My opinion around returning to school and early years settings

The Government have declared it is safe for schools and early years settings to open their doors to more children from 1st June 2020, but ever since the announcement was made, there has been a huge amount of debate about if this is the right thing to do, or not.

Guidance for schools was issued first, followed later by guidance for early years settings, and these guidance documents have just added to the confusion and difficulties in deciding on the best course of action for schools, early years settings, individual teachers and parents.

Within these guidance documents there are various suggestions – and that is all they are suggestions, not ‘must do’s’ – to be considered when deciding on if a school or early years setting should open, and if they do what actions they need to take.

I have made comment to family members, and even written a few words within my Self Isolation Diary that I have been keeping since 16th March 2020 when I decided I needed to self isolate, but I now feel the need to record my thoughts and opinions (and the reasons for my thinking) within a blog.

Should schools or early years settings open their doors to more children?
First we need to remember that some schools, early years settings including childminders (all to be called ‘settings’ from now on) have remained open throughout the pandemic to provide care and a safe place to vulnerable children and those of keyworkers. At first it was thought that all settings would remain partially open to meet parental need, but it was soon established that this was not needed and so ‘hubs’ were set up to cover the need in a particular area, no matter which setting a child had attended prior to lockdown.

Giving credit where it is due, the staff in these settings have done a fantastic job in meeting the children’s needs, keeping them safe and happy. Although not always the case, most of the settings that have remained open have been outside a lot, used play based opportunities and ensured the children had a lot of fun.

Numbers attending have been low, and so there has been plenty of space, enough adults to ensure the children are safe and occupied, and not too much focus on academic subjects, especially where children from different settings have been in one base setting (the hub).

However, things are going to change as Government are keen to open up schools to more children, and so all settings now have the option to open more fully – but not to every child.

There are restrictions based on space required for social distancing, for one consistent adult per group of children (now called ‘a bubble’), regular handwashing and more. Within schools, there are restrictions around which year groups can attend (Reception, Y1 and Y6 to start with), and for all settings restrictions around how many children can be in each ‘bubble’. There are also recommendations around what resources are safe to have available (based on how easy to clean on a daily basis or even more frequently if needed), which should be put away or be in areas marked with tape as not available, and much more.

I have seen photo’s on social media of some settings fully following the suggestions as if there is no choice. Certainly the needs of the children do not appear to have been considered, and as a result these very young children (all except Y6 being below the age of 6) will find an environment that is not familiar, with many of their favourite resources out of reach.

Of course some settings will be using their ‘common sense’ based on knowing their group of children very well, and with a firm understanding of child development, to decide on the environment they will provide in these challenging times, even if this means not following all of the Government suggestions.

In my opinion it is the Government intention of enabling children to ‘catch up’ in their academic subjects that is the part of the problem because after such a long time away from their setting and being at home with just members of their household, the children are going to need a lot of support with their social and emotional development. It is this they need to rebuild and to re-establish, not academic subjects. Given that in some cases children will not be in the same ‘bubble’ as their friends and may not even have the same teacher as before the lockdown, things are going to be different and picking the pieces of pre lockdown will be more difficult and not just a case of sitting at a desk on their own with pencil and paper.

The other issue of ‘catching up’ is what is this going to be based on? On pre lockdown assessment of each child? – On national ‘norms’? – On some sort of assessment of each child who returns? It will be a complex task to establish where each child is academically / developmentally, and teachers will need time to observe the children, and the children will need time to settle and get used to those in their bubble.

As not all children will be returning to their setting either because in the ‘wrong’ year group, or because of parental choice, it seems wrong to me that some children will be ‘catching up’ (or at least teachers will be trying to support them ‘catching up’), while some will still be at home with parents.

