The Chief Inspector of Education and Children’s Social Care has warned that the invisibility of vulnerable children as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic should be a matter of national concern.
Launching this year’s Ofsted Annual Report, Amanda Spielman said that school closures during the first national lockdown had a ‘dramatic impact’ on the number of child protection referrals made to local authorities. And, while that number has risen since schools re-opened, it has yet to return to previous levels – raising fears that abuse could now be going undetected.
Ms Spielman said: ‘Teachers are often the eyes that spot signs of abuse and the ears that hear stories of neglect.
‘Closing schools didn’t just leave the children who, unbeknown to others, suffer at home without respite, it also took them out of sight of those who could help.
‘When nurseries and schools closed in March, they were told to remain open to the most vulnerable, which of course meant those whose need was already identified. And even of these, we know that relatively few actually attended. The rest stayed at home, some, inevitably, in harm’s way.’
The report finds that the low numbers of children who attended school during the first national lockdown, combined with disruption to community health services, directly affected the ability of local safeguarding partners to identify children and families in need of early help and protection.
As a result, local authorities are now more likely to be responding to a legacy of abuse and neglect. The Chief Inspector said it is imperative that all agencies now work together to prioritise the most urgent cases.
The Annual Report notes that pupils with special education needs and/or disabilities (SEND) have been particularly affected by the pandemic.
Their access to additional support and healthcare was sharply reduced during the lockdown, and early identification and assessment suffered when they were not in school. For some children, this will cause lasting harm.
Throughout the autumn, Ofsted has been also reporting concerns about the number of children who have not returned to school after lockdown and who are now ostensibly being home-educated.
A recent survey of local authorities suggests there are now more than 75,000 children being homeschooled, a 38% increase since last year.
However, from Ofsted’s visits to schools, it appears many parents have removed their children because of their fears about COVID, rather than a genuine desire to home-school.
It is also concerning that a significant proportion of children who have disappeared from school are those known to wider children’s services – for instance, because they have complex needs or previous attendance issues.
Amanda Spielman continued: ‘Almost all children, vulnerable or otherwise, are missing out on a lot when they aren’t at school. Some will have a great experience, but other families will find it harder than they thought, and their children could lose out as a result.
‘We must be alive to these risks, and we must also watch out for bad practices creeping back in that could compound risk.
‘We don’t want to see any schools off-rolling children, and we need all schools to make the effort to help children with SEND to attend, we know that many SEND children and their parents particularly struggled during the lockdown, as many services were withdrawn.’
Responding to the report, cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said significant additional funding for children’s social care is needed to enable councils to provide support to children and families need.
‘This report is extremely concerning and reinforces issues we have previously highlighted, including the significant pressures that children’s services are under.
‘The pandemic has led to rising numbers of families facing exceptionally difficult circumstances and councils have worked tirelessly with schools to keep them open and children and their families safe and well, through online and virtual contact and resources, as well as high priority home visits.
‘As the impact of the pandemic becomes clear, councils expect to see a significant rise in referrals to children’s social care and demand for wider children’s support services. It is essential that the right services can be there to support them and help them cope, to avoid families reaching crisis point.
‘The extra funding for adult and children’s social care announced in the recent Spending Review is positive but will not on its own be enough to tackle the significant challenges facing children’s social care.
‘Councils have been forced to scale back or cut universal and early help services altogether prior to the pandemic due to increasing demand for urgent child protection work alongside long-term funding reductions.
‘Significant additional funding for children’s social care will be needed if we are to provide the support children, young people and their families need, when they need it.
‘This includes early help funding to avoid families reaching crisis point and sufficient funding for those children and families who need more intensive child protection responses. As a starting point, the £1.7 billion removed from the Early Intervention Grant since 2010 should be reinstated.’
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