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Children’s Charter Part 3: Social workers are needed in schools urgently

Background

WillisPalmer launches Children’s Charter

Why The Children’s Charter is needed

Children’s Charter: One Half Term In

WillisPalmer is making an urgent plea for frontline social workers to work closely with education staff to enable them to use their expertise to identify children experiencing or at risk of neglect or abuse and signpost any vulnerable children to the most appropriate services without delay.

Social workers should work alongside teachers, teaching assistants, SENCOs, heads and safeguarding workers in schools, co-locating where possible, to identify children who may have been experiencing abuse or neglect since the first lockdown 10 months ago last March.

Chief Executive of WillisPalmer, Mark Willis, said: “There are undoubtedly vulnerable child casualties out there as a result of the three national lockdowns who, for a variety of reasons, have not become known to the very services designed to protect them. We know child protection teams are working hard to protect vulnerable children in the community but their experience and expertise should be placed at the heart of schools to help teaching staff support them and signpost them for the appropriate services.”

Fear

It was widely anticipated across the children’s services sector that there would be a surge in referrals once children returned to school in September which, for many, was their first time back at school after six months at home. While lockdown and home schooling would have been challenging for most families, there would have been a whole underground of children who were being neglected and abused while not under the watchful eyes of teachers, social workers and other children’s services professionals such as health visitors.

Matt Dunkley is head of the largest child protection department in the country in Kent, and he anticipated last year that once children returned to education, the spike in referrals to children’s services could be as great as 250% https://www.willispalmer.com/kent-director-warns-referral-spike-could-be-up-by-250-when-children-return-to-school/ . However, this anticipated surge did not happen.

In our earlier article in this series ‘Children’s Charter – one term in’, we recognised that neglect and abuse may not have come to the attention of teachers when children returned to school for the following reasons:

1) When children have encountered severe neglect or abuse, it is unlikely that they will want to disclose this immediately on return to school. Months of being oppressed by an abusive parent who showers them with love one moment and physical, emotional or sexual abuse the next will be confusing for young people. Some people who have been abused take years before they feel ready to disclose it for a number of reasons including shame, fear of not being believed, fear of retribution from their perpetrator, not wanting to disrupt things at home for their siblings, fear of what will happen following disclosure, for example, the fear of going into care away from friends.

2) Many children returning to education will have a new teacher than when they were at school six months earlier when lockdown was imposed. It is likely that they will have missed out on key events such as ‘step up days’ where they meet their new class and ‘meet the teacher’ sessions. New teachers will therefore not be aware of each child’s behaviour, personality and friendship group. So, for example, if a child is being more quiet than normal, their teacher may not know if this is typical behaviour for that child and some signs of abuse and neglect could therefore be unintentionally missed. Furthermore, some children disclose neglect or abuse to a trusted teacher, but as they have a new teacher to when they went into lockdown, the trusted relationship is not established.


3) Some vulnerable children talk to their friends when they have experienced difficulties. But having self-isolated for six months and not seen their friends as often as before lockdown, again, they may not feel comfortable talking to their friends about something so personal to them. They may also be fearful of how they will be seen by friends – or that their friends may tell other people.

4) Children may not understand that what happened to them is wrong and does not occur in ‘typical’ families.

Undetected abuse

Furthermore, since then, there has been a rise of almost 40 per cent in the number of children being electively home educated, The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has revealed. While many parents would have taken the decision to home school their children to protect them from Coronavirus, as the ADCS warned, “schools play an important role in safeguarding as they provide a direct line of sight to the child. If a child is taken out of school, it is vital we know that they are in a safe environment and that their needs are being met”.

This means, many of the children who have been at home since March continue to be at home under the premise of home education. Many cases will be genuine, whereas others will not be.

Ofsted raised many concerns in a series of reports looking at how education, childcare and children’s services settings had responded to COVID. The inspectorate found:

- Young children whose parents were unable to work more flexibly, and who experienced less time with parents and other children, lapsed back into nappies, forgot how to eat with a knife and fork, or lost their early progress in numbers and words.

- Older children lacked stamina in reading and writing, while inspectors also found that some have lost physical fitness.

- Other older children were showing signs of mental distress, manifesting in an increase in eating disorders and self-harm.

Alarmingly, Ofsted has raised concerns that child abuse could be going undetected in its annual report.

Chief inspector of Ofsted Amanda Spielman said: “Teachers are often the eyes that spot signs of abuse and the ears that hear stories of neglect. 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.

“When nurseries and schools closed in March, they were told to remain open to the most vulnerable – which of course meant those whose need was already identified. And even of these, we know that relatively few actually attended. The rest stayed at home – some, inevitably, in harm’s way,” she added.

The chief inspector said it is imperative that all agencies now work together to prioritise the most urgent cases.

Undermining lockdown

However, since entering the third national lockdown this month, it has been reported that there has been a significant increase in the number of children attending school, to the point that the National Association of HeadTeachers has warned that the increase in numbers risks undermining lockdown.

The NAHT says contradictory guidance from the government has increased the levels of attendance significantly which could undermine the efforts of lockdown in containing the spread of COVID-19. A survey of its members revealed that almost three quarters (74%) of school leaders reported that the demand for places from key worker families and vulnerable children has ‘greatly increased’ compared to the lockdown last March. Over a third (34%) school leaders reported that they had more than a third of children still physically attending school.

At the same time, the Department for Education is facing legal action due to the fact that vulnerable children will be exposed to further Covid-related health risks due to ‘the government’s failure to ensure all vulnerable children can learn at home, an organisation has warned’. This is despite the government announcing this week that a further 300,000 devices have been distributed to vulnerable children, taking the total distribution to 1.3 million.

The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit membership organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public, states that while poorer and BAME families are exposed to higher Covid-19 risks, the government’s continuing failure to arrange for the children of those families to be educated online, they will be exposed to further health risks.

The Good Project has launched judicial review proceedings to challenge the following ongoing government failures:

- to ensure adequate devices are provided to those who require them, in a timely fashion.

- to set out clearly in its new guidance that bringing children into school during the current period purely because of a lack of devices (or data) should be a last resort.

- to ensure that educational websites, including the taxpayer-funded Oak National Academy, are exempt from data charge.

- to conduct adequate assessments of the impact of school closures upon disadvantaged children, and to put in place resulting contingency plans and mitigating measures.

The Good Law Project has instructed Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Adam Wagner and Dan Rosenberg of Simpson Millar all of whom will work at considerably below market rates.

Incarcerated

While the number of children attending school is far higher than in the last lockdown when just 5% of vulnerable children were attending school, it is a far cry from all children attending school, meaning that many children – some known to children’s services and others who aren’t – are at home experiencing severe neglect and abuse. These children will be hungry, dirty and not having any of their needs met, emotionally or otherwise, and mainly left to fend for themselves. Others will be left to the mercies of abusive parents or relatives, incarcerated at home and left without access to any sort of help.

It is for this reason that multi-disciplinary working has never been so crucial. Schools are busy. They are teaching the increasing numbers of children attending schools in the classroom while presenting online learning for those children at home, along with marking, preparation and usual meetings all in the context of social distancing and increased preventative measures due to the new strain of COVID-19.

Therefore, while teachers are ideally placed to recognise signs of abuse, they cannot be asked to do that alone. Social workers working alongside teachers on site can offer immediate advice, support, referrals and signposting. They are the experts in this arena and their expertise is required in schools more than ever before.

Mark Willis concluded: “We need to see social workers in schools working alongside education staff and offering their expertise and knowledge as a matter of urgency. Without this, the many children who have faced abuse and neglect during lockdown will remain in dangerous situations and experiencing harm for many months to come and, as a result, experience a lifetime of trauma.”



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