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A balance of risk versus benefit

“Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” It couldn’t be simpler, could it? Although the guidance on social distancing concerns everyone in the UK, there seems to be a growing concern among politicians and in the media about the many ‘vulnerable’ children we are told are not in school. Who are these children? And why should they be in school when everyone else has been told to stay home?

The government says that ‘vulnerable children’ are those with a social worker, those with an education health and care plan (EHCP) or children assessed as otherwise vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities. The growing concern appears to be because - as at 17 April – only an estimated 5% were reported to be in school. Children can be vulnerable for many different reasons with many different consequences and their vulnerability fluctuates according to their own circumstances and the context around them. Indeed, there are families, never previously considered ‘vulnerable’, where both parents have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic; who knows what pressures this will place upon their family and how this will impact on children? This nuance is currently missing from the national debate, which concerns me.

Children with a social worker include children who have a child in need plan, a child protection plan or who are a looked-after child. Looked after children are in our care because they were unable to live at home safely with their birth families. Now their homes, whether in foster care or residential care, should always be a place of safety. For a small proportion of these children, where placement disruption is a risk unless child and carer have some time away from each other, for example, school may be the welcome break that everyone needs.

A ‘child in need’ is unlikely to achieve a reasonable standard of health and development without the provision of additional services. This is not at all the same as saying this is a child who is unsafe to be at home, but again the option of attending school can offer much needed space. Government guidance gives us scope to find the right balance so that the children who need to be in school can be and those who are better off at home can remain there safely. In every case it’s a complex calculation of risk versus benefit, and ultimately a decision that parents have to take for their own child.

Consider children with an EHCP. These are children with a special educational need. For a minority of children with an EHCP, their care needs are so complex and demanding that their parents cannot safely provide the round-the-clock care required, so attendance at school helps to counterbalance the demands of caring and some of these families will definitely want their children to be in school at this time. For lots of other children with an EHCP, home is where their parents want them to be, particularly if they have complex medical conditions that make them clinically vulnerable to the virus.

After the Easter break, the latest attendance data from 24 April, showed the estimated attendance of vulnerable children had risen to 10% of the estimated number of those labelled vulnerable. Some data shows that in many local areas, the number is much higher; in some places up to 27% of vulnerable children are attending school. So why are politicians and pundits so concerned?

I’ll admit that some DCSs, including me, may have brought this problem on ourselves. As the number of people infected with coronavirus started to rise, and as school closures seemed more and more likely, we voiced concerns about children who may be at risk of harm and who - if a ‘lockdown’ were to be implemented - were likely to become invisible to the school staff who would otherwise refer them for support.

However, schools’ important safeguarding role doesn’t arise because children are seen, it arises because children and school staff build relationships, over time and may recognise the subtle differences that indicate something is wrong at home, and sometimes - when trusting relationships are strong enough - children may directly disclose abuse or neglect. But schools are now closed to the majority of pupils and school staff are working largely from home to deliver education remotely. This is especially true where schools are organised as hubs and the whole environment is now unfamiliar to the child. It means that the strange new arrangements may inhibit the confidence-sharing enjoyed in more familiar times.

Worrying about unverified school attendance figures is starting from the wrong end of the problem, they tell us nothing at all about what schools are doing, and most schools are doing plenty. They are educating children (including vulnerable children) at home, they are caring for children (including vulnerable children) on school sites and they are maintaining contact with their absent pupils, especially vulnerable children, in countless ways. Social workers know which of the children they work with should be in school; parents know which of their children with an EHCP they need additional support to care for; and schools know which other children they are worried about. All are taking action to determine what is best for these children in these unique circumstances. Sometimes that’s staying at home and sometimes that’s attending school. Let’s focus our attention and effort on those children we agree should be in school, but aren’t.

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