Seamus Oates was deciding whether to keep his schools for vulnerable and difficult children open during the coronavirus crisis when an email from a teaching assistant dropped into his inbox.
“Dear Seamus,” it read. “I have to admit I haven’t been overly concerned [about Covid-19]. Instead I have been selfishly thinking ‘oh I’ll just enjoy the time off work if it comes to it’. That was until a little reminder, a reality check, yesterday after a kid made a disclosure to me …
“It was a devastating reminder that sometimes school is the only safe place some kids have, the only place they are safe from abuse, the only place they get proper meals. It also reminded me of the misery school holidays can bring. If possible, I hope and pray all the schools remain open.”
The message stuck. “That letter influenced our thinking a lot when we were planning for this,” says Oates, chief executive of TBAP, a trust that runs 10 schools around England for children excluded, or in danger of being excluded, from other schools.
“When this started, people were saying ‘we need to keep the kids at home’. But we really need to think about where some of these children are being kept. Some are going back to very disadvantaged backgrounds. We’ve stayed open. There will always be a safe space in the locality for these children.”
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His alternative provision (AP) schools are among 144 AP academies educating children who have been permanently excluded, or are at risk of exclusion, alongside 200 council-run pupil referral units (PRUs). The sector teaches the most vulnerable children, many with backgrounds of domestic violence, sexual abuse, neglect, gangs and county drug lines.
But the difficult decisions around keeping schools open has split the sector, not least because of the risk to staff.
Wasim Butt, principal of Beachcroft AP academy, in north London, describes how his teachers are putting their clothes in the washing machine as soon as they arrive home for fear of infecting their own children. “Staff are feeling really fragile,” he says.
Shortly after Oates made his decision not to close, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that all schools should stay open for children of key workers and “vulnerable children”, defined as those who have a social worker. This definition captured a swathe of AP pupils, since 32% of excluded pupils have a social worker, compared with just 5% in mainstream schools.
The next day the Department for Education (DfE) issued further guidance, saying schools should remain open to vulnerable children, including those “with safeguarding and welfare needs”, conceivably every child in alternative provision. By 22 March, updated guidance asked “local authorities and schools to maintain provision for children in alternative provision settings wherever possible”, with the “expectation that vulnerable children who have a social worker will attend school”.
How much do children spread coronavirus?
The diverging approaches to school closures may stem from the considerable uncertainty around the extent to which children are playing a role in spreading Covid-19.
Children make up a tiny minority of confirmed cases – fewer than 1% of positive tests in China were children under nine. It is probable that a bigger pool are getting infected but only experiencing mild or no symptoms. Among those who have tested positive, nearly 6% developed very serious illness, according to an assessment of 2,000 patients aged under 18 in Wuhan, with under-fives and babies being most at risk.
A significant unknown is how infectious children are, assuming large numbers are getting infected. Early evidence suggests that around 50% of transmission in the pandemic at large has involved asymptomatic people and children could be among this group.
“It seems most plausible to me that they are being infected but are at low risk of developing disease,” said Prof Peter Smith, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We know that for flu, children are important transmitters of infection, which is the basis for the flu vaccination programme directed at children, but we do not know yet how important they are as transmitters of coronavirus. So closing schools would be based on the assumption that they do make an important contribution to transmission.”
Rates of various illnesses are seen to rise and fall at the start and end of school terms. School holidays were thought to have led to a plateau in the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Also advised hygiene and social distancing measures, such as hand washing and reduced physical contact, just aren’t very effective in a primary school playground setting. So there is the potential for schools to act as a local fountain of infection for the surrounding area.
“Every mother and father knows that when kids go back to school they’re going to get hammered by colds and flus and sore throats,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.
This uncertain science has to be carefully weighed against the certain disruption and cost of school closures, including taking large numbers of doctors and nurses out of the workplace, and unintended consequences such as grandparents, who are among the most vulnerable, taking on childcare and facing greater exposure.
So the schools are being asked to keep their doors open. But here’s the catch: they can’t compel pupils to attend. The result is that teachers are travelling to work, putting themselves at risk, only to find very few children turn up.
At Olive AP academy, in Thurrock, Essex, the corridors are empty. The voice of the headteacher, Collette Hunnisett, echoes against walls lined with silent classrooms, where once there were 96 pupils. In one classroom a counsellor waits alone, patiently, surrounded by chairs.
Just two pupils, dressed smartly in uniform, are busy in the art room. Michael, in year 9, is sawing wood and Samuel, in year 10, is drawing the Mona Lisa. Seven staff are nearby. “It’s good to have a nice environment where I can talk,” says Samuel. “But if it’s a long time away from my work, that would get worrying. I’m in year 10 and I need to do my GCSEs next year, so I can’t be playing all the time.”
If Samuel and Michael’s peers are similarly worried, they haven’t acted on it. “For us it’s a bad thing they’re not here,” says Hunnisett. Quite a few of the children are at risk of being involved in drug-running through county lines, she says. “We have a really strong ethos around safeguarding, and for us not to be able to do that every day is the worst feeling in the world.”
A school where ‘nobody’s judging you’
Astrid Schön, associate headteacher at London East alternative provision, says that telling AP pupils they are special cases compared with the rest of the country is not straightforward. “If I say to one of my boys in a gang, you should come in, you’re vulnerable and you’re meant to attend, he’s going to look at me like I’m out of my mind, because they don’t see themselves like that.”
In Scotland, the children’s commissioner has already warned of low uptake of school places by vulnerable children, partly because of the stigma.
Schön also thinks exams cancellation was poorly communicated. “Our kids at the best of times struggle to work and now no one, I can assure you, apart from some of my more diligent girls, is going to do any work.”
She describes pupils with four siblings in one-bedroom flats at risk of domestic violence, and those involved with drug dealers, saying she fears a “mini-crimewave”. “We will only know the full impact of this when the figures for young people not in education, employment or training come out next year, ” she says.
Butt says schools will have to negotiate “a minefield” when pupils return. “You can’t just pick up where you left off with these children,” he adds.
One headteacher, who does not wish to be named, describes a “very anxious girl” who was “drip feeding” disclosures of sexual abuse to a staff member and is no longer at school. Another talks about a young man with “missing episodes”, who had just begun attending school regularly.
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All 11 AP settings the Guardian spoke to are phoning families and providing learning packs, and the usual escalation routes to social services remain. The Wave multi-academy trust in Cornwall is even trying to provide dongles for pupils without an internet connection.
Mark Jordan, chief executive of the Parallel Learning Trust, which has schools in London and Southend, has been inventive in trying to keep his pupils’ education going. “If parents say, ‘we’re self-isolating’, we will say ‘OK, but on day 15 we expect that child to turn up’.”
His team is also encouraging pupils to deliver flyers offering to help the elderly. “Developing a sense of community is so important for these kids,” he says.
But many AP leaders think public healthcare takes priority. The sector’s representative body, the National Association for PRUs and Alternative Provision (PRUsAP), blames the Department for Education.
Its president, Sarah Dove, has sent an open letter to education ministers, accusing them of failing to consult with AP schools and, instead, “insisting on an approach which puts staff and children at risk”. The letter says “social workers are not making home visits and are working from home, whilst PRUs and AP are then expected to do this”.
One head of alternative provision in London, who did not wish to be named, said 60% of her staff were off sick, yet her school was open “against my better judgment”.
Nonetheless, Hunnisett wants to stay open. “The hard work my staff put in with these pupils can be undone so quickly. The only way I explain it is a huge sense of loss. All I want is for my young people to be here.”
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