Coping with covid: supporting autistic children through and beyond lockdown

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) have impacted almost every aspect of our lives – from our contact with family, friends and loved ones, to how we work, eat, shop, relax and learn.

Adapting to and living with these new measures has been universally challenging.  For autistic people, the changes to daily life associated with the COVID-19 outbreak present a number of additional challenges.  In this blog, we are going to discuss some of these additional challenges, with a particular focus on autistic children and young people.  We also highlight some available supports.

Change of routines

A key feature of autism is the desire to follow certain routines and/or avoid unexpected or unpredictable events. Thus, adjusting to the changes caused by COVID-19 poses particular difficulty for many autistic people, for whom changes to routine may cause additional anxiety, distress and in some cases, emotional overload.

Other autistic people may be distressed because of the lack of structure their day now has – being unable to tell one day from the next, when there are no defining characteristics, can feel particularly disorientating.

Scottish Autism have produced guidance for autistic people and their parents/carers on helping to maintain a routine and the reasons why this is important.  They explain that not only does maintaining a routine provide a sense of security and stability, it can also help to provide a sense of calmness, support emotional self-regulation and encourage health and positive habits.

Many autistic children already use visual schedules and/or calendars to let them know what is happening and what to expect next.  These can be helpful in the current circumstances to help children adapt to new routines at home, and bring some sense of predictability and control to their changed lives.

 Being at home

Another change that COVID-19 has brought about is that more people within the household are at home than is typical – for example, one or both parents/carers may be working from home, along with any siblings/other householders who are usually in education or work.

This may be present challenges for autistic people both in terms of the change to routine and also in terms of sensory issues (e.g. noise).  For example, the household being busier than usual may be more challenging for autistic people as they will subsequently have less time and/or space to themselves, which may be needed in order to self-regulate and/or avoid sensory overload.

Special interests

Many autistic people have special interests that form a large part of their daily routines, and may play a key role in enabling them to relax, self-regulate and recover from sensory overload.

The coronavirus ‘lockdown’ has prevented most outdoors activities from taking place.  Thus many autistic people may have found that their special interest is no longer open to them – from train spotting to bird watching.  The removal of this activity from their life may be experienced as particularly distressing, and make self-regulation more difficult.

School closures

The widespread closure of schools means that many parents of autistic children have found themselves responsible for educating their child at home.

Educating children at home under these new circumstances is challenging for all parents.  However, for parents of autistic children, it presents additional challenges.

Many autistic children require additional support with their learning, and may experience difficulties sustaining concentration.  Autistic children may also have additional support needs such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which may require the use of specific approaches and/or learning aids.  This presents additional challenges for learning in the home environment for parents that are unaccustomed to providing a full time education for their child.

In school, many autistic children receive additional support in class either in a 1-2-1 or in a small group lesson from practitioners skilled in addressing these additional needs. Replicating this level of support at home is of course challenging for parents who may not be familiar with the techniques used, or skilled in their use.  They may also struggle to provide the necessary 1-2-1 support if they are also expected to work from home themselves, or have other children to care for.

Concern about their child being disproportionately affected by school closures without the skilled support that they receive in schools may also add considerable stress.  For example, the United Nations has recently noted in a briefing paper that children with disabilities and special needs are among those most dependent on face-to-face services and are least likely to benefit from distance learning solutions.

As well as adequately supporting special educational needs, there are also challenges in relation to an autistic child’s ability and/or willingness to undertake schoolwork at home.  Some autistic people have difficulties with what is termed ‘flexible thinking’. This may include, for example, the ability to see something in a new way. Autistic children may be more likely to have a fixed perception of home as distinct from school.  Thus, it may be more difficult for autistic children to accept and adapt to schoolwork being done at home.  Similarly, they may not readily accept the notion that their parent or carer is now also their ‘teacher’, particularly if this person is usually relied upon as being their primary source of comfort and safety when distressed.

Accessible home learning

While this is without a doubt a difficult situation for both autistic people and their parents/carers, the good news is that there is an increasing amount of support and sources of advice available to help support autistic people to adapt and respond to the ‘new normal’ that the coronavirus pandemic has created.

On Twitter, the #accessiblehomelearning hashtag has been trending, with people sharing lots of home learning ideas and support for parents and carers, including tools to support individuals with dyslexia and/or reading and writing difficulties.

Lucy Chetty, Head Teacher at New Struan School has also shared her top tips on education at home.  She notes that different young people will experience the changes to life differently – some will enjoy having more control over their day outside of school, whereas others will miss the routines that they are used to.

According to Lucy, happiness and fun is a key aspect of learning. Thus parents and carers should try to find something that interests and motivates their individual child special interests may be of particular help in this regard.

On a practical level, ensuring clarity is hugely important.  This includes providing clear instructions, and setting out a clear beginning, middle and end to the activity.  Also recommended is ‘chunking down’ activities into smaller pieces so that there are regular breaks, and the use of visual strips and/or timers to help illustrate how long an activity will last.

