New school year

As a director of children’s services, the start of the new school year is always full of excitement and promise. There is a cautious attempt at normality this time round but after the bewildering events of the last 18 months, there are few certainties beyond the fact pupils’ experiences have been, and will continue to be, very different.

This new beginning offers an opportunity to reflect on our priorities for children and young people following such a difficult period. The importance of children remaining in schools was clear for all to see during the height of the pandemic when the government rightly ensured that schools were open for children of key workers and those who were seen as ‘vulnerable’. Since schools returned to full capacity there has been a real focus on attendance, mental health and emotional wellbeing and the language from government has been encouraging.

The main concern now is education recovery. We are working with school and college leaders to support the wider needs of learners despite much of the anticipated funding for recovery not materialising. However, I was dismayed at the recent launch of a call for evidence by the Department for Education on behaviour management in schools focussing on issues such as use of mobile phones. Schools will of course already have longstanding policies in place and are contending with far more pressing issues as they seek to support children who sacrificed months of their education for the health and safety of adults.

In recent years we have seen the growth of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies and the prioritisation of academic attainment above all else meaning the stakes are high for school leaders who adopt inclusive practices. Permanent and fixed-term exclusions have been steadily rising in recent years. Exclusion had historically been reserved for only the most serious misbehaviours; however, persistent disruptive behaviour continues to be the most common reason cited and children who are eligible for free school meals or have a special educational need are more likely than their peers to receive a permanent exclusion, which is concerning.

The pandemic is not over and we do not yet know what the full and lasting impact of this experience will be on people of all ages. Our focus must be on helping schools and school leaders provide the right support for children who have been impacted by the pandemic so that they can remain in education now and in the future. It’s the least we can do.

Charlotte Ramsden, ADCS President and Strategic Director for People, Salford City Council.

This article first appeared in the MJ

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