For those who work with children, it was apparent just over a month ago when education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that schools would be closed that coronavirus was not the ‘great leveller’ that some had claimed.
“We were on the opposition benches shouting about vulnerable children,” Labour MP and newly appointed shadow domestic violence minister Jess Phillips says. “But everybody recognises that the schools need to be shut. So what needs to happen in that space is a proper strategy for risk reduction.”
Coronavirus, the lockdown measures, and impact on the economy, has increased the risks and disadvantages facing the most vulnerable and deprived children in the UK. Whether from a loss of family income, a lack of suitable education provisions at home, or the impact of isolation on mental health, online and physical safety, some children will inevitably come out worse from lockdown than others. “Isolation increases the risk for those that are being abused at home, both adults and children, there are no two ways about that,” says Phillips. “Coronavirus doesn’t make people abusive – it just increases the access.”
“Coronavirus has exposed all the cracks in terms of vulnerability, and really put a spotlight on needing to know where those kids are,” says Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England. “In terms of health, children are not at the greatest health risk in the population. But there is this cocktail of secondary risk that children are very [exposed to].”
The Children’s Commission estimates that in England there are 2.3 million children growing up with a vulnerable family background – around 829,000 of these children are ‘invisible’ to services. The fear is that in lockdown, the pressure of families spending so much time at home will intensify already difficult situations.
“We do think there are greater risks of domestic abuse and destructive parental behaviour, including issues around alcohol and drugs,” says Anna Edmundson, the NSPCC’s head of policy. The ‘line of sight’ from professional services to children has also been dramatically curtailed.
“The way we look after children has transformed overnight,” says Edmundson. “Many more are at home and behind closed doors, and don’t have the contact with the services that, in some cases, were in daily contact.”
The financial ramifications of the crisis have compounded the difficulties faced by families. Even before, seven million children in England lived in families with no savings. Now, more than one million have applied for Universal Credit since the crisis began.
Although the Government has given a £15 food voucher per week per child for families on free school meals, as The Children’s Society points out, there have been significant teething issues with the scheme. “And the problems families are facing are far bigger than food at the moment,” Dr Sam Royston, director of policy, says. “It’s part of it, but with incomes down, families are facing real financial problems across the board.” They are also particularly worried about families with no recourse to public funds, where parents are more likely to be in precarious or zero-hours contracts, and now cannot access any Government support.
The Children’s Commission find this loss of financial stability for families especially concerning during lockdown. “The police say that one of the reasons for the increase, they believe, in the number of calls about domestic abuse [since lockdown began] is family arguments about finances,” Longfield says.
Unsurprisingly then, most of the sector including Longfield were “relieved and pleased” that the Government kept schools open for vulnerable children, with schools able to define which children they defined as at-risk. However, Department for Education data released last week has shown that as little as 5% of ‘at risk’ children are attending school. Royston and The Children’s Society are “really concerned” about the safety of these children. “In many cases, school is often the safest place for them,” he explains.
Another major area of concern is the drop in referrals to child protection services, up to 50% in some areas – a situation Phillips calls the “reddest of red flags.” Anne Longfield says while that might appear to be positive, services responsible for making most of the referrals – teachers, police, GPs and health visitors – are now seeing less of children and families. “We have to find a way to ensure those kids just don’t become invisible during lockdown,” says Longfield. “There’s no reason at all to think that less children are in a vulnerable situation,” Royston adds.
For Longfield, the last few weeks have been the emergency period, with government, local authorities, education providers and other services rapidly trying to adjust. However, as we now move into a transitionary period, with uncertainty about when or how lockdown measures will be lifted, she is clear more needs to be done to get vulnerable children back into school.
“Government has to be clear in its messages to social workers and to parents, to teachers, that it is really important that those children get back in and that there is a clear expectation that they do,” Longfield explains. As children and families become frustrated at home, school is somewhere to get a positive input in this time, particularly with the high teacher-to-student ratio. “For children themselves, there is a real opportunity here… they’ll be able to catch up and get ahead and get that personal input from teachers that they never would have got before,” Longfield contends.
Where it is not possible for vulnerable children to come into school for health or other reasons, Longfield says there needs to be a “clear line of sight” to them, with regular, and if necessary face-to-face, contact with social workers. While in many localities, the most vulnerable families have still had home visits, the majority of children’s social care contact has been done via phone or video calls. This is something Longfield wants to change in this phase of lockdown. While social workers are being “rightly bold” in making assessments via camera, including asking for video tours of properties and to be shown the inside of fridges, “it will be a lot easier [for families] to hide some of those things that would be more difficult to hide in other circumstances”, says Longfield. “It’s very difficult to get that sense of the mood of the house through a screen.”
The provision of PPE will have to be a priority for social workers making home visits, along with updated guidance. However, Longfield has also put out a call for DBS checked individuals, such as furloughed youth workers, nursery workers, recently retired social workers, Scout and Guide leaders, to volunteer to provide social work support in this time. “We’ve seen there is a huge interest from the public in coming forward and volunteering for the NHS,” she explains. “So there is a real benefit there to having a wider range of workers making and maintaining contact, alongside and coordinated by social workers, to really bolster their ability to be able to support those kids and those families.”
