By Rebecca Brooks
AUK Education Policy Advisor 

On 29th June, the Huffington Post ran an exclusive story on leaked preliminary draft DfE guidance for full re-opening of schools in September. On the same day, the Secretary of State for Education in England extended the relaxation of education, health and care plan (EHCP) provision until the end of July.

The leaked DfE guidance warns of fines of up to £120 for parents whose children fail to attend school, alongside ‘robust’ measures to deal with persistent absentees and those who have not ‘engaged’ with school during lockdown. Expectations of an increase in ‘poor behaviour’ will be met with a focus on ‘tackling’ pupils described as ‘persistently disruptive’.

Meanwhile, the curriculum looks set to narrow in order to focus on English and Maths with some other subjects suspended for two terms, and GCSE students expected to drop some non-core subjects.

All of this will be a cause for concern for hundreds of thousands of families, especially those whose children have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and the 47% of parents and carers who fear their care-experienced child will find it extremely difficult to return to school after lockdown and may refuse to attend (See our Home Learning Report)

At Adoption UK, we have called for plans on school re-opening to focus on ‘recovery’ rather than ‘catch up’. Our research shows that children have had hugely differing experiences during lockdown, leaving some considerably disadvantaged, while others have blossomed without the stress that school can often bring. Children with different experiences will need different kinds of support as they transition back to full-time education.

Attending to children’s emotional, physical and mental wellbeing leads to improved engagement, increased resilience and better academic outcomes. The research evidence is overwhelming. The loss of the richness and diversity of the school curriculum not only cuts across the requirement for all schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, hindering and narrowing children’s educational outcomes, it also removes important opportunities to make sense of the world we now find ourselves living in. It is the very antithesis of a recovery curriculum.

While literacy and numeracy are important foundational skills, many children find their purpose and their sense of achievement in other subjects. Some may shine in Music, Art or Drama. The increased self-esteem associated with success in one area equips a child with resilience and perseverance to make progress in subjects which they may find more challenging, including English and Maths.

Humanities and creative subjects provide a vital platform for discussions that will enable all young people to contextualise their experiences of living through a pandemic, personally, nationally and globally. None of these subjects are mere optional extras and all provide essential opportunities to put numeracy and literacy skills into practice. As schools grapple with the implications of the Black Lives Matter movement, reducing the opportunities to explore these wider social issues as part of a balanced curriculum seems a particularly perverse decision.

The situation is especially bleak for children with SEND. Too many found themselves unable to access educational opportunities before the pandemic, and have struggled to access appropriate support and learning provision during lockdown. With the continued relaxation around EHCP provision and the proposal that teachers should not spend more than 15 minutes within one metre of any student, it is hard to see how those who need 1:1 support in school will be able receive it.

If this guidance is implemented, children face returning to schools where essential educational and wellbeing support will be limited and where ‘disruptive behaviour’ will be viewed as something to be ‘tackled’ rather than the inevitable result of neglecting the learning, emotional and mental health needs of already struggling children. Those who do not send their children to a classroom where their needs cannot be met, or who fear attending because of health risks, will face hefty fines.

If children have fallen behind, let’s give school leaders the autonomy to decide what is best for their own communities, and the time to assess and understand the situation when pupils return so that they can target interventions to those who need it most over the medium to long term.

If persistent absence, school refusal and challenging behaviour are likely, let’s approach families and children with compassion and understanding, rather than judgment and threats. Understanding the cause of these issues is fundamental to seeking a solution.

If we truly value children with SEND, then let’s take steps to address the inequalities they have faced for years before the pandemic and ensure that, from now on, the educational provision they are entitled to is provided according to their needs and not according to the budget.

If every child is to have an equal chance in education, then let’s take this opportunity to widen the conversation, explore new ideas and learn from recent experiences, rather than to double down on a short-sighted approach that reduces the constellation of learning and experience to a passing grade in English and Maths.

We have a unique opportunity to re-imagine education in our nation. Let’s not allow it to pass us by.