We Need A Volunteer Army To Help Children Locked Out Of Learning During Lockdown

What more powerful symbol of national spirit could there be than committing together to give this gift from one generation to the next, Robert Halfon and Kirsty McNeill write.
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Children always fall back significantly in their learning when they are away from school or nursery for the summer holidays. But imagine what’s been happening under lockdown to children whose parents lack ability with reading and numbers. Those without books in homes where there is no laptop or tablet for worksheets – some 700,000 children, according to the Children’s Commissioner – are falling further behind than those from more affluent families.

These are the children who have been hardest hit by lockdown. New evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation estimates that school closures could widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers by as much as 75 percent. But if the Department for Education moves fast, we still have time to design a summer catch-up programme for pupils who have been locked out of learning.

As Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, and alongside organisations and charities such as Save the Children, I have already called for a volunteer army of former teachers and graduates to give extra tuition and pastoral care to primary and secondary pupils. Now, Save the Children and I are making the case for going much further and rallying volunteers from every background to support a national effort for pre-school children.

So why not organise a summer of structured learning and play for the youngest, delivered by qualified early years practitioners and supported by vetted volunteers? There will need to be central guidance on social distancing, training, safeguarding and activities, but communities should be able to tailor such a scheme to their local needs. The new frontier of vulnerabilities presented by Covid-19, including possible increased exposure to online harms and domestic violence, demands rigorous safeguarding checks of volunteers, both to protect the pre-school children and tutors. A mechanism to assure the quality of training, tuition and pastoral care must also be established.

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MPs in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration have warned that the three-quarters of a million people who signed up as NHS Responders risk being turned off volunteering altogether if we do not urgently find something positive for them to do. This is our chance.

Providing children with a programme that enables them to play and learn in a safe, welcoming environment will have immediate benefits, not only for them but also for parents and carers who would welcome the chance to get back to work or look for a job, knowing their young ones were in good hands.

Across the UK, there are already organisations – primary schools, nurseries and charities – which have the infrastructure and expertise to run these activities. Hundreds of thousands of people are part of a children’s volunteering army, giving their time selflessly to coach football or run Scouts’ groups or help out with play schemes. At Save the Children alone, there are more than 5,000 volunteers who are itching to do their bit.

Then there are grandparents and godparents who have missed the fun of small children for months, students desperate for something to do and furloughed retail and hospitality staff whose passion is dealing with people.

There is a lot of talk about the national spirit. What more powerful symbol of it could there be than committing together to give this gift from one generation to the next, and to say with one voice that we will treat every child in the coronavirus generation as if they were our own?

Just as there was the right will and passion for the NHS Responders, so we need that same vision for a national education army of volunteers to transform the life chances of those children who have been left behind during the coronavirus pandemic.

Robert Halfon is Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee; Kirsty McNeill is Policy and Campaigns Director of Save the Children UK

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