As a head in England, I know it’s not just Covid that will make it tough to go back to school

Like most headteachers I view the formal start back to school with a mixture of optimism and trepidation.

There is a realistic hope that, following a mass vaccination programme for adults, school life can begin to look and feel like it is approaching normality again. Assemblies, staff meetings, extra-curricular activities and the simple yet inspiring buzz of learning and social interaction can resume in earnest. After a bleak, disruptive 18 months these everyday pleasures must be celebrated.

There is a degree of uncertainty, too. Only the most naive headteacher would ignore the growing Covid-19 case numbers, potential rows over vaccinations for children and the general sense of unease that some colleagues feel about working in a crowded classroom and school environment.

The truth is, of course, that nobody quite knows how matters will pan out over the coming months. It is clear, however, that the various threats posed by Covid-19 still hover uncomfortably in the background.

With this in mind, most schools like mine will continue for the foreseeable future to take sensible precautions, with an emphasis on safety, hygiene, one-way systems and the like. While there is some nervousness, I have told parents, pupils and colleagues that I have little doubt a successful return to school is manageable and achievable.

Sadly, I have much less confidence about the medium-term future for our overall school system. The pandemic inevitably caused huge daily disruption to schools and families, but it has also shone a bright light on an already fragile and fragmented educational provision across England. Shortcomings embedded in our education system – and its vital support services – have been brutally exposed.

As Covid-19 gripped all our lives, the government insisted that children and their education was an absolute priority – in Boris Johnson’s words it was a “moral duty” to support every child to the maximum.

Fine sentiments and I believed them. But the reality on the ground was that schools and support agencies – which have been losing capacity and resources for more than a decade – simply did not have the ability to cope when the need across a raft of vital areas was at its greatest. Despite significant efforts across our profession, we saw child hunger rear its head. So too did the digital divide, between those who have access to technology and those who do not.

Inevitably, the stubborn attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children grew bigger still. This unhappy situation will be made worse by an archaic assessment system that relies far too heavily on a narrow set of final cliff-edge exams – which often favour students who benefit from private tuition or similar long-term personalised support.

The lack of readily available agency provision for children who need it most has become clear. As issues relating to mental health, self-harm and domestic violence skyrocketed, schools and specialist care groups, such as children’s mental health services, became (and still are) overwhelmed. Many children with special educational needs and disabilities were profoundly affected by the pandemic, but support for them and their families was in very short supply.

None of these issues were new to headteachers or other experts – from the children’s commissioner to the Social Mobility Commission to MPs on the education select committee – but vital long-term problems have suddenly became more visible and urgent.

The government has set out some plans and provisions in an attempt to address these issues, but the limitations of its ambitions were laid bare when the recommendation of its own education recovery tsar Kevan Collins to spend £15bn in England over four years was flatly rebuffed by Downing Street and the Treasury in June. Meanwhile, the much-anticipated Department for Education review into our woefully under-resourced special needs provision drags on and on.

Every new school year heralds a time for optimism and hope – and, at a time of continued uncertainty for schools, children and families, these vital ingredients have rarely felt more needed. I have no doubt our profession will deliver these important elements with skill and tenacity. If, however, we really are to see all children thrive and fulfil their potential, our educational and support services need much greater long-term investment.

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