School Closures Stopped Vulnerable Children Accessing Safeguarding, New Data Suggests
Child safeguarding referrals from schools to local authorities dropped by almost a third during the pandemic, new Office for National Statistics figures analysed by Dods Monitoring have shown.
Children’s charities have warned that the closure of schools during periods of lockdown has meant that vulnerable children, who would usually be identified at school, are slipping through the net and not receiving vital support.
Andrew Fellowes, policy head at NSPCC told PoliticsHome he was “concerned that children who suffered abuse, neglect and struggled with mental health problems during the pandemic may miss out on the help and support they need”.
This is the first release of safeguarding referral figures to fully capture the period of coronavirus, during which time schoolchildren in England were out of the classroom for nearly half of the available days.
The number of overall referrals dropped by around 24% at the start of 2021 compared to the previous year, at a time in the school year when the number of children flagged for support would normally increase.
The government closed the majority of education settings at the beginning of January, and they remained closed until pupils began returning to the classroom from early March.
Throughout this period, children’s charities warned that there was a risk that safeguarding issues would be missed due to the lack of face-to-face contact between pupils and education staff – often seen as the first line of defence in identifying children in need.
The NSPCC, which runs a helpline to report instances of children living with domestic abuse, revealed last year that since the introduction of lockdown measures they’d seen a 49% increase in the number of contacts from people raising concerns about a child in need.
A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies also forecast a £2bn shortfall for councils over the course of this financial year, which the Association of Directors of Children’s Services – the membership organisation representing local government children’s services leaders across England – said was forcing them to exhaust their reserves when they should be “focussing efforts on the continued effect of the pandemic and helping children, families and communities recover”.
A cross-party committee of MPs also raised concerns last September that children were “likely to have experienced mental health difficulties, violence, including experience of domestic violence and isolation” as school referrals decreased during lockdown.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said “every child should feel safe and protected” and that they were investing in frontline charities, as well as making £24m available for a regional recovery in children’s social care. They added that last week’s budget was providing further funding for mental health support and the rollout of Family Hubs.
The Department for Education also announced this summer it would make £9.5m in funding available for up to 7,800 schools and colleges to train a member of staff to be a senior mental health lead for the 21/22 academic year.
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