In Depth

Reaction: doctors say school closures risk ‘scarring life chances’ of a generation

Paediatricians fear that children will suffer the effects of lockdown for years to come

More than 1,500 paediatricians have signed an open letter to Boris Johnson urging him to reopen schools or risk “scarring the life chances of a generation of young people”.

While Covid-19 does not directly threaten most young people, the “health and social impact will be severe”, according to the letter from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

The brunt of the impact will “be borne by children and families who have the fewest resources and need the most support”, the doctors say. These vulnerable children will go without “mental health support, vaccinations, special therapies, free school meals, physical activity and early years services”.

They are also “missing out on aspects of their education that they will never get back”, says a leading article in The Times.

“The sense that the government is not in control of events in the pandemic is nowhere more palpable than in education,” the newspaper claims. To recover some semblance of authority, Downing Street must build a case “for scrapping or at least reducing the long holiday and getting children into school to catch up some of what they have lost”.

But Johnson does appear to be trying, says The Spectator. At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, he “managed to cheer his MPs up a bit by pointing some of the blame at Labour and the unions for the delay”.

“Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has been unconvincing on the issue”, concedes The Times, and “most of the teaching unions, the head teachers being a notable exception, have been obstructive”.

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Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis, a former teacher, told an Education Select Committee hearing this week that the unions have been running a campaign to “breathe fear into parents about the idea of sending their kids back to school”, reports The Telegraph.

Union leaders rejected the claim, telling MPs they wanted pupils to return as soon as possible, “but they raised concerns about schools leaders’ ability to do so in the autumn term under the current social distancing rules”, says the BBC.

In any case, says The Spectator, “responsibility for reopening schools ultimately lies with the government”, and leadership has been sorely lacking.

Ministers had planned for all primary school children in England to return to class for at least a month before the summer holiday, but have now abandoned that goal. And Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also admitted that not all school children may be able to return in September.

In Scotland, meanwhile, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that “schools may be able to open with ‘nearer normality’ in August, depending on how successful efforts to suppress coronavirus have been”, reports Tes, formerly the Times Educational Supplement.

Welsh schools are scheduled to start reopening at the end of June.

In England, though, fears of “an increasing gap in education between rich and poor” are growing as private schools say they could reopen before their state counterparts, says the Daily Mail.

The newspaper reports that headteachers in the private sector “are ‘furious’ with the government over its dithering” and preparing to open regardless of ministerial advice.

If such an educational gap opens, it will not be easily closed, warns the RCPCH.

“The effects of Covid-19 will linger far beyond the pandemic itself, and will limit the life chances of children and young people for years to come,” the paediatricians predict in their letter.

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