Further during lockdown some children will have experienced a wonderful, enriching environment with parents who are willing and able to support their home schooling; while others will have had a horrendous time with parents finding everything overwhelming or be experiencing difficult times with poverty / domestic violence / health issues and more, all preventing them from even thinking about home schooling, never mind doing it. Yet others (like some of my grandchildren) the parents have tried their best (that includes me, as I have a 16yr old grandson living with me) to engage the children and been proactive in downloading stuff from the setting, but the children have found all sorts of ways to avoid doing anything even vaguely educational. This means some children will have made progress – but not necessarily with the same things; some will have remained more or less where they were on the day settings closed; and some will have experienced such huge amounts of trauma, they are not able to learn anything – and do not trust adults including the unfamiliar teacher who may be in their bubble.

So to return to the question I posed at the beginning of this section –

Should schools or early years settings open their doors to more children?

My personal response is NO at least not in the format suggested in the Government guidance document.

In my opinion (we will all have different opinions, and each opinion should be valued as based on our own knowledge and experience.) the Government should have just extended the ‘hub’ set up, and enabled children whose parents need to return to work because they can’t work from home, to attend their nearest hub (and if capacity reached to open more hubs). The provision in these hubs should have remained as it has been since the lockdown – a safe and nurturing space – without any focus on academics or ‘catching up’.

If the Governments focus was on providing safe and nurturing places for children who could not stay at home with parents, I think there would be a lot less stress and less difficult decisions to make about what the ‘right thing’ to do was.

If the Government focus was as above, each setting could consider if they should continue to be a ‘hub’ or to become one should the need arise, and some smaller settings could come to the conclusion that they don’t need to open at the moment. Each parent could consider their own situation and if their child needs a safe place while they are at work or coping with family issues.
However, this is not the situation and Government are causing both parents and settings a lot of stress in deciding on what they should do in the best interests of staff, parents and children.

Not easy decisions for anyone.

WHEN settings are able to fully open with few restrictions and children are able to be with their teachers and peers – in my opinion that will be the time to resume academic / development based ‘catch up’. I even have a suggestion for how this could be supported, as I think although the children will be technically a year group further on, in September when we might be able to fully reopen schools, there should be a transitional stage where their old teacher welcomes them back into the setting, and spends most of the first week playing games, settling into routines, re-establishing friendships and relationships. Of course some children will have moved to secondary school or started reception but even so staff from their previous setting could be on hand to support on the first day; plus phased start back could be implemented. The important thing will be to allow time for the foundations to be laid and for children to be secure and happy before any formal learning is required.

Of course just about every teacher of all age groups knows this, and if given a free hand would know just what the children need to ensure their wellbeing.

The other fact Government keep harping on about is the vulnerable children needing to be in a safe setting. I totally agree with this BUT most of these children are either known to staff in their setting or are known to Children’s Services AND importantly, places within the hubs were allocated to these children during lockdown. Of course for some children situations will have deteriorated and they might not be known yet but most will be. Some children may now be less at risk, due to changes, so it is important not to make assumptions – but equally important to check all children are OK and have not (are not) falling through the net.

As most of the vulnerable children are known, the question that needs asking is:
Why are these children not accessing the places provided in the hubs?

I am not an expert but I have had some experience through previous work roles and indeed my own family, so I know there will be many, many reasons why the children are not attending, ranging from no transport; to no money for fares; to fear of leaving the house (including fear of getting coronavirus); to difficulties of getting younger children ready and at setting on time; to no food to send a packed lunch; to parent in hospital; to normal support services being unavailable; to the children resisting attempts to send them and even being violent towards parents; to parental abuse of addictive things like drugs or alcohol; to language issues in reading English – and more because I could make an extensive list and still not cover everything.

What these children and families need is support whatever the reason behind not sending the children is – and Children’s Services will have an idea what support is needed – and if asked the setting staff will have an even better idea.

Let’s not just judge or criticise, or worry ourselves silly – let’s be proactive in making a difference by providing support and even more important understanding, as it can be very hard to put ourselves in the shoes of these families.

