Scottish seniors returned to school today – or, at least, some of them did. Some are being fobbed off with “blended learning” which means they’re still stuck at home with Teams most of the time. But those lucky enough to actually return to school had to wear face masks in classrooms – and unlike in England, there were no ifs or buts. It’s mandatory, not voluntary (although many English secondary schools pretend it’s mandatory here, too). Julia Whitaker, a freelance Health Play Specialist, has written to UsForThem Scotland objecting to this and had kindly allowed us to reprint the letter in full.
The Scottish Government claims to recognise that “children’s rights and wellbeing matter now [in a pandemic] more than ever” and that “a children’s rights approach is being embedded into our response to COVID-19 and our approach to recovery and renewal”. This fits with the Government’s vision for Scotland to become the first country in the UK to directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law – a vision which is embedded in the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill currently going through Parliament. An admirable ambition and one to be celebrated.
However, it is this same UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that gives all children the right to freedom of expression (UNCRC Article 13), a right which is currently being denied by the imposition of a requirement to wear a face mask throughout the school day.
All children will not feel free to raise their hands to ask or answer questions if they know that their voice will be muffled or distorted and that they may have to repeat themselves more than once to make themselves understood. That is not freedom of expression.
All children will not feel free to actively engage with learning by sharing an opinion or participating in a discussion if their communication risks being missed or misinterpreted because they have to speak through a mask. That is not freedom of expression.
All children will not feel free to share their feelings, worries, or concerns if they cannot voice them confidently and openly. That is not freedom of expression.
Wearing a face mask may just make it too difficult, too risky, too awkward to be worth the effort trying to express oneself. It will be easier not to bother, to keep one’s mouth shut, one’s thoughts and feelings to oneself. That is not freedom of expression.
The Government already knows this. At the start of the academic session, Education Secretary John Swinney was quoted as saying that face coverings have negative effects on communication in schools and are “likely to interfere with teaching and learning”.
We may be two terms into the school year, but that fundamental truth remains. Wearing a face covering interferes with communication and self-expression which is why, when they enter the chamber at Holyrood, Government ministers remove their own face masks. I rest my case.
Either we are a country which embeds children’s rights in all decisions taken on their behalf. Or we are not.