For my family– and families across the city – this is a “back to school” week like no other.
For huge numbers of children across the city, this week is the first time they have stepped back into their school and classrooms since the beginning of lockdown in March. And for those children who have been able to attend school – whether because their year groups were permitted to return, or because their parents are key workers – this will be the first time they have been reunited with the rest of their class. I know that while many will be looking forward to reuniting with friends, nonetheless this will be a big adjustment for Bristol’s young people.
We recognise that lockdown posed unprecedented challenges for families, school staff and especially children. For me and my wife, it is a relief to have our children going back into the classroom in the knowledge they face an exceptionally small risk from Covid-19 – but qualified of course by a natural concern for the safety of their teachers and school staff. The council have therefore launched a hub of resources to support parents, carers and children as schools reopen to all students.
I know that despite the efforts to provide home learning for families, not all children have had the space or the resources to access and work through material provided by their schools. Getting children across the city back into the classroom safely has to be our collective priority. We know without this, many parents will not be able to return to work. And if children fall even further behind in their education, we will exacerbate inequality and disadvantage in our city, and the task of bridging that widened divide will stay with us for generations.
The challenge for us all then, across the city, has been to interpret changing government advice to get pupils back safely. It is why schools are a particular focus in our Local Outbreak Management Plan. There will be outbreaks as lockdown eases. That’s inevitable, it’s the way pandemics work. We must be sure we are able to identify any cases that emerge and isolate them. Our priority throughout has been to trust and support school leaders with their decision-making, and we will continue to do so, making sure that schools’ knowledge of their pupils, their local context, and their physical environment are central to our response.
While we have taken these steps to manage the health risk coronavirus poses, I know too that the economic effects of the pandemic have been felt by families across Bristol. I thank everyone in Bristol that has donated to our uniform drive – led by Cllr Helen Godwin, Cabinet Member for Women, Children and Families – ensuring pre-loved uniform is available for families that need items as their children return to the classroom. Please let your local ward councillor or me know if you need any unbranded items for your children. I also pay tribute to Cllr Anna Keen, Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, and our Education team, who have secured funding from government to help parents who are struggling to meet the costs of uniform – families can apply for assistance via the Local Crisis Prevention Fund.
But our focus is not just on the immediate task of ensuring that children’s return to the classroom is safe. Yesterday at Cabinet we took a decision on a new programme of capital investment to increase the provision of specialist educational places to meet growing demand, and ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities have access to high quality learning environments, designed specifically to meet SEND teaching needs.
We have continued to plan for the future for Bristol’s school system to ensure we have an education system fit for our changing and growing city.