Personally, the Government reasons for WHY and HOW they want settings to open their doors to more children, makes no sense at all, and risks causing stress to settings and parents, and impacting on the wellbeing of children.

Nasty though the pandemic has been – and is, – we have been given a golden opportunity to reflect on our education system and what works – and why; and what doesn’t work – and why. I think just to resume doing things as we have done for the past few years / last decade would be a huge mistake and a lost opportunity to bring about change and build on the proven practice based on child development and observation. There is a lot of very good reflective, informed practice across all settings that we should be using to inform our way forward as we overcome this nasty virus.

So I am almost at the end of this blog with just one more subject I want to comment on – but first a mini ‘round up’.

  • I don’t think children should be returning to settings unless their parents need that support to enable them to work or to cope with challenging family circumstances. I think it is far too soon, and the more children who are in settings the greater the risks of the virus being passed on, making the role of the adults more difficult than it needs to me; until MOST children are able to return to their setting we should not be attempting to do anything other than provide safe and nurturing places.
  • My grandson who lives with me will not be returning to his specialist school, as I don’t think it is in his best interests – and in fact may do more harm than good.
  • Three of my granddaughters will not be returning to school – one because she is in the ‘wrong’ year group and so not able to return – plus her sister who is in reception will not be returning because my daughter does not see how she can explain to the girls why one needs to go to school and one doesn’t. In addition my daughter is seriously considering if school is the best place for her girls, as during the home school period she has come to realise that school does not meet their needs.
  • The third granddaughter not returning is in Y1 and so could return but her mum (my daughter) is worried about the fact that she would not be in same bubble as her friends, and will not have her beloved class teacher in her bubble. Further she thinks it will all be too much change – the pre lockdown – the home schooling – the bubble – the potential return to normal as a Y2 – AND the fact that a baby brother is due in a couple of weeks. Like many children of this age (5) she is adaptable but there is only so much change she can cope with at once.

Childminders
Some childminders have remained open for keyworker children, and have done a fantastic job. Welcoming other people’s children into your family home during a pandemic is a decision that cannot be taken lightly, but many have done so. Others decided to close for family or personal reasons – and in some cases because the families whose children they looked after did not require their services.

Each decision was a personal and professional decision.

The same applies to now, as each childminders situation will be different and so they must risk assess for their own wellbeing, that of their own family, and indeed the wellbeing of the childminded children, and the needs of their parents.

Difficult decisions and none of us should criticise anyone else’s personal or professional decision.

I have noted via social media that some childminders are upset and feel schools are not willing to let them drop off or collect children from school as they have done pre pandemic times.

However having read the Government guidance I don’t think this is about childminders per sec, because it says;
“To minimise contact between groups of children and staff, children should attend just one setting wherever possible and parents and carers should be encouraged to minimise as far as possible the number of education and childcare settings their child attends”.

This says to me that it is not just about childminders and refers to anyone who may be dropping of or collecting a child from a setting. Further it is clear it is parents responsibility to ensure their child only goes to one setting – and if a childminder setting offers the hours needed the child could attend just the childminder setting.

This means it will be swings and roundabouts with some children unable AT THE MOMENT to go to their childminder outside school hours, but others may not go to school but remain with the childminder all day.

Income could also be increased if some parents need childcare but their child is in the ‘wrong’ year group.

So I don’t think this is ‘anti childminders’ or a deliberate attempt to prevent childminders earning an income, it is more about safeguarding all the children – those at the setting, childminders own children, and younger children in the childminders care.

Also it is only a temporary measure and I am sure once we have beaten this virus, all children will return to school or their early years setting, and all settings will once again work in partnership with childminders providing the very valuable drop off and collection service.

Please remember this blog is about my personal opinion, you may have a different opinion. It does not make one right and one wrong, it just means we have a different opinion.

When deciding what your course of action will be around opening your setting or sending your child to a setting, you can have your own opinion and do not have to agree with me, with the Government or anyone else.

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