 Re-opening schools

As we look ahead to the future, there are a number of critical issues that need to be considered to support autistic children and/or adults to transition back out of lockdown.

Transitioning back into the school environment will be challenging for many autistic children, particularly those that have previously found it difficult to attend school, and/or have experience of ‘school refusal’.  For many autistic children, successful school attendance has required a great deal of input from teaching and support staff, parents and the child themselves. This is because the school environment is often experienced as being particularly challenging for a number of different reasons – for example, sensory issues (e.g. noises, smells, lighting), difficulties with processing information, and/or social communication challenges (social skills, etiquette, etc).  Many autistic children also experience heightened levels of anxiety, which is exacerbated by the school environment.

Many autistic children will need additional support with the change of routine back to school days and hours, and also with their anxiety levels – particularly if they have concerns about catching and/or spreading the virus, or if other people within the school are perceived to be ‘not following the rules’.

Additional support for transitioning back into school will be particularly important if the new school environment looks significantly different to that which the child is used to as a result of social distancing measures – for example, by attending different hours or days at school, or having different classroom set ups to allow for social distancing – both of which are options currently being considered by the Scottish Government.

Transitioning out of lockdown

In recognition of the difficulties facing many autistic people and their parents and/or carers, the Scottish Government recently announced new funding to help provide additional support in the form of an extended helpline run by Scottish Autism, and the creation of online social support groups by the National Autistic Society Scotland. 

Researchers at UCL Institute of Education are also currently conducting research into the experiences and needs of parents and carers of autistic children during the pandemic, which will hopefully help inform how they can best be supported as we transition out of lockdown and into the future, where we learn to live alongside coronavirus.

In Scotland, the Education Recovery Group is currently exploring options for stabilising the education of pupils with additional support needs as “an early priority”.

While there is still a degree of uncertainty about how and when lockdown will be eased across the UK, what is certain is that the easing of lockdown – whenever it happens – will present additional challenges for many autistic people and their parents/carers. Listening to the voices of autistic people and their parents and carers will be hugely important if they are to be successfully supported in this transition.


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Living life in full colour: exploring the relationship between colour, design, behaviour and emotion

Seeing red…. green with jealousy….. feeling blue. Associating colours with emotions is not new, but increasingly, psychologists are being asked to explore the relationship between colour, emotion and its impact in a number of different settings, including learning in classroom settings, the design of the built environment, including work spaces and travel hubs, and improving wellbeing as a result.

Colour is a powerful tool. It can be used to get attention, enhance clarity, establish a code, label and differentiate items, as well as to influence behaviour or learning outcomes. For example in schools we are often told to use blue or black ink. Red ink is supposed to be used by teachers to correct assignments, notebooks, and class work. This is a deliberate tool to draw our attention to the mistake we make, designed to help enhance our learning outcomes, in the sense that by drawing attention to the mistake we will remember not to repeat the points highlighted.

“Bad” and “good” colours

Studies have disagreed on how exactly our association between colour and emotions develops. Some have suggested it is an instinctive reaction, something primal which suggests to us that things that are red in colour are dangerous or negative, while blues and yellows signal happier less aggressive colours.

However, others have suggested that the connotations we associate with colour are learned, albeit from a very young age. We associate some colours as being “good” and others as “bad” and this impacts how we interact around them in spaces like classrooms and workspaces. The meaning of colours is culturally-specific and differs around the world in different societies and groups.

However, a third view is that colour theory is much more complex than simply yellow = happy and blue = sad. Colours can have several meanings, and can encourage an audience to feel or act in certain ways depending on when and how they are used, and in some instances depending on personal experiences which people link to specific colours. This is the reason why the literature on colour is so contested; in many instances it blurs the boundary between our instinctive associations of colours and those associations we create ourselves through experiences.

Image “Harvey_Nash_13″ by K2 Space is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How colours are impacting on the design of our spaces

Knowing how colour can affect behaviours is informative for designers and psychologists in a number of environments, including in schools, offices or hospitals. In a learning context, such as in a school using “engaging” hues (warm colours such as red, orange, and yellow) to prevent learners from getting bored, and passive hues (cold colours such as green and blue) to keep learners calm can help with learning, but getting this balance right is important.

A number of studies have looked at the impact of classroom design, including use of colour on the learning and behavioural outcomes of both neurodiverse, and neurotypical children, with many emphasising that overstimulation, particularly of young children through excessive use of bright colour can create a disruptive classroom environment and make it difficult to encourage concentration and staying on task. However, some colour in specific areas of the classroom is good to help with engagement and stimulation.

Similarly, colours have been used by architects and designers in their choice of building material or building design to help encourage feelings of calm or reflection. This is particularly the case in transport hubs like airports and in hospitals or care facilities. Using fresh and calming colours which relate strongly to nature is also a technique used by office designers to help create the feeling of open calm and fresh spaces to help improve working environments and improve productivity.

