United Kingdom

England’s school closures left vulnerable children without help, says watchdog

School closures meant vulnerable children were left without help and exposed to danger during the coronavirus lockdown, according to England’s inspectorate for schools and children’s services.

In its annual report on Tuesday, education inspectorate Ofsted said that when children were kept at home, teachers and social services were unable to identify those in need of protection, leaving many exposed to unseen abuse. As a result, local authorities were now more likely to “be responding to a legacy of abuse and neglect”.

The findings highlight how the coronavirus lockdown and resulting closures of schools have widened the gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said school closures had a “dramatic impact” on referrals to child protection services, which dropped dramatically and had not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting some abuse could still be undetected.

“Teachers are often the eyes that spot signs of abuse and the ears that hear stories of neglect,” she said. “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.”

An analysis by the Local Government Association, which represents councils, found there were 41,190 referrals to children’s social services at the height of lockdown between April and June — a fall of 18 per cent compared with the previous year.

Although schools remained open for vulnerable pupils during the UK’s nationwide first lockdown, Ms Spielman said “relatively few” actually attended, leaving many at home and “inevitably, in harm’s way”.

Teaching unions said schools had made extensive efforts to provide emergency provision in the face of the huge pressures of coronavirus and stretched finances.

“Sadly the last decade has seen the budgets of child support services slashed alongside those of schools, so there is less capacity than need,” said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers. “Ten years of government neglect has left vulnerable children and families on the edge — Covid has nudged many of them over,” he added.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, a union, said schools and local authorities had “worked very hard” to provide support for vulnerable children despite being “cut to the bone” by underfunding.

“It was an incredibly difficult task to persuade many of these families to send in children at the height of the pandemic and with most other children remaining at home,” he said.

Ofsted’s report also highlighted a recent survey of local authorities that suggested the number of children being homeschooled increased by 38 per cent compared with last year, to 75,000.

It said school inspections suggested parents had kept their children at home because of fears about Covid-19 rather than a desire to teach their children at home, prompting concern about the quality of education they were receiving.

“Almost all children, vulnerable or otherwise, are missing out on a lot when they aren’t at school,” Ms Spielman said. “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.”

The Department for Education said it owed a “debt of gratitude” to teachers and support workers and had allocated £1bn to schools to help children catch-up on lost learning.

“The safety and wellbeing of the most vulnerable children has always been our focus, which is why we kept nurseries, schools and colleges open for those children throughout the pandemic,” it said.


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