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Back to school, but not as we know it

For many children in this country, this week marks the first full week back at school after what can only be described as an unprecedented year. The impact of Covid-19 has spread far and wide and most will not have entered an educational setting in almost 6 months. Not only do children, parents and teachers have to deal with the emotional and mental adjustment of a return to school and the practical logistics to seek to comply with social distancing rules but the effect of home schooling on pupils' academic progression is likely to be significant and may take months to understand truly. In this article, we seek to consider the effect of the pandemic on our education system with Ed Richardson, Director of Education at Keystone Tutors, a private tutoring and education advisory firm in London.

Boris Johnson has made it abundantly clear that getting children back into their school settings is a 'national priority'. But just how will this work in practice? There are likely to be larger disparities in students' academic achievements during lockdown dependent on each child's home setting, their ability to adjust to online learning and the capacity of their parents to support it. Ed has observed that those children who received live, synchronous, teaching online have managed to experience some semblance of normality over the lockdown period, with many schools reporting to have covered an appropriate amount of the curriculum, and are therefore likely to find the transition back to ‘normal’ schooling easier. Conversely, those children with little or no interaction with their schoolteachers and who have simply been set work to complete, asynchronously, are likely to find it a struggle when schools restart and may well be lagging academically. Those likely to be most affected by this unprecedented disruption to education are from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds as well as those with significant learning needs. Whilst some parents and schools have looked to redress any shortfall in learning by encouraging an industrious summer, in some cases through 1-to-1 tutoring, there is no doubt that there will be significant emphasis on catching-up, where necessary, at the start of this new school year. In-school initiatives have been devised, most notably the government’s catch-up premium and the National Tutoring Programme. Additionally, there has been some increase in demand for tutoring from school leavers this summer intending to re-take their A Levels or IB subjects in the Autumn exam series.

In addition to the academic challenges that families and schools will face, in many cases, there have been devastating financial consequences of Covid-19. The UK is officially in a recession for the first time in 11 years and it is being described as the worst recession on record. According to the Office of National Statistics, employment in the UK fell by the largest amount in over a decade from April to June 2020 and the Bank of England predicts that employment will double by the end of 2020, particularly given that October marks the end of the furlough scheme. Private education, often considered a luxury, is likely to be one of the first aspects of family life which will no longer be affordable if one or both parents lose their jobs or have a business that goes under. The impact of this virus on children is therefore far from over. Many schools have set up Covid relief funds to aid parents who are facing financial challenges. Thinking longer term, it is worth noting that many independent schools offer fee assistance in the form of means-tested bursaries and Ed recommends that you speak to your school if you are in need of this support because of Covid-19. Bursaries are also available to those applying to independent schools. In addition to any bursary application, schools will require a child to meet their academic expectations, which often means that students will need to sit examinations as a part of the entrance process. The extent of this financial support can range in size from covering the full fees to a reduction of 10% depending on a family’s financial position. Importantly, bursaries are quite different to scholarships which are won as result of demonstrating excellence (in academia, sports, arts or music etc.), and often carry a lower percentage off the schools fees and do not depend on a family’s income.

For those children who come from separated families, there are added complexities. Their parents, for example, may take very different approaches towards health and safety whilst the pandemic exists which create challenges if there is a second wave of high infection rates. Both parents have joint and equal parental responsibility for their children to make decisions about things such as their education and welfare. This could result in both being at loggerheads with one another about whether and when to send children to school, how children get to school and how they move between both parents' households. It may well be that one parent is under a Court imposed duty to meet the cost of private school fees. Where this is no longer affordable and there is no agreement by their ex-partner/spouse, that parent can make an application to the Court to change or terminate that obligation if their financial circumstances have changed.

Similarly, many children in this country will unfortunately just be embarking upon the separation or divorce of their parents given that divorce rates have risen since lockdown. That may mean a change of school in itself if one parent chooses to or has no option but to move further away from the former marital home. If parents are unable to agree about where a child should go to school, this is also something that the Family Courts can determine. In such circumstances, the Judge would consider the child's welfare as paramount. There are of course ways to seek to avoid litigation which should be the last resort. Mediation, for example, is an effective and cost efficient way to try to resolve such a dispute with the involvement of a neutral third party to facilitate discussions. Crucially, Ed advocates the importance of focusing on what is best for the child when it comes to making key educational decisions such as the choice of schooling. It is worth noting that moving schools at any age can be a very challenging time for children and therefore needs to be treated sensitively. Timing is also critical as many schools require registration well in advance of a child joining. In these challenging situations it can be helpful to seek expert impartial educational advice to ensure a child’s development is not hampered.

Whilst it can only be seen as a positive step that schools are open and there is some element of 'normality' returning to children's lives, it would be naïve to think that the forthcoming academic year will be smooth sailing. The key is to minimise as much as possible the impact on children going forward to enable their emotional and academic progression. After all, they are the future.

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