The design of the built environment and how “green” and “blue” features which incorporate natural materials (green spaces and water have a positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing) has been widely discussed by planners and architects. The evidence generally supports the view that the inclusion of green spaces, promotes health and wellbeing across the life course. This combination of colour and the integration of nature into spaces is being used increasingly in the design of buildings and  in master planning for large urban projects.

Final thoughts

Colour and emotion both play important roles in our capacity to learn and be productive. The association between colour and our emotions and actions is complex and a source of disagreement for some psychologists. Colour has been found to affect how people feel both psychologically and physically. Understanding how colour and emotion relate and how colour can be used to change environments to encourage particular feelings of calmness or concentration, particularly in schools and workplaces is something that will be further explored by designers.

Colour should be understood as part of a wider “toolkit” used by designers and architects to ensure that we are building better places that create environments which support and promote wellbeing, encourage positive emotions and create more effective spaces for us to work, learn and interact in.


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What does Brexit mean for language learning in the UK?

By Hannah Brunton

Concerns about language learning in the UK are nothing new. For the past decade, language learning in the UK has been in continuous decline, with teachers citing increasingly difficult GCSE and A-level exams as a cause of the drop in the number of students studying foreign languages at university level. The number of pupils taking a language at A-level has decreased by a third in the past 10 years, and at university level the number has fallen by half in the same period.

The value of language learning in today’s world is clear. On an individual level, learning a foreign language is known to improve cognitive abilities, social skills and overall literacy, and increase employability. In a global context, languages are vital to a country’s capacity to interact with the wider world and establish cultural and commercial relationships. Back in 2017 it was estimated that the UK was losing out on £4.8bn (3.5% of the GDP) every year as a result of its lack of language skills.

The decrease in language learning in the UK brings with it concerns about the position of the UK in a multilingual world, and its relationships with other countries, and these concerns have been compounded by uncertainty around Brexit, and what leaving the EU will mean for the UK as a globalised society.

The ‘Brexit effect’

The term “Brexit effect” has been coined to describe the impact of the 2016 referendum in a wide variety of contexts, language learning being one of them.

A recent report by the British Council has suggested that Brexit is having a negative impact on language learning in schools, with a shift in attitudes and an increasing number of pupils and their parents feeling that European language skills will be of limited use following the UK’s exit from the EU.

It has also been warned that opportunities for students to interact with foreign culture are becoming much less frequent, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, as school trips abroad and exchange programmes are in decline amid Brexit uncertainty, a problem which is likely to worsen and become more complicated after the UK leaves the EU.

A shortage of language teachers and expertise in schools is another issue which Brexit looks set to exacerbate, particularly as a high proportion of language teachers employed in the UK are EU nationals.

In his 2018 book, ‘Languages after Brexit: how the UK speaks to the world’, Michael Kelly brings together pieces from various specialists in languages and language policy, looking at where the UK currently stands in its language capacity and the issues it is currently facing in this context, and how it might meet its changing language needs in a post-Brexit climate. The book is divided into four parts, looking at:

  • The UK’s place within a world of languages.
  • What the UK needs in terms of languages.
  • Where the UK stands in its language capacity.
  • What can be done to make the UK language ready?

Kelly looks at current attitudes toward foreign languages in the UK, and explains the factors which affect these. According to the 2012 Eurobarometer survey, just 39% of British people felt they could hold a conversation in at least one other language, compared with the European average of 54%, and Kelly suggests, the 2016 referendum result helped to exacerbate the general hostility in the UK towards foreign languages.

Interestingly, Kelly emphasises the fact that the UK is not alone in its difficulties with languages, with many of its significant trade partners having a lower level of capability in English than is often imagined, which adds to concerns around the UK’s capacity to be involved in international conversations.

Which languages to learn?

It is well understood that the demand for European language skills is set to increase, as British companies learn to navigate their relationships with EU customers without being able to rely on employing EU nationals to fulfil their language needs. This of course brings with it employment opportunities for people in the UK, but it is worth asking which languages will be most in demand.

In Languages After Brexit, Kelly suggests that part of the problem in the UK is that there is no clear foreign language which should be learned as a priority (at least not in the way that English is an agreed priority language in many of the countries who trade with the UK).

German Ambassador, Peter Wittig, has suggested that German would be the best choice, as it is the most common first language in Europe and the most in demand among employers. Despite this, only 5% of secondary schools currently offer German, and the number of students learning German is falling fast (along with French).

Spanish remains the most popular, which is no bad thing – a 2013 British Council report (B34855) identified Spanish as the most important language for the UK for the next 20 years, followed by, in order, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. While specific language priorities may change following the UK’s exit from the EU, Kelly argues that developing and broadening the UK’s overall range of language competencies should be the main focus.

