On New Year’s Eve, Haringey Council announced that all primary schools in the borough would be closed in the first week of January, except for vulnerable children, and the children of key workers. Haringey was not on the government’s list of areas where schools had to close, in spite of a rate of infection higher than in some of the listed boroughs. The Council took the decision in the light of extreme pressure at the North Middlesex Hospital, a case rate of 785 per 100,000 in the population, and evidence of Covid in all age groups. We are proud that our Council took this decision, in defiance of the government’s surprising advice. The following day, after pressure from Haringey and other local authorities, the government closed all London primary schools, until at least 18 January.
We all know the arguments for and against school closures: children’s mental wellbeing versus physical risk, education versus transmission within schools, risk to teachers versus stress on parents. We don’t envy anyone having to make that call, though it’s clear that better communication between local and national government, and with teachers’ unions and parents, would have eased the transition. We do believe that Haringey made the right decision, in very difficult circumstances.
The Independent SAGE committee has come up with a strategy to enable pupils to return safely to school. This involves online teaching during January, while schools and local authorities put safety measure in place: use of additional space to enable social distancing; better ventilation; free masks for pupils; hand sanitiser stations. Crucially, they also insist on the need for digital access for all pupils, providing tablets and laptops where necessary. If children don’t have access to materials at home, they add, they should be able to attend during closure, as the children of key workers already can. Independent SAGE strongly recommends a task-force, comprised of teachers’ unions, local authorities, parents and children, in partnership with government, to plan in detail how to return schools to effective functioning. They stress that this requires both planning and investment. We would add that anyone working in schools needs medical-grade PPE, and priority access to vaccination.
At Haringey Welcome, we are delighted that the issue of digital exclusion has been recognised by this highly respected group. We have been concerned since the first lockdown about pupils who have no access to the internet at home, and so are falling behind their peers who continue to have tuition. There are various reasons for the exclusion, and it takes only a little imagination to grasp them. A family may have only a single mobile phone, with limited data, for all online transactions. There may be one laptop and several children needing it. The parents may not be able to afford unlimited broadband. All of these problems are obviously greatest for the families on the lowest incomes. This has been an issue since March, and looks likely to continue. Anecdotal evidence suggests a huge disparity in some schools between children who were effectively without education from March to September, and those in the same class who were able to develop their skills and knowledge with online learning.
Haringey has acknowledged the issue of digital exclusion, and in December launched a fundraising appeal for the cost of laptops. It’s not clear to us what other action has been taken so far. We know that Camden Council had raised £35,000 by mid-October for the same purpose, and we hope Haringey is equally successful and can act quickly.
We congratulate Haringey Council on its leadership on the issue of school closures so far, and hope that it will continue to show leadership in implementing Independent SAGE’s recommendations in the borough, and lobbying central government for the vital resources to do so.