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Are the kids alright? The hidden pandemic

4 min read

Experts are warning that lockdowns have resulted in many young people feeling isolated and unprotected as they face disrupted schooling and greater mental strain. Analysis by Tom Hunter

“The pandemic has left many children more vulnerable to predators due to mental ill-health, isolation and financial hardship,” says Toby North, public affairs manager at The Children’s Society. Lockdowns meant children were “hidden from the view of teachers, social workers and GPs who could have spotted the warning signs and got them help”, he adds.

Official statistics released in October show the number of safeguarding referrals from schools to local authorities dropped by almost a third during the pandemic, when England’s schoolchildren were out of the classroom for nearly half of available days. 

Andrew Fellowes, policy head at the NSPCC, says he is “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”. The NSPCC has received 49 per cent more contacts from people raising concerns about a child in need since the lockdowns were introduced.

Children who struggled with mental health during the pandemic may miss out on the support they need

The loss of in-person teaching has also impacted young people – in particular, the up to 1.7 million pupils who had no access to a digital device, according to Ofcom estimates.

The government responded to this digital divide with the National Tutoring Programme and distributed more than a million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged children. Nevertheless, the Education Policy Institute estimates learning loss to be up to 2.2 months for primary school pupils and 1.2 months in secondary schools. Up to a third of the progress made over the last decade in closing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has been lost during the pandemic, it concludes from this research. 

Young people’s mental health has also taken a hit. NHS figures show rates of probable mental health disorders in those aged six to 16 has risen to one in six in 2021, from one in nine in 2017. The Big Ask, the largest survey of children in England, carried out this year by Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza, reveals children have concerns about the impact of the pandemic, including loneliness and falling behind in school.

Javed Khan, former chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, has called for a radically different approach to improving outcomes for the lockdown generation, “including longer term thinking and funding, with a strong focus on stepping in early to support children and young people before they reach crisis point”. This follows the charity’s own research in May which shows increased levels of stress, worry and loneliness among children.

The government’s efforts to help children recover from the pandemic have not been without controversy. Sir Kevan Collins, a highly respected figure in education, was tasked with drawing up a plan for the recovery of children’s schooling at the start of the year. But he resigned in June in protest at the government’s initial £1.4bn commitment, saying it “does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge” – he had proposed a £15bn investment.

The Department for Education (DfE) has so far committed more than £3bn to the recovery package, including mental health support training for teachers and an expansion of the tutoring scheme. Speaking in the Commons in June, Education Committee chair Robert Halfon described the measures as “a welcome starter… a big bite before the main meal”. 

A DfE spokesperson told The House the government had committed to “an ambitious and long-term education recovery plan” including investment in early years recovery. The Treasury has also announced an expansion of its Family Hubs programme, which includes parenting support, and £24m for a regional recovery in children’s social care. 

Time will tell whether the government is doing enough to help deliver the funding and support needed to ensure the younger generation aren’t left facing long-lasting and damaging repercussions of the pandemic.

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Read the most recent article written by Tom Hunter, Political Consultant - More funding needed to help early years bounce back from Covid, experts warn