The need for a national language strategy

Earlier this year, the UK National Academies published a “call for action”, in which they set out the importance of multilingualism and the areas in which the UK are falling short. They argue that, while it brings unique challenges, Brexit can be seen as a unique opportunity for the UK to refocus its approach to language learning and turn the UK into a ‘linguistic powerhouse’. The report urges Government, businesses and policy-makers to:

  • engage with the coalition of organisations who stand willing to explore the steps needed
  • adopt and implement a national strategy for languages

The strategy, they suggest, would need to span beyond just education, and would require collaboration across sectors and policy areas, and would aim to open up language learning opportunities to all people, at all stages of life.

In the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland, education-specific language strategies have been in place for some time. Scotland’s ‘1+2 Approach’ was launched in 2012 and is hoped to be fully implemented by 2021, and Wales’ ‘Global Futures’ strategy was launched in 2015 and will run until 2020. Therefore, a national strategy would require strategic and effective coordination between all regions of the UK, to develop an effective and united strategy.

At the end of Languages after Brexit, the authors summarise the potential approaches and steps towards implementing a language strategy, and propose a range of specific action within the following nine themes:

  1. Develop a comprehensive strategic plan.
  2. Manage the impact of Brexit.
  3. Improve collaboration across government.
  4. Raise the public profile of languages.
  5. Improve language education.
  6. Improve intercultural and other skills.
  7. Support teachers.
  8. Recognise community languages.
  9. Recognise languages outside the education system.

The potential benefits of such a strategy, as set out in the report, include improved employability, skills and productivity; higher attainment standards across the school curriculum; stronger trade and business links; improved social mobility and cohesion; and improved health and wellbeing.

Pensées finales

In summary, Brexit clearly presents the UK with a long-term challenge when it comes to languages, and existing concerns about the lack of multilingualism in the UK have been compounded by uncertainty brought about by the referendum.

Tackling the UK’s shortfall in multilingualism is likely to take time, however, the potential for a change in this area has been widely recognised, and publications like those discussed here have set out set-out detailed and specific proposals for a new comprehensive strategy, which could prompt practical conversations and help policy-makers find a way forward.

Finding answers to the teacher supply challenge

 

Earlier this year, the NFER published its first annual report on the state of the teacher workforce.

Among its key findings were that “the secondary school system is facing a substantial teacher supply challenge over the next decade, which requires urgent action.”

Unfortunately, this ‘teacher supply challenge’ – also referred to as the ‘teacher recruitment crisis’ – is not a new development.  Back in 2017, the House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report on the recruitment and retention of teachers in England which concluded that the government was failing to take “adequate” action to tackle what it describes as “significant” teacher shortages in England.

In this blog, we will provide a brief overview of the extent of teacher shortages, as well as outlining the key ways in which the government’s teacher recruitment and retention strategy seeks to address them.

 

Teacher numbers have fallen since 2010

The Department for Education (DfE) forecasts that secondary schools will need 15,000 more teachers between 2018 and 2025 to meet a 15% increase in pupil numbers.

However, despite this, teacher numbers have been falling.

This is due in part to increasing numbers of both primary and secondary teachers leaving the state sector – particularly those in the early stages of their career.  Indeed, the retention rates of early-career teachers (between 2-5 years into their careers) fell significantly between 2012 and 2018.

In addition, targets for the required number of secondary teacher trainees have been missed for six years in a row – resulting in insufficient numbers of new teachers entering the secondary sector.

These factors have led to an overall decline in the number of secondary teachers, and a doubling of secondary post vacancies, since 2010.

The secondary teacher shortage has been particularly acute in certain subjects, such as maths, science and languages.  For example, recruitment to teacher training in physics in 2018/19 was more than 50% below the numbers required to maintain supply.

In addition to this, earlier this year, a poll by the National Education Union found that nearly 1 in 5 (18%) teachers expect to leave the classroom in less than two years, and nearly two-fifths want to quit in the next five years.

 

Making teaching ‘attractive, sustainable and rewarding’

The stats paint a bleak picture.  The government’s response has been to publish their first ‘Teacher recruitment and retention strategy’.

This strategy aims to make sure that careers in teaching are “attractive, sustainable and rewarding” by addressing some of the key issues within the profession that have hindered both recruitment and retention.

The strategy focuses on four key priorities:

  • Creating more supportive school cultures and a reduced workload
  • Transforming support for early career teachers
  • Expanding flexible working and career progression opportunities
  • Simplifying the process of becoming a teacher and encouraging more people to try it out

Central to the new strategy is the launch of the ‘Early Career Framework’ – a funded two-year support package for all new teachers.  The Early Career Framework aims to address the high numbers of new teachers leaving the profession by providing them with additional support, including mentoring, training programmes, free curriculum and training materials, and a reduced timetable to enable them to focus on their training.

