

This lockdown has been a catalyst for many ills: austerity, neglect, stress, abuse, and with schools shut and online contact fragmented, it is no exaggeration to talk of a lost generation.

Children like routine. They like to know what comes next. And as adults, all we have been able to offer is uncertainty. It’s confusing for us, never mind for young minds.

Which is why the whole shambles that has surrounded the reopening of schools has been so damaging.

When the Education Secretary announced earlier this month plans for schools to reopen in August but only on a part-time, ‘blended learning’ basis, dictated by the 2m social-distancing rule, which for some councils meant just one day in school per week, there was an understandable outcry from parents and carers already struggling to cope.

And in a country where people have been so incredibly compliant in doing whatever they have been told to do by government over many months, that alarm galvanised into swift demands for change. They deserved more.

Powerful parent groups formed quickly and weren’t prepared to be ignored. One parent told me that at a meeting in Edinburgh where one of the councillors, a former teacher who now sits on the education committee, spent the whole time talking about how hard she was working to get things done, a crowd of parents that included two intensive care doctors, several nurses and a number of social workers were in no mood for a ‘poor me’ diatribe.

Within days, John Swinney was telling parliament that because of the retreat of the virus, the government was now working to a plan that schools would reopen on 11 August and with full-time learning.

It was a full political reverse and a victory for parents, who no one could surely accuse of wishing to put their children in harm’s way.

The issue here was not that government was not trying to do the right thing but that ‘blended learning’ was not presented as a back-up plan, it was presented as The Plan. And for parents whose life during lockdown has all been about sacrifice, that was not a credible position.

No one is suggesting that these decisions are not hellish. As politicians balance the risk of the disease against the risks of economic and social collapse and take cautious steps back into normality where a virus will still be prevalent and there is no vaccine, it will always be a Sophie’s Choice.

But education is not only one of the most vital areas of society to open back up, for both our present and our future, it is also, suggests the science, one of the safest.

One generation has already carried too heavy a sacrifice in this pandemic, and as Nicola Sturgeon has said many times, the tragedy of deaths in care homes will never leave her, and so all efforts must now be made to ensure we don’t have a lost generation at the other end of the age scale.

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