They advocate waiting until September for more children to return, if the public health advice allows, rather than ‘a rushed return’ from 1 June.
The prime minister is expected to confirm at this afternoon's press conference that early years settings and primary schools can open to more children from Monday, after telling them at the weekend to press ahead with plans to welcome more children back in a phased return, as the lockdown eases.
The experts say that the guidance is not just inadequate in addressing safeguarding for children and staff, but also fails ‘to consider the value or otherwise to the children of rushing them into a new and uncharted scenario with major implications for their education and wellbeing.’
They also point out that there are still too many unknowns regarding the way Covid-19 is transmitted, such as to what degree asymptomatic children can spread the disease.
This means that schools and settings are being put in the position of using their professional judgement for making decisions for which they are not qualified to do so, which could have legal implications.
‘The professional judgement of educators pertains to the education and development of young children, but does not extend to making decisions regarding how to manage a pandemic,' they say. ‘Until such time as there is clear scientific and medical consensus about the safety of children in schools and early years settings, the expanding of provision should be delayed. At the very least, there should be clear requirements rather than optional guidance on how to minimise risk for children, their families and staff. The additional costs of staffing, cleaning, and resourcing in the face of this situation should be provided for.’
Wellbeing and learning
The guidance focuses ‘on issues such as limiting contacts and maintaining hygiene, rather than the quality of children’s experiences of play, talk, social interaction and well-being,' the experts say.
‘There is a danger that the regime of social distancing, strict adherence to grouping, and restricting children’s play and active learning could have a detrimental effect on their development and learning. It may also increase children’s anxiety, feelings of separation and frustration. For these “key transition years”, returning for a few weeks to an alien environment and routines before making a further transition in the autumn will arguably be of little or no educational benefit to the children.’
‘Confusing, contradictory and unworkable’
The experts also highlight examples where the guidance is unclear and contradicts itself.
For example, they say that the ‘bubble’ concept of keeping a small number of children together is intended to minimise social contact and transmission of infection.
The guidance says that keeping the group to a maximum size of 8 is ‘preferable’, yet ‘no more than 16’ in early years settings.
In Reception classes, having one adult to 15 or 16 children is too large a group to be manageable or to contain infection, they say, adding that, ‘The bubble concept also breaks down where members of staff work part-time, children attend part-time, or attend more than one setting, since staff working across a number of bubbles or children participating in different groups increases contacts exponentially.’
The letter concludes, ‘Fundamentally, the guidance points to a rushed return before the schools and early years settings are ready, and before assurance of maximum safety can be given. Putting children’s well-being and learning at the centre of decision-making would result in very different arrangements.
‘For some children, being in nurseries and schools now is valuably supportive and there should be enhanced efforts to welcome vulnerable children. For many, a few more weeks in their home environment, at an age where most children around the world have not yet started formal education, may be a rich time with their families.
‘On return in September if public health conditions are then favourable, they could re-join their previous classes to reform relationships and settle into a familiar environment, before then making well-supported transitions during the autumn term. A high quality early years education is worth waiting for.’
Organisations that are signatories include TACTYC, Early Education, More than a Score, Keeping Early Years Unique, the National Education Union, National Association for Primary Education, and the Early Childhood Forum.
Early years academics and experts that have signed the response include Cathy Nutbrown, professor of education, and Greg Brooks, emeritus professor, both at the University of Sheffield; early years consultant Helen Moylett; David Whitebread, formerly of the University of Cambridge; early childhood education specialist Di Chilvers; psychologist Pam Jarvis; and Dr Penny Hay from Bath Spa University.