There have also been a range of additional initiatives put in place to encourage the recruitment and retention of teachers.

As well as plans to increase salaries, teacher trainees can now access bursaries – with the level of bursary granted varying depending on the subject and the degree class of the teacher trainee applicant.  For example, trainees with a first class degree in physics are eligible for £28,000.

There has also been a pilot of ‘early career payments’  where trainees in mathematics receive £5,000 each in their third and fifth year of teaching.  This payment will be increased to £7,500 for teachers in the most challenging schools in specific areas.

 

Retraining opportunities for later life career changers

As well as financial incentives for trainee teachers, the government has also pledged £10 million to encourage business leaders, boardroom executives and high-flying graduates to take up teaching.

The charity Now Teach is one of three organisations that will benefit from this funding.

Now Teach encourages people who already have successful careers to retrain as maths, science and modern foreign languages teachers.  It was set up in 2016 by journalist Lucy Kellaway, who – after over 30 years at the Financial Times – has since qualified as a teacher herself.  Through the Now Teach programme, experienced professionals can achieve Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) either through a school or university-based route.  It has so far encouraged over 120 professionals to retrain as teachers – including a former Nasa scientist, an investment banker and a corporate lawyer.

As well as working to recruit new trainees, Now Teach also aims to support their retention – noting that older trainees are generally more likely to drop out of teacher than their younger counterparts.  Now Teach also works towards improving part-time and flexible working options within schools.

 

Unmet demand for flexible working

Indeed, support for flexible working is another key aspect of the government’s teacher recruitment and retention strategy.

At present, far fewer teachers work flexibly than the workforce as a whole – only 17% of secondary school teachers work part-time, compared with 27% of workers nationally.  The gap is even more pronounced when you consider that teaching is a female-dominated profession – 42% of women nationally work part-time.

A recent NFER research paper found that there is unmet demand for part-time working, particularly in secondary schools.  They found that, as well as helping to improve teacher recruitment and retention, increased levels of part-time work within schools may also help to improve staff wellbeing.

The government has made a number of commitments to promote flexible working within schools, including plans to update its guidance on flexible working and to promote flexible working opportunities via its new Teacher Vacancy Service.

 

“It’s not the answer, but it’s an answer.” 

While improving flexible working opportunities and encouraging later life career changes may not in themselves be sufficient to address the wider teacher supply crisis, they are important as part of the government’s wider drive to encourage more people into the teaching profession.  As Lucy Kellaway observes: “It’s not the answer, but it’s an answer.”

Addressing the poor status and perception of the teaching profession, by improving key factors such as salary, workload and work-life balance, is undoubtedly key to encouraging more people to enter and remain in the profession.

It will be interesting to see whether and how the various initiatives set out within the government’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy impact upon recruitment and retention levels over the next few years.


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Daily exercise can boost children’s exam grades – new research

Guest post by Michael McCluskey, Keele University

 

Most parents are aware that physical activity is good for children – as it can help to improve their sense of self and have a positive impact on their mental health and well-being. But it’s less well known that being fit and active can also help to boost children’s academic performance.

Our recent review of primary school children from Stoke-on-Trent, England, shows that children who are more active perform better in key stage one results in reading, writing and mathematics than less active children – achieving grades that were either average or above average for each subject.

We also looked at how the children’s weight and height changed over the school year in our enjoy exercise. All the children gained weight, but less active children appeared to gain weight at a steeper rate than active children. This may mean these children – who currently have a normal weight and body mass – may be at risk of becoming overweight or obese in the future.

Not enough exercise

A report from Sport England shows that children who enjoy exercise, have confidence in their physical abilities and understand why exercise is important, are more likely to be active regularly. The same report also shows that these children do, on average, twice as much physical activity compared with children who don’t enjoy sport and exercise.

The Department of Health recommends children do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day – but many children fail to meet these recommendations. This is in keeping with national figures that show only 17.5% of English, 38% of Scottish, 51% of Welsh and 12% of Northern Irish children meet the recommended minimum exercise levels.

But inactivity is not just a problem in the UK. Levels of childhood physical activity have recently been described as a global crisis by the World Health Organisation. Increasing urbanisation, changing patterns in transport, increased use of technology and high levels of poverty are considered to be reasons for the decline.

Of course, not all children naturally love exercise – and many dread PE lessons. Indeed, research shows that children who get regular encouragement and who have access to affordable facilities are more likely to be and stay active.

Be a role model

Given that our research shows the impact physical activity can have on academic performance and growth, it’s clear that children need to be encouraged to be active and given time to play regularly at home, in school and in the local community.

Children should walk more, run, cycle, use their scooter, go to their local playgrounds, dance, swim and play sports. Children should also be encouraged to travel to school on foot or by bike where possible and sit less often and for shorter periods of time.

Playing outdoors can help children to develop creative thinking Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Importantly, children also need to have positive role models. They need to see parents, family members, teachers and members of the community, enjoying being physically active on a regular basis.

