When the schools go back

A distinguished Prussian General, Helmuth von Moltke, famously said “no battle plan survives actual contact with the enemy”. The truth of that is all too apparent in the way a great many Governments around the world, not least the British Government, have responded to the pandemic. Health emergency planning has been found to be full of holes and unanticipated consequences that ought not to have been. There will be a terrible reckoning for those responsible for serious avoidable failures but now is not the time.

I was going to open this next bit by saying “I’m sure someone has already thought of this” but in light of my earlier comment maybe I won’t.

Statement of the obvious: when the lockdown is over schools will face huge challenges.

Educational

Not all children will return to school having benefited or lost out equally from an educational point of view.

Part of this will be down to how well the individual school or local education authority had managed to organize things, get materials and instructions to children, and how well parents were able to help their children engage.

It will also have been impacted by variations in the nature of children’s access to technology, in particular in the nature of their access to the internet. Was it all on a smartphone? Did they have a tablet or a laptop with a decent size screen? How fast and reliable was the connection?

Some children will have had no access at all and, even among those who had, not every child will have been able to call on the kind of help or individual support that could have made the access optimal. For these reasons every school will have developed or ought to be developing a plan to try, when classroom teaching begins again, to level up all pupils.

And children’s welfare? Physical and sexual violence

In unusually stressful times children will have been in close, unbroken proximity to their parents, siblings and goodness knows what or who else.

There have already been lots of reports of an increase in domestic violence around the world, including the UK. Aside from the horror of seeing your Dad hit your Mum, some of this violence will have been inflicted on children themselves. It may have been sexual.  However, the likelihood is most will not find its way into official statistics. It won’t have been reported but it will have been suffered.

A great many children may need to unburden themselves or find some sort of advice, counselling and comfort to  help them process and address what they have been through in the early part of 2020. With children who lost relatives to the virus that will be obvious, but the scale and scope of need goes way beyond that.

Internet-based violence and abuse

In relation to the internet aspects, those children who did have access might have had minimal or zero parental supervision or engagement because the parents had to work or they were not very well informed about such things. Maybe there were no technical tools in place to lend a helping hand.

Yet we know paedophiles, scam artists and bullies have been making the most of the crisis. How many children will have got caught up in one of their webs? It may be a while before the real size of the problem becomes apparent but anecdotally it’s not sounding good.

And then there’s all the stuff children will have been watching or doing online. Violent pornography, violent games. Hour after hour of it.

All of the above constitutes quite a daunting list. But there’s more.

Strangers in masks!

A colleague who works in the field tells me lockdown has already produced a significant uplift in the number of children being taken into care, and that will continue for as long as lockdown does.

But here’s the horrific rider to that. It’s often, even typically, children being taken into care by strangers wearing masks and gloves!  Protective masks and gloves, but think about that. Or maybe don’t, because it’s almost too much to bear.

For many children school is the safest place and safest part of their lives. Thus, when the schools do go back teachers and Children’s Social Services, probably also the police, are going to have to prepare for a substantial spike in disclosures, some of which will require urgent attention. If Whitehall had missed that I hope they are now on notice. They may need to step in with extra resources to help flatten yet another curve.

Note to contingency planners

Some of the harms to children associated with prolonged internet usage during lockdown could have been avoided or reduced if Whitehall and Westminster had acted promptly to implement measures foreshadowed in the Online Harms White Paper. The same is true in relation to exposure to hard core pornography. If the Digital Economy Act 2017 had been implemented – and remember, absolutely everything was ready to go, it just needed the Government to name a commencement date –  a great many children would not have been exposed to some of the horrors of Pornhub and similar.

The Government said the reason for delaying the commencement was linked to their desire to bring social media sites within the ambit of the policy.  Children’s groups agree they should be in the ambit. We argued for that as the Bill was going through Parliament. However, that is no reason why the main measure cannot proceed, even now. We can add social media later. Pornhub and similar are way out  in a class of their own when it comes to online pornography. There is just no getting away from that.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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