Like adults currently struggling to cope in an uncertain and locked down world, children are experiencing increased anxiety and loneliness during the coronavirus crisis, separated from their friends and removed from schools and other professional support. At the end of last month, Childline reported seeing “unprecedented demand”, peaking on Wednesday 18 March – the day it was confirmed UK schools would shut.
Over half of the young people Childline spoke to that week about coronavirus were counselled for their mental and emotional health, with over 50 children reporting suicidal thoughts. The Children’s Society has also identified “children’s mental health and wellbeing, now and in the longer term” as one of their major concerns in the crisis. In particular, they are concerned about a lack of face-to-face mental health services, and patchy information from local authorities on how to access online or phone services.
Loneliness and ill mental health can make children especially vulnerable to grooming and online sexual abuse. An investigation by the NSPCC found that young people between 11 and 17 were twice as likely to be groomed online if they felt lonely, had poor mental health and a reliance on social media – with 9% of children in this category reporting having sent, received or being asked to send sexual messages to an adult, compared to 4% of children otherwise.
Anna Edmundson describes the coronavirus crisis as having created “a threefold perfect storm for abusers online”. Europol in March reported detecting “increased online activity by paedophiles seeking exploitation material” across member states, while children are spending more time online for school work and socialisation, and tech firms have fewer moderators combatting sexual abuse due to staffing pressures.
While praising the Home Office’s initial response, the NSPCC is calling for the Government to put more pressure on tech firms to provide “detailed assurances” that child protection is being prioritised and to disclose their data on ongoing child abuse referrals more regularly to enable “a real time assessment of the impact of the crisis”.
Longfield would also like to see heightened awareness among parents about the increased risks, and for social workers to be talking to families about the particular dangers for vulnerable children and those in chaotic homes.
There is also an increased risk for vulnerable teenagers being groomed online or exploited by criminal gangs as look to escape chaotic family homes, Longfield says, particularly as frustration at lockdown grows.
The coronavirus crisis could also worsen the educational attainment gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Research published by The Sutton Trust revealed that children in private schools were twice as likely to be taking part in online lessons every day than their state school counterparts. In the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers reported over a third of their students wouldn’t have adequate access to an electronic device for learning, and 12% said over a third wouldn’t have internet access; over 60,000 secondary school age children lack any form of internet connectivity, and 700,000 don’t have desktop, laptop or tablet at home at all.
When devices are in the home, these are often shared between family members, limiting a pupil’s access – along with a potential lack of privacy or quiet space in which to work. While the Government has now offered to provide laptops and 4G routers to year 10 students from the most deprived backgrounds, for The Children’s Commission and opposition parties, this is not going far enough.
As well as an improved and more accessible digital offering, The Children’s Commission would like to see a reintroduction of children most at risk of falling behind into school, with, for example, the 20% of each year group most in need being invited in by schools on different days each week. The proportion of each year invited in could be gradually increased as lockdown restrictions are eased. “Since the 1870s, it’s been a legal requirement to send your child to school. And that remains,” explains Longfield. “There does need to be a discussion with parents who can’t provide that learning environment at home.”
For other areas of concern, solutions may be more complex. According to the NSPCC, this situation has highlighted both the necessity of the Online Harms Bill progressing, and the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill recognising the specific circumstances that children are in. Jess Phillips wants to see an “end-to-end” cross-Government strategy for the victims of domestic abuse at this time.
“The reality is in week three, Priti Patel stood up and said she would increase capacity for phone lines. That should have happened in week one, and in week two we should have been looking at where they go,” Phillips says. “It’s useless increasing capacity for phone lines if you don’t have somewhere for these people to go.”
Phillips, who previously ran a women’s refuge and is an ardent campaigner against domestic abuse, thinks “there are genuine problems in the Home Office”. Working with domestic violence organisations at the beginning of lockdown, Phillips claims they sourced student, hotel and hostel accommodation to house victims during the crisis and negotiated “decent rates”. “We’ve begged the Government to put it in place, we’ve still not had a response… We did all the leg work, but the Government just haven’t come to the table.”
A Government spokesperson said: “our priority is to ensure refuge services keep running which is why the Government is working closely with organisations providing these vital services so those fleeing abuse can stay safe during the pandemic”, and that they were in “daily contact with charities, councils and other organisations” about the challenges they were facing.
The challenges facing the charity sector are also a concern, as children’s charities see their workload increase but their income down. The DfE has given an additional £1.6m to the NSPCC for its helpline for adults to raise concerns or seek advice about any children they are worried about. Some of the money will also be spent on an awareness campaign among the public – when referrals from usual services are down, “local communities, extended families, those who have contact with families in shop, postal workers” all have a vital role in reporting welfare concerns about children, explains Edmundson.
Longfield and Edmundson are in agreement however that the pressures currently facing services supporting children have been compounded by funding cuts over recent years, with some councils reporting that they already need £3bn of funding “just to stand still for children’s social care.”
“These services were already struggling before the crisis hit, and what it has shown is how precarious some of those arrangements have been in the past, and how precarious the lives of those children who carry those risks are,” explains Longfield.
“As we move out of lockdown and into what will be the new normal, my concern is to ensure that we learn from this, that we ensure there is a much more robust system, and the right support for kids and their families not just to catch up but stay there.”