 

This is important because children who are active regularly during childhood are more likely to develop into adults who are active and exercise. And adults who exercise regularly are more likely to live happier and healthier lives than those who do not.The Conversation

Michael McCluskey, Lecturer in Physiotherapy, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Banning fast food outlets near schools: have takeaways had their chips?

A number of organisations – including the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Public Health England and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – have called for the creation of ‘fast food exclusion zones’ – banning fast food outlets from opening within 400m of schools and other places where children congregate.

In this blog post, we consider the arguments in favour of restricting the growth of such fast food outlets near to schools, and whether the evidence supports this.

More children becoming obese, earlier and for longer

The UK is now ranked among the worst in Western Europe for childhood obesity. Not only are more young people overweight or obese, they are also becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.

Indeed, recent statistics show that nearly a quarter of children in England are obese or overweight by the time they start primary school aged five, rising to one third by the time they leave aged 11.

Increased risk of social, psychological and long-term health problems

In addition to the social and psychological problems associated with obesity, obese children are at a greater risk of developing serious diseases, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  They are also 20% more likely to develop cancer as adults than those of a healthy weight.

There is also a financial incentive for addressing obesity in both adults and children – recent estimates suggest that obesity-related conditions cost the NHS around £6.1 billion per year.  The total estimated cost to society is even greater – at least £27 billion per year.

Indeed, the annual spend on the treatment of obesity and diabetes is greater than the amount spent on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined.

Deprived areas have greater levels of both obesity and fast food outlets

There are also strong reasons to address obesity from an equalities angle.

Recent data compiled by Public Health England shows that there is a strong association between area level deprivation and the density of fast food outlets.  Some areas, such as Blackpool, and parts of Manchester and Liverpool, have up to five times more fast food outlets than more affluent areas.

The evidence is generally clear that deprivation is associated with higher levels of overweight and obesity, and lower levels of vegetable consumption.

The evidence suggests that the food environment does influence food choice

During the past 10 years in the UK, there has been a significant increase in the number of fast food outlets, and the consumption of food away from the home has increased by 29%.

Researchers and policymakers have sought to understand whether unhealthy food environments – such as those with a high density of fast food takeaways – may encourage unhealthy food choices, and thus contribute to obesity.

Last year, the Scottish Government published a research paper on the link between the food environment and the planning system.

In relation to the link between the food environment and obesity in general, the report concludes that while the evidence is mixed, “overall the evidence would suggest that increased exposure to outlets selling unhealthy food increases a person’s likelihood of gaining weight”.

In relation to the effect of the food environment around schools on children and young people specifically, the evidence is less clear cut – with some research showing a link to obesity while other research does not.

Interestingly, there was evidence that access to outlets selling healthy food decreased the odds of being overweight or obese.

Research by Brent Council, involving seven secondary schools – four of which were within 400m of a fast food outlet – found that 27% of students said they would not bother going out at lunch if they had to walk more than 8 minutes.

It does seem like common sense – make fast food less readily obtainable and children will be less likely to consume it.

Prof Russell Viner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has said “This food is tasty and cheap – it’s easy to blame the individual, but humans, particularly children, will find it hard to resist tempting food.”

England already making progress, Scotland likely to follow

In England, the National Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) outlines the role that planning can have in reducing obesity by limiting over-concentration of fast food takeaways, particularly around schools.  It also encourages planning authorities to limit takeaways in areas with high levels of obesity, deprivation and general poor health, and in areas with over-concentration and clustering of outlets within a specified area.

Similarly, the Child Obesity Strategy commits to developing resources to support local authorities who want to use their planning powers to restrict fast food takeaways, and providing up to date guidance and training for planning inspectors on the creation of healthy food environments.

A number of councils have already implemented 400m exclusion zones.  Some notable examples include St Helen’s Council, Sandwell Council, Dudley Council, and Milton Keynes.

Sadiq Khan has included proposals for a 400m exclusion zone around schools in the new Draft London Plan, and plans to limit the number of fast food takeaways near schools in Luton were approved in 2018.

At present, there are no powers to restrict fast food outlets on health grounds in Scotland – however, it is likely that this will change in the near future.

As well as the aforementioned research project, last year, the Scottish Government published the consultation, ‘A Healthier Future’, which commits to exploring the opportunity for the planning system to contribute to an improved food environment:

We will research precedent, evidence and good practice on the relationship between the planning system and food environment, including exploring how food outlets in the vicinity of schools can be better controlled, with a view to informing the review of Scottish Planning Policy”.

In the December 2018 issue of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL), Neil Collar of Brodies LLP concludes that:

Taking account of Action 2.12 in ‘A Healthier Future’ and the research project, it seems likely that the draft National Planning Framework, expected to be published by the Scottish Government in 2019, will contain policies to control hot food takeaways and the food environment around schools. An evidence base to justify controls in local areas will be important”.

