Ofsted warning over 'out-of-sight' children as underfunded system strains to cope

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Years of underfunding for schools and local authorities is now coming home to roost as the system struggles to keep track of thousands of children who have disappeared from sight during the pandemic.

School leaders have warned about the impact of on-going funding issues in response to Ofsted’s annual report this week, which raised fears about the on-going risks facing these “out of sight” children.

In the report, chief inspector Amanda Spielman says that the first national lockdown had seen a “dramatic impact” on the number of child protection referrals being made by schools – a number which has still yet to return to pre-pandemic levels (schools normally account for one in five notifications to local authorities).

The report states: “The low numbers of children in school during the first national lockdown therefore directly affected the ability of local safeguarding partners to identify neglect and harm. Combined with disruption to community health services, it became more difficult to identify children’s and families’ need for early help and protection. Instead, local authorities are more likely now to be responding to a legacy of abuse and neglect.”

INSPECTION UPDATE: Ofsted delays return of graded inspections until summer term 2021. Read more here.

Ms Spielman has called on all agencies to work together to prioritise the most urgent cases, highlighting particularly vulnerable children such as young carers, disabled children, care-leavers, and those with SEND.

There is further concern from Ofsted at the number of children being electively home-educated this term. SecEd reported last week on research suggesting that more than 75,000 students are being electively home-educated this term, a dramatic increase on 2019 levels.

A quarter of this number – about 19,500 – have become electively home-educated since September 1, with the most common reason cited by parents or carers being health concerns related to Covid-19. And 14 per cent of those being home-educated – more than 10,000 – are children already known to social care or wider children’s services (ADCS, 2020).

Drawing on Ofsted’s school inspections this term, Ms Spielman warns that many parents have removed their children because of fears about Covid-19 rather than through a genuine desire to home-school.

Ms 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: “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.”

Responding to the report this week, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and Local Government Association (LGA) all pointed to years of underfunding that has now affected the system’s ability to cope.

Local authorities have been hit hard since 2010 and the government’s austerity agenda. The LGA has previously estimated that authorities will face an overall funding gap of £8bn by 2025 and, last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that spending on services in England had fallen by 21 per cent between 2009/10 and 2017/18.

Among the cuts, £1.7bn has been taken from the Early Intervention Grant given to local authorities, which in 2018/19 was down to £1.1bn (from £2.8bn in 2010).

In its recent Spending Review, the government announced an additional £300m of grant funding for adult and children’s social care. However, the LGA says this will not be enough.

Judith Blake, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said that Ofsted’s report highlights “the significant pressures that children’s services are under”.

She added: “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 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 £1.7bn removed from the Early Intervention Grant should be reinstated.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “Schools worked very hard to reach out to families with vulnerable children and bring these pupils into the emergency provision in schools during the first national lockdown.

“But it was an incredibly difficult task to persuade many of these families to send in children at the height of the pandemic.

“Amanda Spielman is highlighting an important issue, and we agree with the need for all agencies to work together, but it would help a great deal if schools and local authorities had not been cut to the bone by years of government underfunding.”

His counterpart at the NAHT, Paul Whiteman, added: “Sadly the last decade has seen the budgets of child support services slashed alongside those of schools, so there is less capacity than need. Ten years of government neglect has left vulnerable children and families on the edge – Covid has nudged many of them over.”

He added: “School leaders have done everything possible to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on children, particularly the most vulnerable. Our members have ensured that schools meals continued; run food banks; flagged concerns about individual children to the services that can help them; identified and helped newly vulnerable families; washed clothes; and taken educational materials direct to families without adequate online access.

“It’s important to note that the main criticisms Ofsted levels in its report are really aimed at government, not at individual schools. Schools respond to the way government steers them – they are doing the best they can with the limited support the government gives them. It would be wrong to blame them for the negative consequences of failing government support.

“It should now be perfectly clear to government, if it wasn’t already, that more now needs to be done to improve things for the young people hit hardest by Covid.

“Of course additional investment is essential, but that alone will not do the job. This is about rebuilding the sources of support that these vulnerable children and families rely on: social care, health, youth services, and those in education – all need to be properly funded and resourced so they can work together effectively.”

Elsewhere, the report also confirmed that the vast majority of schools continue to be considered by inspectors as “good” or “outstanding”. In total, 86 per cent of England’s 22,000 or so schools fall into these two inspection categories.

One in five schools (19 per cent) are judged outstanding, 67 per cent as good, 10 per cent as requires improvement and four per cent as inadequate.

At mainstream primary level, this breaks down as outstanding (17 per cent), good (71 per cent), requires improvement (nine per cent), inadequate (three per cent).

At mainstream secondary level, this breaks down as outstanding (20 per cent), good (56 per cent), requires improvement (16 per cent), inadequate (eight per cent).


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