I recently spoke with one of the co-founders of 'UsforThem', Liz Cole, on what UsforThem is and why children need to be back in the classroom.
What is UsforThem?
"We have been calling for children to be prioritised in the pandemic response. In particular, we have called for children to be back in school, fully and normally as soon as possible. Three of us started the campaign in May 2020 and we now have around 40,000 parent supporters across the four nations of the UK. We are concerned about all aspects of how the pandemic response is affecting children and young people -from the impact on education to their mental and physical health."
What impact on young people has the pandemic response had?
"It's been a catastrophic impact, disproportionately affecting the young, especially the most disadvantaged. The attainment gap is widening and children are falling behind on their schoolwork and wider development. We need to ask ourselves as a society, how are our young people going to excel in the future? Further, many parents are becoming extremely concerned about their children's mental health .For example, we are seeing worrying increases in cases of eating disorders and anxiety due to social isolation. The lack of human interaction coupled with uncertainty has made life incredibly challenging for young people. Small children are missing their play dates, and teenagers are isolated from their peers - unable to build friendships and develop socially. Despite the best efforts of schools, online learning is a poor substitute for physical schooling. Secondary school children are struggling with their motivation and younger children really cannot focus on online lessons for very long, it just isn't sustainable to teach and learn via a screen."
What are the impacts on parents? We talk about children getting back to school, but how important is it for parents?
"There's been a massive impact on parents, especially on those with younger kids, trying to juggle full time work and learning. The huge pressure put on families, has caused tension between parents and kids as well as between mums and dads. A big problem for parents over the last 12 months has been the uncertainty, and there's still huge uncertainty about our kids' futures. Our role as parents is to guide our children and support them, give them structure and nurture them, but unfortunately we can't give reassurances. We don't have the answers to the questions our children are asking us and that is, whatever way you look at it, destabilising. There have been some grave mental health impacts on parents too, I've heard some really heartbreaking stories. Parents feel guilty that they can't support and reassure their children in the way they want to."
What is the true cost of lockdown in general?
"I think the attainment gap has widened during lockdown and our children have fallen behind not just academically but also in terms of their social skills, physical health and mental health. We can't accept that and we shouldn't accept that. The plan and support for reopening schools needs to be long term, properly funded and comprehensive and take our children a step forward. All of this is a very difficult balancing act, and there are academic impacts and losses which need to be addressed while ensuring that our young people have the freedom to interact. We will need to strike a careful balance between restoring wellbeing and academic catch up."
Why did you get involved and help start up 'Us For Them'?
"I've never been involved in any campaign ever, before this. I was motivated because I was horrified at how children's needs didn't seem to be being considered at all in the pandemic response. Molly and Christine, the co-founders, shared the same concerns at the lack of discourse and we felt compelled to speak up."
What are your thoughts on the debate over exams and how it's been handled?
"I don't think there's a clear path for exams and the parents of year 11s and year 13s feel uncertain and cast adrift. Year 10s who have GCSEs next year are again uncertain whether their exams will go ahead, and of course this year's year 12s with their A Levels next year too. A roadmap needs to provide clarity and certainty. The pressure on schools has been immense throughout this time."
What are the damages of schools being closed?
"The government has been clear that schools are safe and Jonathan Van Tam has confirmed that teachers are not at greater risk than the general population. However there's now a clear consensus about the enormous damage caused by school closures- and this was a choice made by policy makers. We need to face up to that damage and start paying attention to the impact of the pandemic response on children. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for schools to reopen and stay open. Paediatricians have said the best place for children is school so we should be taking these experts' advice on the matter. It is important for children's voices to be heard, they are our future, and I don't think they are getting a fair hearing at the moment. Young people have borne the brunt of the pandemic response – we need to repay them and give them a foundation on which to build their futures."