ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana hears from the school leaders concerned about another disrupted start to term
A headteacher has warned of an exponential rise in mental health issues facing school children because of repeated lockdowns, that left many unable to go into school.
Sean Maher, the head of Richard Challoner school in New Malden, said it must now be a "national priority, where possible, to stop any more disruption to young people’s lives.
"I think they’ve been asked to sacrifice a huge amount and we can’t keep asking them to sacrifice more," he told ITV news, arguing that young people need access to the classroom but also to extra-curricular clubs like sports, drama, and dance.
Mr Maher said the result of the Covid pandemic had been less resilience in young people, more mental health issues, and more self-harming.
'It is clear that incidents of mental health issues have gone up exponentially'
"There is a direct correlation between lockdown and that watered down provision during lockdown – so we mustn’t go back to that – we must keep allowing our young children to develop and move forward," he said.
"I lead a mental health cluster of around 8,000 students across a number of schools and it is clear that incidents of mental health issues have gone up exponentially."
Mr Maher pointed to worrying trends including finding that some children "have lost the ability to socialise in the way they might have before".
He also said that remote learning had led to a dip in attainment across the board but had widened the academic gap between more and less advantaged children.
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A continuous period back in school had helped children to re-establish friendships and build their resilience and confidence, he added.
However, Maher admitted that he and other headteachers faced some serious challenges this term with the Omicron surge, with seven members of staff already needing to isolate this week, with more likely to test positive.
"In our school we’ve got just over 1,000 students - if we had eight to ten teachers off, about 10% of our workforce, we would be in a position where we couldn’t cover all of those classes individually," he said, arguing that they could look at "super-covers" where one teacher oversees 80 or 90 children working quietly in the hall.
Mr Maher argued that was still better than online classes.
He said government advice or information for schools tended to be "too little too late" – and without extra money for supply staff.
How do 'super-covers' work to keep children in school learning?
A plan by Nadhim Zahawi, to recruit ex-teachers back to the classroom, got a laugh, as he admitted there had been "zero" offers.
"People leave for a reason – either they retire and are ready to rest or they’ve had enough of teaching. I can’t see those people wanting to flood back in".
He said headteachers also had responsibility for their staff’s wellbeing and putting older, retired teachers back into the classroom in the middle of a pandemic felt risky.
Finally, he argued that Ofsted, that inspects schools, felt like the "elephant in the room" right now, because they couldn’t possibly see schools in their best light when they were trying to mitigate for Covid.
"How can it be sensible that schools still have to worry about Ofsted, look over their shoulder all the time, when they have all these other things going on that they need to deal with," he said.
"If I was the Secretary or State, I would say ‘forget Ofsted for at least another term and concentrate on what you’re here to do, which is look after young people’."
Unions have called on the government to make it clear that schools and colleges due for an Ofsted inspection in the coming term can have it deferred to allow teachers to focus on supporting pupils.
Government guidance states: "While our responsibilities towards children and young people remain, we recognise that there will be circumstances when it is not the right time for an inspection to go ahead. If providers have any concerns about the timing of their inspection or visit, they should request a deferral."