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Ofsted: Vulnerable children ‘disappeared from sight’ in lockdown

There were significantly lower levels of referrals to children’s social care this year as vulnerable children at risk of harm or neglect “disappeared from teachers’ line of sight”, Ofsted’s annual report has said.

While the long-term effects of school closures are not yet known, the Ofsted report says that nearly all children in England have suffered as a result of restrictions and repeated lockdowns.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, said: “The education and social care sectors have been under tremendous strain since the pandemic began, and their staff have worked tirelessly in children’s interests. Their efforts deserve the highest praise.

“But the challenges of COVID-19 were so great that nearly every child has felt the impact of the resulting restrictions. Many young children’s progress and development faltered. Primary and secondary age children had their education and social lives disrupted from being in and out of school, away from their teachers and classmates. Children with SEND were unable to access the local support services they rely on. Further education students and apprentices saw their placements curtailed and job prospects limited. And children in care suffered as long-term issues in the system were exacerbated by staff shortages and isolation measures,” added Ms Spielman.

This time last year, the chief inspector of Ofsted warned that child abuse could be going undetected.

Amanda Spielman said that while that number of child protection referrals has risen since schools re-opened, it had yet to return to previous levels - raising fears that abuse could be going undetected.

This year, the annual report said the last year was a difficult period to be young, and a challenging time to be learning. The restrictions everyone had to live under brought hardships to many, but children and learners faced more than their fair share.

Ofsted found that, despite the best efforts and commitment of many thousands of parents, teachers, social workers and carers, the challenges of the pandemic were so great that nearly all children fell behind in their education, while some had a worse experience than others.

Key findings from the report included:

  • Children have developed physical and mental health problems as a result of the loss of education, disrupted routine, and lack of activities with loneliness, boredom and misery becoming endemic among young people.
  • Children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) had additional barriers to overcome as many were unable to access the support they rely on.
  • Some children in care felt less safe due to lockdown restrictions and broken relationships with staff which resulted in increased levels of anxiety and children self-harming.
  • Children were placed far from their families, or in unregistered homes, due to long-standing pressures on care placements increasing.
  • Criminal activity, gang violence and risk of CSE was exacerbated among some children attending alternative provision.
  • Younger children had their development hampered, with some even regressing in basic language and social skills.

The further education and skills sector was hit particularly hard. Many apprentices found themselves furloughed, or out of work altogether. The number of learners experiencing significant mental health problems or safeguarding concerns increased.

Prisoners seeking a second chance through education were unable to leave their cells to learn. Many lost motivation and floundered, especially those with learning difficulties, low levels of education or limited English.

The annual report states that for children to regain a sense of normality in their lives and their education, it is important the focus is not solely on bridging gaps in academic learning. Schools must offer children a rounded experience, including a rich curriculum, sport and physical activity, and extra-curricular opportunities that broaden their horizons.

Systematic improvements and reforms that must now be taken forward in education and children’s social care, include:

  • Addressing the long-standing lack of capacity in the care system, and variability in the support available for care leavers.
  • Improving the quality and consistency of teacher education to make sure that the new generation of teachers is set up for success in the classroom.
  • Reforming alternative provision and the loopholes removed that allow much of it to avoid regulation and oversight.
  • Strengthening legislation and Ofsted’s investigatory powers increased to allow inspectors to find and close illegal schools.
  • Supporting the most vulnerable children and those with SEND to return to pre-COVID levels. Partnerships working across local areas need to do better for the children who rely on them.

Amanda Spielman concluded: “In order to protect older generations, we asked the youngest generation to put their lives and education on hold. As we look forward to the year ahead, we must strive to redress the balance. Every generation gets one chance to enjoy its childhood and fulfil its potential. We must do all we can to make sure this generation is not denied its opportunity.”

ADCS Vice President Steve Crocker said: “The pandemic continues to impact on us all. While children’s experiences have varied, Covid-19 has disrupted education at all levels, it has increased risks in the home, impacted on children’s emotional, mental and physical health and on their wellbeing. Schools face ongoing disruption with the youngest age groups continuing to experience the highest rates of infection. For some children and families the pandemic has heightened pre-existing challenges from poverty and poor quality housing to access to safe places to play and food. This report clearly reinforces the urgent need for a comprehensive, cross cutting plan for childhood that extends beyond education catch up, taking a holistic vision of children, to ensure every child can thrive not just survive. The plan must consider the differential experiences across the country; some children have lost weeks of face to face teaching due to isolation periods, on top of national and local lockdowns. As the report states, some children with special educational needs and in the secure estate have had particularly poor experiences during this period which cannot be right, local authorities are facing systemic challenges in the delivery of our statutory duties which we hope are addressed by the national reviews into children’s social care and special educational needs.

“We share HMCI’s concerns about how time away from school and learning has impacted children’s educational progress, and also their mental health and emotional wellbeing. The government has invested in tutoring to help children ‘catch up’ on lost learning but this has been via one-off investments rather than as part of a multi-year, multi-level plan. Education recovery must focus on improving children’s broader outcomes, as well as academic. Similarly, the spending review provided some welcome additional funds for children and families however, we need a sustainable long term funding settlement for children’s services which enables us to keep children safe from the immediate risk of harm and to support children and families earlier before they reach crisis point. This is the only way we can ‘build back better’ and enable children to be in a position to learn and play their fullest part in our society,” he concluded.

Ofsted annual report 2021/21

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