By Adrian Packer CBE, founder and CEO of CORE Education Trust, and Chair of the ukactive Kids Council
The debate about schools in England reopening or not seems to have consistently missed the point that the majority of them never closed in the first place. Schools have remained open to vulnerable children and children of key workers throughout the period of restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis.
As the CEO of a multi-academy trust in Birmingham that looks after many children who fall into the official government-defined category of vulnerable, I am increasingly concerned the number of children not covered by this definition is growing every day: those who are not engaging in our distance learning programmes; those who have been identified at risk of criminality and those whose families have fallen into financial hardship..
As summer approaches another group can be added to this – children who will lack the opportunity to exercise, play sport and have fun. This is no small issue. Research by ukactive has shown that the fitness of children from low-income families falls 18 times faster than their more affluent peers during a “normal” summer holiday, matched by a widening attainment gap, of which 66% is attributed to summer learning loss.
Our most vulnerable children are the most “left behind” at this time in the year in normal times. COVID-19 will only augment this – especially as many children won’t return to school again until September.
Furthermore, despite the best efforts of the likes of Joe Wicks, Sport England polling during lockdown has shown that 38% of children report doing less physical activity now than they normally would do,
As such, the Chair of ukactive Baroness Tanni Grey-Thomspon, recently highlighted the need to make plans now to ensure the most vulnerable are not left further behind over the summer. Her message is simple: execute a plan now to avoid a summer marked for thousands of children and their families by isolation, inactivity and hunger.
This is why schools must open over the summer. Not as places to teach but locations for sport and other outdoor activities to take place. However, we should not ask teachers to lead this charge. They have already gone above and beyond the call of duty, so they need to pause and re-group for what will be an extremely challenging new academic year ahead.
Schools achieve more when they look beyond the school gates into the wider community. They are safe and trusted spaces that sit at the heart of local communities and they should be regarded as a vital community asset at this challenging time. As many of these assets as possible should be kept open during this summer holiday, safely and in line with public health guidance, but open as vibrant community hubs for activity.
With so many school holiday programme providers currently furloughed, there is a great opportunity to mobilise this latent workforce. These qualified practitioners are all set to work in partnership with ukactive and the children’s sport and activity sector once we receive the green light from the Government, adhering to safe operating procedures, to deliver and re-shape summer holidays for thousands of children and young people.
I want to work with the Government to secure the funding to support the costs of schemes that engage children and young people eligible for free school meals, supporting the range of provision that schools and the children’s activity sector are able to provide. Funding will support the local-level provision of summer activity schemes, in targeted areas of high-need.
The model is tried and tested, cost effective, and can be implemented quickly and safely in a COVID-19 context. Keeping school facilities open this summer provides an opportunity to motivate, inspire and protect our children when they need it most.
We must not look back in the future and ask ourselves what more we could have done to keep our vulnerable children safe from harm during this time of unprecedented need. In the future, the children and young people of today should be defined by the opportunities we gave them at this time – not by the time itself.
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