Ofsted has raised concerns that child abuse could be going undetected in its annual report published today.
Reiterating fears previously raised in the inspectorate’s second report looking at the effects of COVID-19 on education and social care, the chief inspector of Ofsted Amanda Spielman said that while that number of child protection referrals has risen since schools re-opened, it has yet to return to previous levels - raising fears that abuse could now be going undetected.
Ms 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.
In Ofsted’s second report looking at the effects Of COVID-19 on education and social care, Amanda Spielman highlighted that children who have been among the worst impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions have regressed in terms of their learning and basic skills.
Young children who experienced less time with parents and other children, have lapsed back into nappies, forgotten how to eat with a knife and fork, or lost their early progress in numbers and words. Many older children were lacking stamina in reading and writing, lost physical fitness and others are showing signs of mental distress, manifesting in an increase in eating disorders and self-harm.
However, the inspectorate also rang alarm bells in that report about the children who were out of sight during the closure of schools. Referrals to social care teams have fallen and have not returned to more typical levels since schools have re-opened as anticipated which raises concerns that neglect, exploitation or abuse is going undetected.
Its annual report highlights the low numbers of children who attended school during the first national lockdown, and states that this combined with disruption to community health services, directly affected the ability of local safeguarding partners to identify children and families in need of early help and protection. As a result, local authorities are now more likely to be responding to a legacy of abuse and neglect. The chief inspector said it is imperative that all agencies now work together to prioritise the most urgent cases.
WillisPalmer launched our Children’s Charter in September calling for schools and children’s services to be funded and resourced to deal with the potential influx of referrals after many children had spent six months out of education. One half term in, we revisited the issue and found that referrals had not risen to the predicted levels.
This could be for a number of reasons including the stigma that comes with abuse, fear, having new/different peer groups in new class setting from when lockdown restrictions began in March 2020 and a new teacher where a trusted relationship has not yet been forged and who may not recognise changes in behaviour as they would not have taught the same pupils pre-lockdown.
Ofsted has been reporting concerns throughout the autumn about the number of children who have not returned to school after lockdown and who are now being home-educated. A recent survey of local authorities suggests there are now more than 75,000 children being home schooled – a 38% increase since last year. However, from Ofsted’s visits to schools, it appears many parents have removed their children because of their fears about COVID, rather than a genuine desire to home-school.
The inspectorate is also concerned that a significant proportion of children who have disappeared from school are those known to wider children’s services – for instance, because they have complex needs or previous attendance issues.
Amanda Spielman said: “Almost all children, vulnerable or otherwise, are missing out on a lot when they aren’t at school. Some will have a great experience, but other families will find it harder than they thought, and their children could lose out as a result.
“We must be alive to these risks, and we must also watch out for bad practices creeping back in that could compound risk. We don’t want to see any schools off-rolling children; and we need all schools to make the effort to help children with SEND to attend – we know that many SEND children and their parents particularly struggled during lockdown, as many services were withdrawn,” she added.
The Annual Report notes that pupils with special education needs and/or disabilities (SEND) have been particularly affected by the pandemic. Their access to additional support and healthcare was sharply reduced during the lockdown, and early identification and assessment suffered when they were not in school. For some children, this will cause lasting harm.
In fact, the report points to area SEND inspections which highlight the lack of a coordinated response from education and health services in many local areas. This fractures the way professionals work together and means the quality of services and support falls short of what is expected.
The vast majority of children’s homes (80%) are currently good or outstanding. However, there are not enough suitable places to meet the needs of all vulnerable children in care, and this has been exacerbated by Covid-19. National and local action is needed to create a system that works for children.
While the COVID-19 crisis has clearly presented huge challenges for the education and social care sectors, Ofsted has also seen impressively resilient and creative responses from many providers, the report concludes.
Ms Spielman said: “This has been an extraordinary year, in which education and children’s social care, like the rest of society, have been hugely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen heroic efforts made, and I would like to thank all our teachers, social workers, childminders, leaders and everyone working in education and children’s social care for going above and beyond in the most trying circumstances, and continuing to put children and young people first.”
Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: "This report is extremely concerning and reinforces issues we have previously highlighted, including the significant pressures that children’s services are under.
“The pandemic has led to rising numbers of families facing exceptionally difficult circumstances and councils have worked tirelessly with schools to keep them open and children and their families safe and well, through online and virtual contact and resources, as well as high priority home visits.
“As the impact of the pandemic becomes clear, councils expect to see a significant rise in referrals to children’s social care and demand for wider children’s support services. It is essential that the right services can be there to support them and help them cope, to avoid families reaching crisis point.
“The extra funding for adult and children’s social care announced in the recent Spending Review is positive but will not on its own be enough to tackle the significant challenges facing children’s social care. Councils have been forced to scale back or cut universal and early help services altogether prior to the pandemic due to increasing demand for urgent child protection work alongside long-term funding reductions.
“Significant additional funding for children’s social care will be needed if we are to provide the support children, young people and their families need, when they need it. This includes early help funding to avoid families reaching crisis point, and sufficient funding for those children and families who need more intensive child protection responses. As a starting point, the £1.7 billion removed from the Early Intervention Grant since 2010 should be reinstated," she concluded.
Ofsted Annual Report 2019/20: education, children’s services and skills