Creating a robust evidence base is crucial

Children have a right to grow up in an environment that supports them to attain the highest possible standard of health – and the planning system has a key role to play in facilitating this.

Of course, the planning system cannot address obesity on its own, and the causes of obesity are far wider and more complex than just the food environment.

Other approaches are also being put in place – including supporting food outlets to provide smaller portions and healthier options – some of which have been very successful already.

The creation of a robust evidence base upon which to make informed decisions regarding the location of fast food takeaways and the creation of healthy environments is essential.

There are already a number of useful datasets available for local authorities to use, including the Food environment assessment tool (Feat) and guidance on the creation of healthy food environments.

As more local authorities make use of their powers to restrict fast food outlets, it will be interesting to see whether more evidence emerges of the link between fast food and childhood obesity. We at the Information Service will, of course, be watching this with interest.


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Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Who’s caring for our young carers?

In less than two months time the UK will come together to recognise the 700,000 young people in the UK who provide care and support to families and friends, on Young Carers Awareness Day on 25 January.

Every day, children and young people provide physical and emotional care and support to their family members. Helping with household tasks, they care for young siblings, administer medication and deal with the emotional and physical stress of caring for a loved one with an illness. Estimates of the number of young carers living in the UK vary greatly. But Carers Trust suggests the number of young carers to be around 700,000 – that’s 1 in 12 secondary school-aged pupils. And those are only the ones we know about. Too many are falling through the net, going unnoticed and unidentified by services who can support them.

Attainment and employment

Earlier this year we joined in publicising the 2017 Young Carers Awareness Day, whose theme was “When I grow up”. The idea was to help people to understand how difficult it can be for young carers to realise their hopes and dreams for the future without the right support in place. A survey conducted by the Young Carers Trust found that over half (53%) of those surveyed were having problems in coping with schoolwork, with nearly 60% struggling to meet deadlines. Over 70% have had to take time out of school or learning specifically to care for a family member. A third admitted that they have to skip school most weeks.

With over 50% of young carers surveyed by The Children’s Society admitting that their caring responsibilities have caused them to miss days at school, and the burden of caring impacting on the ability of children to engage fully with school activities, it is unsurprising that young carers are twice as likely to be NEET as their peers. In addition, young carers in work find caring responsibilities have a disruptive effect on their workplace attendance, with understanding and flexible employers often being the difference between young adult carers remaining in work or becoming unemployed.

Mental health and wellbeing

Caring for a relative takes a massive toll on a young person. Recent reports published by Carers Trust and the Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland (CYPS) both show the significant mental health burden that caring places on a young person. Stress, isolation and anxiety that can come as a result of being a carer can have a significant impact on a child as they lose much of their contact with the outside world, become removed from social groups and miss out on opportunities to experience a “normal” childhood. Projects like Off the Record’s Young Carers Project in Croydon provide support and opportunities for respite for young carers. But it is clear that as child and adolescent mental health services  (CAMHS) are becoming increasingly stretched themselves, it is more important than ever to ensure that specialist services are also made available to young carers.

Partnerships working to provide support

Young carers often come into contact with multiple services. Education, social care, health and others all have an impact on young carers and their experiences and as a result can have a positive impact on their experiences too. Increasingly, services are being encouraged to cooperate in order to create a holistic support network for young carers, which encompasses every area of need they may have, and creates a seamless transition for young carers through all of their interactions with various services. Key coordinators and facilitators are vital in this role.

In the previously referenced report from CYPS, it was highlighted that many young carers felt positive about – and took pride in – their caring role, but that around two-thirds also said they felt “left out of things” at least some of the time. While they care for their loved ones, we need to make sure someone is caring for them.


Young Carers Awareness Day 2018 will take place on 25 January 2018.


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The rhetoric of social mobility continues… yet disadvantaged pupils continue to fall behind

skills gap

By Heather Cameron

Despite continued investment to improve social mobility, it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.

Recent analysis of government data shows the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers has actually worsened over the past decade.

The research, conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that while there has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium), this has been slow and inconsistent. The gap has also been shown to vary between areas.

And, perhaps most worryingly, for pupils described as ‘persistently disadvantaged’ (i.e. those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80% or longer of their school lives), the gap has widened – leaving these pupils over a year behind their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of primary school and more than two years behind at the end of secondary school.

Widening gap

The attainment gap is evident in the early years, continuing to grow throughout school.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to be 19.2 months on average behind their peers at the end of Key Stage 4. While this represents a narrowing of the gap by 2.7 months since 2007, this is not consistent across the board. And the gap for ‘persistently disadvantaged’ pupils increased by 2.4 months over the same period.

The EPI analysis indicates that the disadvantage gap grows by five months between Key Stage 1 and 2, and by 10 months between Key Stage 2 and 4.

