Schools ‘must come before pubs and restaurants in future’

Schools should only close after pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops in any future lockdown, the children’s commissioner for England has said.

Anne Longfield says children have a right to an education, must not be an “afterthought”, and that schools should be “first to open, last to close”. She says children play a smaller role in spreading Covid-19 and are much less likely to get ill from it. The government says getting children back to school is a national priority. On Wednesday, Ms Longfield published a new briefing setting out what her office believes are the key actions needed to ensure children “are at the heart of planning for the future”.

The children’s commissioner acknowledges that reducing Covid-19 transmission in the community is very important “but it should not be automatically assumed that this requires closing schools – except as a last resort”. The briefing paper calls for the regular testing of pupils and teachers, so any confirmed Covid-19 cases – and their close contacts – can be isolated “without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home”.

It adds: “This will be particularly important in the 2020/21 winter flu season when clusters of flu could be mistaken for a Covid-19 outbreak and result in unnecessary closure or interruption.” Her paper argues that, when pupils need to work online, the Department for Education should expand its laptop programme.

Consideration should also be given to those children taking exams next summer so that these children are not disadvantaged, particularly in the case of extended local lockdowns. The briefing paper warns there is risk that some children will struggle to come back to school after a period away, and that this could lead to truancy and challenging behaviour. The DfE should closely monitor attendance and exclusion figures within areas that have experienced a local lockdown or increasing cases of Covid-19, in order to identify where further help is needed, it says.