Today is the start of a school week like no other. For millions of children across the country who are starting home schooling or who are still going into a very different version of school, it will feel very strange. For those staying at home, it will be their first experience of a home education. Schools will have provided work and plans but it will understandably take some time for many children to settle. The good news is there are plenty of resources online to help families. Prioritising the core subjects, drawing up a timetable with your child and trying to create new routines and structures all sound easy, but it will take time and families will need to be flexible, patient and not pressure themselves.
All of us should be immensely grateful for the work teachers already do, and for the dedicated way they have risen and will continue to rise to the challenges of the next few weeks and months. It is essential that they are given the support and the resources to carry out their duties – both from local and national government.
I am pleased that the Government has made the protection of the most vulnerable children – those with a social worker – a priority, by ensuring that they are kept safe at school. However, it is important that we remember that this population of vulnerable children is fluid. There are around 380,000 children in England with a social worker at any one time, but across the year that number is around 700,000. At the same time, my office estimates that there are around 2.3 million children in England living in families with what I would consider significant risk factors. That could be domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, extreme poverty, children who are carers, or children where parents have serious mental health problems.
These are the children on the edge of social services, who are in families which are already unstable. This crisis is likely to put some of them under even more pressure.
For these children, school tends to provide one or two hot meals a day, as well as structure and support from friends and teachers. It also gives professionals a direct line of sight to children, with a well-established escalation procedure. All this will be lost for a child if they are not in school. At the same time, the services families can access are closing down or cutting back: the children’s centres, nurseries, community projects, health visitors, youth services. There is likely to be around 1 million children who have needed a social worker in the past three years, who are now becoming invisible to professionals, just as their families come under unprecedented strain. I know many schools will be keeping an eye out for some of these children by asking them to attend school, but many are in danger of slipping through the gaps. We need those children safe.
So, I would like to see as many of these vulnerable children in schools as possible, while recognising that some schools are already going to have very high numbers of their current school population still in school. That is why it is so important that parents who can look after their children at home do so, so that there is room for those who need the most help.
I know too that headteachers and their staff feel under a tremendous amount of pressure – there are concerns about how to organise groups of children in school, health worries for staff at risk of contracting coronavirus, how they are going to work out shifts and how schools with a very high number of children staying in school are going to manage. In particular, there are questions about who is going to coordinate teachers switching between schools. This will be harder to do as many schools are outside local authority control. During this unprecedented period, it may be necessary to give temporary powers to councils to help organise and monitor teachers moving between schools.
Questions still remain too about children living in secure and other residential accommodation. How they are going to be protected, how they will be self-isolated if need be, how parents can keep in touch with them if they are unable to visit and whether social workers will still be able to carry on visiting. I know the Government is acutely aware of these issues, and it is important they are addressed as quickly as possible. I will keep asking them.
Last week I wrote to the Chancellor, asking the Government to do all it can to protect children growing up in families living in poverty. The very welcome changes announced on Friday, coupled with the announcement on free school meals, will go some of the way to reassuring and protecting many families. However, I remain concerned about the ability of the Universal Credit system to cope with the inevitable increased demand. It is essential that if UC is not able to meet the huge stress placed on what has been an inflexible and rigid system, that families with children are given priority for any emergency measures. I would also like to see an increase in hardship funds and extra funding to support foodbanks and community resources, as well as an immediate increase in child benefit of £20.
Our children are living through unprecedented times – routines have been disrupted, new strains will be put on families. Many children will be anxious and confused. Protecting them from the inevitable social and financial consequences of the outbreak must remain a top priority. I know the Government is aware of this and doing all it can, while dealing with many other enormous challenges.
I will continue to keep using my voice for children, particularly the most vulnerable, to those in power making the important decisions. I am already raising key concerns with Government agencies as and when they come up through our helpline or when people bring them to my attention. The rights and interests of children must continue to be at the heart of our national response to the coronavirus outbreak.