Covid-19: Impact on Education Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Covid-19: Impact on Education

Jim Shannon Excerpts
Monday 15th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to speak on this issue and to discuss education and covid-19.

The long-term damage to our children’s education and social skills is something I have been incredibly concerned about. In February, I was able to highlight to the Minister, during the debate in the main Chamber on the roadmap to education, the work of the Northern Ireland Education Minister and the Northern Ireland Executive in providing funding for summer schools throughout the Province to help children catch up if needed. This is a devolved matter, but it was such a good scheme that I wanted to give the Minister in Northern Ireland some credit here.

The idea is that there will be funding for schools to run summer programmes of two to three weeks for children who have fallen behind. Teachers can choose to run the classes, or they can liaise with substitute teachers to provide the additional help, which will also allow those who depend on substituting to earn their money and help to fill the breach with education for children.

It is clear to me that covid has had a massive impact on education and I fully support the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so. Just today, the Minister in Northern Ireland set out a timetable for children’s sporting activities to return to normal. I know that is something the Prime Minister and central Government in Westminster have been working towards as well, as indeed have all the devolved Administrations.

For some parents, home schooling has simply been unworkable due to work issues, internet connectivity or other concerns, and their children need additional support to pull them through. I know that sometimes the grandparents feel under incredible pressure. I have met some of them, and they just could not wait to get their grandchildren back to school, back to normality and back to a routine. I suppose grandparents have reared their children. As I have often said—this probably applies to you, too, Mr Robertson—it is great being a grandparent, because at 7 o’clock we can give them back, but if they are living with us and schooling with us, that opportunity is not there.

The home schooling and internet connectivity programme that I have referred to was run in some schools last summer and was incredibly successful, so I thank the Northern Ireland Minister for making it possible again this summer. It is imperative that we do all we can to help children achieve their potential, despite this dreadful past year, and I believe summer schools are a step forward in doing just that.

It is further notable that the Education Minister in Northern Ireland has put aside £5 million especially for schools to determine how they can provide mental health support for pupils or staff as necessary. That could be in the form of outdoor equipment or individual counselling. I believe that must be replicated UK-wide, as our young people’s mental health, along with that of the elderly, has suffered and needs dedicated support.

I do not think there has been a debate on covid-19 in which we have not spoken about the detrimental mental health conditions of our children of all ages, even those of primary school age, and especially those of secondary school and college age. I have heard of so many young children in Northern Ireland who are allowed to return to school and who have been so joyful since they were allowed back. On the other hand, I have also had several parents tell me how starting back at school in P1 has been a nightmare, with children screaming and hanging on to the streetlights because they are unwilling to go to school. Their wee minds are so full of fear and confusion.

It is clear that it is not just the little ones who are suffering. I have also heard parents talk of how their 14-year-olds have anxiety about returning to school. The routine, which is essential for stability, has been turned around, and they are finding themselves on very shaky ground. We need to take steps to steady that ground for them and to invest in additional pastoral care, outdoor equipment or even, when safety measures allow, trips in order to rebuild bonds and confidence. That is absolutely critical.

I truly believe that only time will tell the impact of lockdown, and the fear that it has brought, on our vulnerable children. We must be prepared to help effectively and swiftly when teachers pick up on those issues and problems, and they must have access to professional help for that child. We have lost so many, and we cannot afford to lose a new generation to fear and anxiety.

It has long been clear that it is the desire of the Democratic Unionist party and many others to see that children are brought safely back to school. Particularly with Northern Ireland’s hugely successful vaccination programme having vaccinated the most vulnerable with one vaccine, which gives a good level of protection, the opening of schools is in a different position from ever before. Today I received my first vaccination for covid-19. It was almost painless and I was very pleased to get it. I give credit to the staff and volunteers who made the conveyor belt of vaccination so easy to endure, and I thank them for it.

I believe that we can open schools and still protect our vulnerable, as well as improve educational outcomes and address mental health concerns in our young people. That is an absolute priority for me, and I believe it is a priority for the Government as well. We must look to allow team games and after-school clubs for music, dance and theatre practices—all those normal experiences that have been lost to our young people for an entire year. I believe we must do what we can to enhance their opportunities in school and after school to the best of our ability, and we must trust God to restore mentally the year that the locusts have taken. Education is a priority; we have all said it, we all know it and we all believe it. Now we need to see that priority being actioned and also financed appropriately.