Schools will prioritise pupils’ emotional and physical needs when classrooms fully reopen tomorrow, as two major reports warn of a crisis in children’s wellbeing and in the opportunities to play with their friends.
Headteachers are planning to devote more time and resources to lessons that support children’s mental and physical health this term, rather than piling on pressure to catch up with academic work.
“What’s important off the bat is to get children – especially young children – back used to the routines and the socialisation of schools, and actually give teachers a chance to learn how each child has reacted to what they’ve been through and what’s missing. To move headlong into strategies for catch up and recovery, without understanding that, will be misplaced,” said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers.
School leaders will want to prioritise “the whole child” over educational attainment when pupils who have been home-schooling return to their classrooms. “We need to get children ready to learn before we can expect them to learn.”
Research by play experts at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) Children’s Charity suggests children are experiencing a “play deprivation” crisis due to their inability to play with one another during lockdown.
The charity’s report found two-thirds of parents are worried that the impact of the pandemic on their child’s ability to play will have long-term consequences for their child’s wellbeing. One in five say they are “very concerned” about this.
Another major report, released today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, reveals that while more than 90% of parents are in favour of at least some “catch-up” academic policies in schools, 83% are also in favour of policies that support pupils’ wellbeing.
They want schools to prioritise in-class activities such as art and creative writing, and time outdoors, as well as offering more mental health support, extracurricular activities and unstructured socialisation time.
Research, carried out last month by the Parent Ping app, also found the vast majority of parents think there should be an increased focus on socialisation and mental health when home-learners go back to school.
James Biddulph, headteacher of the University of Cambridge Primary School, thinks it would be wrong to put pressure on children to catch up. “‘Catch up’ suggests that it’s a competition, that we’re in some kind of frenetic state and need to squash into the next three or four months what children have missed. And if we do that, we’re not attending to what children have really missed,” he said. “We’ve decided we’re going to focus on a reconnecting curriculum that will help children to flourish again.”
Over the next three weeks, his pupils will spend less time studying subjects such as history and geography and almost twice as much time as usual doing sport – at least an hour each day. They will also spend double the usual amount of time on lessons that support their emotional wellbeing and socialisation skills, such as singing, music, art and meditation.
Academic learning will remain a priority and teachers will assess pupils’ learning loss over lockdown, in order to address this over the summer term. But Biddulph is equally concerned about the way the pandemic has forced many children to spend lots of time indoors and has prevented most from playing with their peers face to face. “I spoke to one parent who told me their child, who is a single child, hasn’t seen another child since January. And that’s just not what childhood’s about.”
Laura Walsh, head of play service at GOSH, said the impact of restrictions on children playing cannot be overestimated: “It can be argued that children are experiencing a form of play deprivation at a time when they need the freedom to play more than ever.”
In the GOSH study, parents frequently comment on their child’s increased general anxiety and wariness around others, with 64% reporting that their child is missing playing with other children and 59% reporting their child had lost confidence during the pandemic.
One parent of a six-year-old in London told the charity: “He feels more insecure when going out to play in the park.” Another parent in the south-east said of their eight-year-old: “Less time playing with other children has made my child more shy and awkward around other people.”
Nearly a third of the 6,000 parents surveyed by the IFS said they think it will take a year or more for their child to make up for the pandemic’s effect on their learning, and some fear their child will never recover.
Writing for the Observer on theguardian.com on Sunday, the government’s new “catch-up tsar” said the ministers’ recovery plan needs to cover “at least the next three years” and affect the shape of the education system “for a generation”.
Kevan Collins, the new education recovery commissioner, writes: “An approach that works will provide academic help, but also offer opportunities for young people to participate in drama, sport, music and social activities – all aspects of education that children have missed out on in the last year.” He added that further investment from the government would be needed to fulfil this goal.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “ Monday will mark a moment of joy for millions of people across the country – from the students going back to class to the teachers who can’t wait to get them back – as young people walk through their school and college gates and are reunited with their friends.
“I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been, with some children in class and most at home, but I do know how important it is for all children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their mental health and wellbeing.”
It has been almost a year since Ata, 7, who is an only child, has been able to play normally with his friends, says his mother Ayse Kocal-Hove.
“He loves playing with other children, being outdoors. So his language changed, his attitude changed.”
At one point, during lockdown, he got so “hyper”, she decided to buy him a punching bag to help him vent his frustration.
“He was really depressed throughout lockdown,” she said.
She is worried about the socialisation skills Ata has missed out on during the pandemic. “What he needs is to be outdoors with friends. He needs to learn to share. He needs to learn how to negotiate [and] get on with people. Children playing together learn so much from each other.”