As schools return, vulnerable children must not be left behind

This blog reflects on our recent SMF Ask the Expert event, held in partnership with UK Research and Innovation, exploring the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable children.

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of children all over the UK. Numerous national lockdowns resulting in school closures, with home-schooling becoming the new normal for many. As part of the Government’s “Roadmap out of lockdown”, schools and childcare began reopening in England this week, sparking a debate on the impact of lost months of face-to-face schooling. Speaking at our most recent UK Research and Innovation Ask the Expert event, Cardiff University’s Professor Stephanie van Goozen said that whilst “most children and families will recover and catchup…vulnerable families and children are less resilient and resourceful”.

What impact has the pandemic had on the lives of vulnerable children[i]? And how can we support their return to the physical classroom?

“School is a lifesaver for vulnerable children”, Professor van Goozen said, with her research showing that schools provided a great deal of support to families who needed it during lockdown, with over 80% of families interviewed[ii] receiving specific advice on home-schooling and direct contact with teachers. Whilst schools remained open for children of key workers and children assigned a social worker during the first lockdown, less than 10% of these children did so, raising concerns that vulnerable children were not being adequately supported and protected. Teachers and school staff are vital component of the network for identifying vulnerable children, particularly those suffering from neglect and abuse. Ofsted has warned that low school attendance among vulnerable children, combined with disruption to local safeguarding services, means that “local authorities are now more likely to be responding to a legacy of abuse and neglect.”

Evidence indicates the UK’s first lockdown had a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of vulnerable children. Professor van Goozen’s UKRI-funded research shows 21% of vulnerable children developed significant emotional problems and 13% of children developed significant behavioural problems during the first lockdown in 2020. A significant increase in anxiety was reported, however for some absence of school and classroom pressures led to a reduction in social and separation anxiety. The findings of van Goozen’s research have been echoed elsewhere, with experts warning of a “crisis on top of a crisis”, with mental health challenges folded into challenges of remedying lost learning time. The Department for Education has responded by creating the ‘See, Hear, Respond’ charity partnership with the aim of “supporting  vulnerable children who fall below the threshold for statutory support and early help, including those in need of crisis support due to the pandemic.” However, as schools return to the physical classroom, this scheme will end in March 2021.

Policymakers must also consider the impact of the pandemic on families and households in the recovery. Increased levels of isolation, lack of resources to support home-schooling, and a higher proportion of parents who face serious mental health problems are identified in Professor van Goozen’s research as factors that impacted parent-child relationships in the first lockdown. Parental mental health problems are more prevalent in households where there is increased financial strain. This in turn has a knock-on effect on mental health and the prevalence of behavioural problems in children living in the household. Similarly, the ONS has found that children with “probable mental disorder were more than twice as likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with payments [bills, rent or mortgage] (16.3%), than children unlikely to have a mental disorder (6.4%).”

Concerns around digital poverty have been raised throughout the pandemic, as children at the lower end of the socio-economic distribution are likely to face more significant challenges in catching up. Vulnerable families with financial difficulties had less access to equipment, Wi-Fi and access to learning space than those with no financial difficulty, Professor van Goozen found; Ofcom has estimated that, in total, 9% of children in the UK do not have access to a computer or tablet at home. Whilst the government has delivered more than a million laptops to children who need them the most, teachers and unions have argued that this came much too late, with laptops arriving just as schools prepare to return to face-to-face learning.

What can be done to better support vulnerable children and families as we begin to slowly emerge from the current lockdown restrictions? No child’s circumstances are the same, so policymakers should resist ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches, and “vulnerable children will need a more sustained and multifaceted approach to support their recovery”, Professor van Goozen said.

Mental health intervention for both children and parents will be crucial moving forward. By treating mental health in the same way as physical health and improving treatments and services, we could begin to see knock-on improvements in areas such as crime rates, said Professor van Goozen. Outgoing Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has called for the current catchup scheme to receive a “rocket boost” in both its size and the funding behind it to ensure that schools are better equipped to support the mental health of children returning to school. Among her recommendations were ensuring that a mental health counsellor is placed in every school and extending the troubled families programme in order to mitigate the mental health impacts of the crisis on children. Whilst the Chancellor made an additional £700m of funding available for education catchup in the Spring Budget, there was no mention of any additional funding to be allocated to supporting children’s mental health.

Vulnerable families who have been affected the most by the pandemic need improved and sustained financial support. This could improve child and parent mental health and improve educational outcomes. Yet the picture of welfare support going forward remains unclear. In November 2020, the Government announced the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, £170m of funding to be distributed by local authorities to vulnerable families, with at least 80% designated to support food and bill payments. With this scheme due to end in March 2021, the Chancellor announced in the Spring Budget that the Universal Credit uplift of £20 per week will be extended until September. However, this extension will end in September – the same month that the furlough scheme is also due to end. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that 200,000 children will fall into poverty as a result. Vulnerable families cannot afford the continued uncertainty of this temporary uplift.

The data analysed in Professor van Goozen’s study was collected during the first lockdown in 2020. With more restrictions and lockdowns having been implemented since then, the long-term implications of these the pandemic for the education outcomes and wellbeing vulnerable children will only be realised over the coming years.

This blog is based on a recent SMF Ask the Expert event, held in partnership with UK Research and Innovation. You can re-watch the event in full here.

[i] The Department for Education defines vulnerable children as “those who are assessed as being in need under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, including children and young people who have a child in need plan, a child protection plan or who are a looked-after child, have an education, health and care (EHC) plan [or] have been identified as otherwise vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities (including children’s social care services)”. A full list of criteria can be found here.

[ii] 180 videocall interviews with parent and child (mean duration 1.5 hours), participants consisted of children and families assessed by Cardiff University’s Neurodevelopment Assessment Unit (NDAU) who have been identified through families and schools.


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