Children will suffer lifelong damage because of lockdown, ministers were warned ahead of the decision to open schools, it has emerged.
On Friday, new documents were released detailing the evidence seen by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergency’s (Sage) on whether it was safe to allow pupils to return to the classroom.
One report by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group of Modelling (SPI-M) and New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) warned of the wider impact of lockdown to children’s physical and mental health, education and development.
The report authors said: “A cohort of children have experienced a shock to their education which will persist and affect their educational and work outcomes for the rest of their lives
“The current lockdown may lead to an increase in adverse childhood experiences, for example: domestic violence, poor parental mental health, child neglect or abuse.”
Although the authors said some children ‘will adapt and be just fine’ they warned that the vulnerable and poorest would be hit the hardest. Many would suffer from lack of outside space and opportunities for play and exercise, as well as loneliness, lack of socialisation, lack of physical activity and hunger, they said.
“Educational outcomes are seriously at risk, especially for disadvantaged pupils,” the report authors state.
“It is assumed that most students have access to devices and the Internet, though an important minority do not.
“It cannot be assumed that all parents have the knowledge, confidence, resources and time to support learning opportunities for children.”
Seven in 10 parents said their children’s mental health had been impacted by lockdown, the papers show, and one third said it had damaged physical health.
The authors also warned that pupils undergoing times of transition between schools and exam years – such as Year Six – would be affected the most because they would have no formal end to their schooling, no exams and no rites of passage such as the school prom.
The government is hoping to get Year Six, Year One and Reception pupils back to school in the first wave in June although has faced resistance from teaching unions who claim it is not safe for teachers or pupils.
However the papers include a review of studies from University College London showing that those aged under 20 had 56 per cent less chance of being infected.
Educational experts said it was crucial to get children back to school as quickly as possible to avoid further harm.
Prof Lee Elliot Major, an expert in social mobility at Exeter University, added: “We desperately need to get our most disadvantaged and vulnerable children back with their classroom teachers as soon as possible if we are to avoid long-term educational damage.
“The longer we leave the school return, the bigger the challenge in getting them back up to speed, and the greater likelihood we’ll face a decline in social mobility.
“It will be a huge task for teachers to enable children to catch-up when they do return to school, and the real fear is that some children will suffer permanent education scarring.”
Prof Lindsey Macmillan, director of the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities at UCL’s Institute of Education said getting children in Reception and Year One back to school earlier is a ‘positive and evidence based decision because ‘the extent to which children are learning is so steep at that age’.
“Early years investment is crucial because it is building the foundation of everything that comes after,” she said.
“Most of the academic evidence is pretty much in agreement that the likely impact of school closures is significant.”
Modelling of various scenarios for reopening schools were carried out ahead of the decision, and show only a small increase in the overall infection rate for the population.
Bringing back reception year pupils and a handful of year groups is likely to raise the R value by less than 0.3, modelling shows, although the specific return strategy set out by the government has not itself been modelled.
Government scientific experts said they were still unsure what role schools played in the R rate and are basing their R rate figures on an imaginary scenario where opening schools entirely would raise the R rate by 1.
Teacher unions welcomed the publication of Sage’s evidence, but remained opposed to plans for schools, suggesting that Boris Johnson was taking a ‘cavalier attitude’ towards children.
Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted of the National Education Union (NEU) said: “We are surprised that the wider opening of schools proposed by Boris Johnson has not been modelled by Sage. This points to a cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said that support for schools to reopen on a fixed date continues to “vanish”, while another Dr Patrick Roach, head of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said the evidence is ‘inconclusive’ and will ‘add to teachers’ anxiety’.
There is also uncertainty that schools will reopen at the beginning of June because government experts say test, track and trace systems would need to be in place. Currently it is thought they will not be ready in time.
The government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King said there was no evidence that infections were low enough in the community, or that contact tracing was in place.
“It is therefore not safe, we have to emphasise, to open until they are met,” he told a virtual press conference.
But Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said that the phased return of pupils has been a “carefully considered decision based on the best scientific and medical advice”.
He added: “The welfare of children remains at the very heart of everything we are doing because being able to be back in school will benefit not just their education but also their wellbeing.”
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, added: “There is no question that an extended period of school closures have a devastating impact on the poorest children and the poorest young people.
“This impact is manifest both in terms of their learning and in accessing the wider support that schools provide. The attainment gap widens quickly when children are not in school.”