Telling the story of the invisible children: Catherine O'Flynn on the impact of school closures

Published on: 12 November 2020 Author: Catherine O'Flynn

Catherine O'Flynn's new book Lori and Max and the Book Thieves includes a plot about a boy affected by the closure of his school. Here, she shares why it's so important to tell these stories...

Author Catherine O'Flynn and the front cover of her book Lori and Max and the Book Thieves

School has closed down but Taylor's mum won't have him in the house while she's at work. She has enough on her plate without the stress of him messing things up around the flat.

She's always telling him that his hands are dirty, and that he dirties everything he touches. She tells him to go and play with his mates, because she hasn't noticed that Taylor hasn't made any mates at his new school yet.

He tries hanging out on the high street, but he has no money and there's only so long you can lurk discreetly in Poundland before the security guard comes and gives you the look.

He starts killing time at the local park, come rain or shine, counting the hours until he can go home and trying not to worry what kind of mood his mum will be in. One day, an older boy befriends him - he gives Taylor his mobile phone to look after, and that's when Taylor's troubles really start.

This is not a true story - it's a sub-plot from my new novel Lori and Max and the Book Thieves. I'm sure the impact of school closures, along with all the other painful consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, will feature prominently in plenty of novels coming out in the next year.

But I wrote Lori and Max and the Book Thieves back in early 2019, before coronavirus had started making threatening noises from the other side of the world.

Highlighting the faultlines that divide us

For some of us, the issue of school closures and the impact they had on vulnerable children was already a real and pressing concern. My children's school in Birmingham, along with many others in the city, had announced that from September they would be forced to close on Friday afternoons as they no longer received adequate funding to provide full-time education.

The fault lines that divide us can be obscured somewhat by school. It's possible to look at hundreds of kids legging it around a crowded school playground and believe in a happy, thriving, cohesive community.

But when school closes, the previously obscured differences become impossible to ignore.

When my children's school closures began, some parents were able to call upon grandparents and relatives to help out their kids. Some parents took the financial hit and cut their working hours to do their own childcare; others took the financial hit to pay someone else to do it. Some parents rejoiced at a chance to widen their kid's education and grouped together with other like-minded parents to provide wholesome activities like woodland play and bread-making.

And some parents... well, I don't know, because some parents weren't part of the conversation. They weren't joining in the myriad WhatsApp groups discussing Friday afternoon arrangements. They weren't visible - and neither were their kids.

Giving invisible children a voice

There seemed to be remarkably little coverage of the half-day school closures, and remarkably little outrage. It's often only when you find yourself affected directly by an issue that you realise how indifferent media coverage and public response can be.

I wanted to write about the impact of school closures partly to raise awareness, but more because I kept imagining a boy like Taylor and he wouldn't leave me alone.

The worries I had about what would happen to one vulnerable child for a few hours on a Friday afternoon seem almost quaint now, given the looming tidal wave that was about to break over us. But Taylor was there swimming ahead of the wave and it wasn't hard to see where he was headed.

In Lori and Max and the Book Thieves, Taylor's vulnerability is exploited by a gang in a somewhat softened and unspecified county lines-type operation. Sadly, this is something that has of course happened on a much wider scale during lockdown. Whilst school provision was theoretically continuous for children deemed vulnerable, many kids fell through the net and into the hands of rapidly adapting criminal gangs waiting to recruit them.

The impact of school closures will be a permanent scar on the current school cohort, the exact extent and nature of which will be only gradually be revealed over many years.

Taylor is lucky and runs into two tough and resourceful girls called Lori and Max who save him from his exploiters. For the many invisible kids, though, we don't know yet how their story will end.

Read our review of Lori and Max and the Book Thieves

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