Persistently disadvantaged pupils are shown to fall even further behind at all phases. For them, the gap grows from six months at the end of Key Stage 1, to 12 months by the end of Key Stage 2 and 24 months by the end of Key Stage 4.

It is argued that the differential rates of progress pupils make need to be tackled to stop the gap from growing throughout the stages.

Indeed, the issue can’t be solved with a one size fits all approach, particularly as there is significant variation across the country.

Variation

The disadvantage gap between local authorities ranges from no gap to seven months in the early years, five to 13 months at the end of primary school and one month to over two years at the end of secondary.

The gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East at around 16-18 months at the end of secondary. In comparison, the East Midlands and the Humber, the North and the South West experience a much larger gap of 22 months. The largest attainment gap was found on the Isle of Wight, where disadvantaged pupils were 29 months behind their peers on leaving secondary school.

The gap was also found to become worse in rural areas. In Cumbria and Northumberland, for example, the gap widens from nine months at the end of Key Stage 2 to over 25 months by the end of secondary.

But there is also evidence of particularly good performance and notable improvements made in recent years. In Newham, disadvantaged five year-olds perform as well as non-disadvantaged five year-olds nationally, on average. And in Richmond-upon-Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead, the gap for disadvantaged secondary school pupils has closed by over six months since 2012.

This would suggest that there is certainly potential for dramatic improvements in reducing the gap in other areas.

Government action

As an historic problem, successive governments have taken action to address it via investment and targeted interventions. The current government is also working to address the issue, including through Opportunity Areas.

The EPI suggests that while this may be a good start, there are other areas across the country that are not covered by these where “social mobility is stagnating or even worsening”. And it also highlights that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

In addition, recent commentary from the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, raised concerns over schools focusing on exam results at the expense of the curriculum, leading to many disadvantaged children being shut out from acquiring a rich and full knowledge:

“It is a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life.”

It has been suggested that government pressure to improve performance has led to a focus on exam and test results. But Spielman argues that this is a mistake on the part of school leaders as it should “not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils”.

Final thoughts

Clearly, while it shouldn’t be forgotten that progress has been made, a lot more needs to be done if the disadvantage gap is to close any time soon.

As the EPI concluded: “If we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system.”


If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like our previous blogs on education-related topics.

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Free school meals or breakfast clubs? Child hunger in England

by Stacey Dingwall

For a lot of us, the removal of the turkey twizzler was the biggest school meals-related political upset of the last decade. However, during the recent election campaign another, more serious, row emerged: over the provision of universal free school meals to English children in Reception through to Year 2.

Manifesto proposals

The proposal to scrap the policy introduced by the coalition government in 2014 was one of the Conservative manifesto proposals that didn’t make it to the Queen’s Speech. Schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed that the policy had been ditched at the start of this month, stating that existing provision would be retained following the government having “carefully listened” to parents.

In their manifesto, the Labour party promised to extend universal provision to all primary school aged children, to be funded by introducing VAT on private school fees.

Is FSM for all viable?

Financially, Labour’s proposal was deemed to be viable, in theory at least. Charging VAT on private school fees was calculated to be worth just over £1.5bn a year, provided all pupils were paying a full fee. The IFS have suggested that extending provision to all primary pupils would cost in the region of £950m annually.

In 2012 the IFS, in partnership with NatCen, carried out an evaluation of a pilot study which offered free school meals to all Year 6 pupils in Newham and Durham. The evaluation found that the pupils made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas, although it wasn’t able to definitively identify how this progress was made – i.e. it was unable to conclude that the provision of free school meals was the reason.

Breakfast clubs

Discussing the evaluation findings within the context of the 2017 manifesto proposals, the IFS highlighted findings from other research they’ve carried out into breakfast clubs.  This is something we’ve discussed before on the blog: our 2015 post highlighted a range of evidence that school breakfast clubs have a positive impact on children’s academic performance. The IFS study looked at one of the schemes, Magic Breakfast, and found that improvements in pupil performance were “likely to be the result of the content or context of the school breakfasts”.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to provide free breakfasts in place of universal free lunch provision. This was dismissed as “not comparable” by parents however, and described by some in the education sector as merely a cost-cutting exercise (that had not in fact been costed correctly) rather than a drive to boost attainment.

Child hunger in 2017

The reason why so many were critical of the proposal to remove the universal entitlement to free school meals is that for some children, it’s the only nourishment they’ll receive all day. Just because a child is entitled to a free lunch doesn’t mean they’ll claim it – a range of evidence has highlighted the stigma children can be exposed to if meals aren’t free for all. Extending provision to all has been found to be the best way of helping those who need it most, rather than singling them out.

In 2017, it’s shameful that children in a developed country are still suffering from hunger. As new figures from the Trussell Trust reveal that the already shocking levels of reliance on foodbanks increases even more during school holidays, it’s clear that any policy which risks making the situation for already vulnerable children even worse needs to be abandoned.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles.