Thousands of young people in England are falling through the gaps in the school and social care system amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.
Anne Longfield has warned that one in 25 teenagers were already slipping out of sight prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. A report sets out the risks affecting tens of thousands of young people including persistent absence from school, exclusions, alternative provision, dropping out of the school system in Year 11, or going missing from care.
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Even before the lockdown, 1 in 25 teenagers in England were falling through gaps in the school or social services systems. This puts them at increased risk of unemployment or of exploitation by gangs and organised criminals. This summer I am particularly worried that teenagers who have finished year 11, who have seen their apprenticeship collapse, or have simply lost their way through lockdown will simply fall off the radar. Teenagers in colleges have so far been left out of catch-up funding.”
The children already at risk could be joined by many more who struggle to adapt to a return to ‘normal’ after six months out of school. Unless these children are re-engaged in society, a whole generation of vulnerable teens could stay at risk of educational failure and unemployment, or crime or exploitation.
By September, schools will have been closed to most young people for half a year and children’s social care provision has also been restricted during the pandemic. The Children’s Commissioner is concerned that these teenagers, who were slipping through existing gaps in the system, will remain ‘invisible’ even after the lockdown restrictions ease.
These are children who are likely to have needs which schools struggle to meet but who often do not reach the threshold for social service involvement. At the same time, youth services which could connect with these young people have been cut by 60 per cent over the last 10 years.
The report analyses the data relating to 13-17-year-olds who were on the radar of schools and children’s social care in 2017/18. It finds that 480,000 of these children had some kind of additional need, such as special educational need or disability (SEND), Child in Need (CIN) referral/episode, a fixed or permanent exclusion, high levels of school absence, or dropping out of school in Year 11.
Around 100,000 young people were receiving high-cost statutory support such as being in care, being on a child protection plan, having an education care and health plan or being enrolled at a Pupil Referral Unit.
The Children’s Commissioner is particularly concerned about children who may not be getting the right level of help and may become removed from the systems intended to support them. These children are described as ‘falling through the gaps’ and includes children who:
- Have multiple Child In Need referrals during the year but do not end up on a CIN plan
- Have SEND and also multiple exclusions from school during the year
- Have a permanent exclusion but do not enter a PRU during the year
- Are in care and living in an unregulated placement
- Are in care and experience multiple placement changes during the year
- Have a permanent exclusion
- Have high levels of unauthorised absence
- Drop out of the school system in Year 11
- Miss at least an entire term of school in the previous two years
Are in care but go missing from their placement multiple times in a year
In 2017/18 around 81,000 teenagers in England met at least one of these criteria, and this includes 13,000 who met two or more criteria. On top of this, another 42,000 teenagers were not in education, employment or training.
In total there were 123,000 teens in England who were falling through gaps in mainstream provision and becoming invisible to services in 2017/18. This is 4 in every 100 teenagers aged 13-17 – around 1 in 25 teens.
The report calls on local authorities to work with schools and police to focus resources on these teenagers at risk of becoming ‘invisible’ to services or who have gone missing under lockdown.
These children are at risk of being drawn into criminal gangs and at very high risk of becoming NEET.
The Commissioner argues that ensuring they have a way of getting back into education, training or work is crucial for any economic recovery from Covid-19, and that many already vulnerable children who have been missing the structure that school brings will need extra support.
Anne Longfield urges the government, schools, local authorities, police forces and safeguarding partnerships to work together on a plan to identify, track, support and ultimately re-engage these children.
Furthermore, there should be summer schemes such as sports clubs and play schemes to provide young people with a range of safe, positive, structured activities to take part in, led by trusted adults and role models. In order for this to happen, the government must work with local areas to remove any barriers to delivering these schemes, the report says, calling on the government to advise schools to support these schemes from within their additional £650 million ‘catch up’ funding.
Anne Longfield said: “Many of these children, and I fear many thousands of other vulnerable teenagers, have had very little structure to their lives over the last six months. School was often a stretch for them, and I am concerned we are never going to get some of them back into education. If we do not act now, this could result in a lost generation of teens – dropping out of school, going under the radar, getting into trouble, and at risk of being groomed by gangs and criminals.
“We need to identify these children quickly and do whatever it takes over the summer to stabilise their lives and get them prepared for the structure of school again.
“We must not look back in five years at a generation of vulnerable teenagers who fell out of society and ended up drifting into crime and unemployment. They need extra help now as we emerge from lockdown,” she concluded.
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