Northern Ireland news

Back to learning, but not as we knew it

SPEAKING OUT: UTU deputy general secretary Jacquie White
Jacquie White

PLATFORM

IT will be a ‘back to school' like no other when schools gates reopen after lockdown.

With health and safety guidance changing almost daily, schools will be guided by the latest scientific evidence available and its feasibility in their individual circumstances.

However, keeping children and staff physically safe is just one element in what will be a wider challenge.

Every child will have lived through a different experience and while we are used to supporting our pupils through the many varied challenges they face, the last few months will have amplified those challenges exponentially.

As teachers, indeed as a society, we have no precedent in terms of a recovery strategy. However, any evidence we have suggests that when schools reopen, pastoral support, safeguarding and wellbeing services will be paramount, and learning flexible initially.

For many children, returning to school may be their first chance to talk about their experiences and one of the first challenges will be to identify what those have been.

As children share their stories this will in turn give some indication of any safeguarding concerns - and we will doubtless see such concerns manifest themselves not only in those previously regarded as vulnerable.

In the worst cases, young people will have seen relatives or friends directly affected by the virus - they may even have lost someone close.

There will also have been other losses - the loss of contact with close relatives like grandparents or the loss of a parent's job.

Similarly, children already living in a challenging home environment will have seen that magnified, especially if alcohol or drug abuse and domestic violence are involved.

For some, unfortunately, school does not feel like a good place to be and the lockdown will have been a welcome respite. For them, the challenge of returning will not be what has happened while school was closed but the prospect of coming back.

Teachers then face all this before they can think about starting to teach pupils who have effectively lost almost four months of their learning year, despite online learning.

According to research Northern Ireland pupils' engagement with online learning was amongst the highest in the UK – a tribute to our teachers – but the lockdown also threw into stark relief the socio economic divide in our communities. Without access to internet or laptops, many children have been unable to keep up.

Even before Covid-19 this was an issue we have been highlighting as we have been struggling to ensure children's education has not suffered despite swingeing austerity.

The minister has undertaken to provide whatever it takes to ensure children can get back to normal and we trust he will follow through with that.

In the meantime it must be appreciated that one size will not fit all when it comes to reintegrating children into class.

Ironically, although they'll be back to school at last, learning as we knew it may be off the normal curriculum for a while.

:: Jacquie White is General Secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union.

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