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My charity is supporting 18,000 children every day – here’s why schools must re-open now

Children social distancing at school after some primary schools partly reopened. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA. - Credit: PA

A majority of European countries have now re-opened schools. SAJAD MAHMOOD, chief executive of Charity Right, says the UK must not lag behind on getting children back into education.

The cordoned off play area and equipment of a primary school in London. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire. – Credit: PA

Many of us have a first-world over confidence in Britain that the millions of children who are currently being deprived of an education, perhaps past September, will simply pick up where they left off, with no long-term harm to their lives, or our society and economy.

I work with 18,000 school children every day in some of the poorest areas of Sudan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and I know that even a short time away from school can permanently damage the life not only of the child, but his or her family and community.

Too much of the public debate on school reopening has been dominated by the fortunate few who have the resources – financial, familial and emotional – to educate their children at home. The reality is that for the majority of British children, being deprived of an education will expose them to the dangers and problems I am used to seeing in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

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The UK is leading the world in Covid deaths, but is lagging behind other developed countries in school reopening. Twenty-two European countries have reopened schools, with the vast majority reporting no significant issues.

Perhaps we have been slow to reopen because the UK situation is complex, with central government, local authorities, teachers’ unions and even individual schools each pursuing different priorities. This makes it exponentially harder to agree a united strategy, and also incentivises inaction because it is not clear who has final responsibility for the continued closure.

But passing the buck will not help children. There is no ‘furlough’ for a lack of school attendance, and the time lost in children’s development will never be regained.

I have seen through my work with the UN and various governments in the Global South how an education gives focus to a child, and hope to their family and community. It is easy to assume that the worst effects of education deprivation will not arrive in the UK, but I see worrying parallels already.

Third world problems have a habit of inconveniently turning up here, albeit in more manageable and certainly more avoidable forms.

Famine is more of an issue in sub-Saharan Africa, but 1 in 3 British children are living in poverty with four million – even before the pandemic – at risk of malnutrition.

Child soldiers are not uncommon in some war-torn parts of that continent, but County Lines gangs have been busy recruiting children as young as 7 into the drug war, including during lockdown.

Child deaths due to lack of medical care are more common in refugee camps in South Asia, but with so many children now out of sight of teachers and Doctors who would normally protect their wellbeing, we cannot know how many are in danger.

This is to say nothing of the long-term effects of lack of education on children. Already there are concerning reports of as many as one in four children suffering from anxiety and depression, and there will certainly be increased obesity due to inactivity.

The bad habits picked up during lockdown may last a lifetime if we do not return children to their routines now. These were previously healthy children who often have never had these types of conditions before, and are suffering simply and directly because of the actions (or inaction) of their government.

And this is just the beginning. Many older children will be quick to adapt, but I fear that younger or more vulnerable children will be part of a generation who often lack the social skills, confidence and communication needed for relationships, work and everyday life. Trying to remedy this later will come at a much higher human and economic cost than stepping in now.

Perhaps part of the reason why the status quo seems so acceptable to many decision makers is because they are likely to be wealthier, with more support networks. Homeschooling is a more attractive prospect when a parent has a nanny, each child has a laptop, tablet and smartphone, and online private tutoring is on tap.

Reopening schools now does not mean that we should be insensitive to the risks. We know that children can be carriers of the disease, infecting elders – a particular risk in multi-generational BAME households. But with use of increased vacant space in places like offices and universities, as well as social distancing and child-friendly PPE, we can safely save our children’s futures.

I have seen too many children struggle for the right to an education in some of the world’s poorest places to see that right taken away here in Britain.

• Sajad Mahmood is CEO of Charity Right.

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