Gareth Copeland: 5 minute read

The hidden cost of returning to school

Children will soon be heading back to the classroom. This is against a backdrop of exam controversy, six months away from teaching and months’ isolation. It will reveal a raft of changes in each child, ranging from anxiety to being behind in subject knowledge and what most are now worried about, abuse. With the return to school looming in the distance, teachers, social workers and healthcare professionals are bracing themselves for what could be found.

'Alison Alexander, the CEO of children’s services support organisation Cornerstone, said referrals have dropped in many parts of the UK by 50pc, and by up to 75pc in some places.'
Manchester Evening News

If we take the area of Greater Manchester as an example, then we can see how this 50% figure looks in terms of numbers. Before March 2020, the average number of cases, in terms of children’s referrals to social services was 624 per week. Taking this figure and multiplying it by 20 (the number of weeks since lockdown started in March) and we see a total of 12,480 children.

Half of this figure would be 6,240 and 75% would be 9,360. These figures are based on one area of the United Kingdom and if we look at the union as a whole then the figure will be a lot higher. This is the hidden cost of the lockdown and whilst we are focusing on children here, the impact will have stretched further if we look at domestic abuse and neglect.

The reduction has occurred through children not attending school or socialising. Typically, a responsible adult will have their suspicions and create the referral, but with the move to being behind closed doors, these children have fallen through the net. Those who have already been known to the system have been contacted but those who would have been referred by a teacher or health worker are slipping through the net.

Children are inherently vulnerable and being trapped behind closed doors with no release must have been unbearable for some. Without an adult to spot what is happening and raise the alarm for them, there have been left behind. Now, with the welcome release of school on the horizon for these children, authorities are bracing themselves for an influx of referrals.

Remaining hidden

Children are vulnerable. They rely on their parents to know what is best for them and to guide them in this world. As adults we can recognise right from wrong and abuse when we see it, children are not so lucky.

“…children don’t know how to speak up. These coercive experiences are scary, embarrassing… they think, who are you going to tell? And if that’s your experience from someone who’s meant to love you and take care of you, why would you go to another adult about what happened?”
Alison Alexander, CEO of Cornerstone

With everything that is happening around them, you cannot blame a child for staying quiet. They know they will need to go back to the house and there is no escape. With such coercive behaviour at home, it will have been difficult for these vulnerable children to be referred, as they once were.

The system needs to change

The world has changed in 2020. Working from home went from a thought at the back of the mind to daily reality. Schools turned from education establishments to frontline workers attempting to stem the knowledge drain of children in their care. It has been a year of great disruption and one in which we will take plenty of lessons from.

Changes have been made at a rapid pace to take into account the changing daily situation. This has helped to reduce red tape and ensure that those who are vulnerable are protected. The same is now being called for when it comes to children’s social care. Alison Alexander, the CEO of children’s services support organisation Cornerstone has suggested that we should return to an era of ‘nosey neighbours’, to counter the individualistic society which is prevalent in 2020.

This seems like a step in the right direction but needs to be streamlined, to prevent an overabundance of referrals. What we mean here is that by opening the doors for ‘nosey neighbours’ to report vulnerable children, it could create a ‘better safe than sorry mentality’. This would be where neighbours would refer everything, even a raised argument for a single night. The reality of this potential shift would be that children’s services would not have the resources to investigate every referral of this manner.

It takes a cohesive society to raise a child. From the parents to the school and the healthcare provider, alongside neighbours and friends. Trust across the board and a positive upbringing is what we are all aiming for with regards to children. What we need is a focus on society and generating community spirit. One in which referrals are encouraged by anyone close to the child in question, with a focus on all being here together, not alone. 

We are all in this together

The Covid-19 outbreak of 2020 will hopefully have shown us all that we are in this together. We are all a part of society and the sheer number of those who volunteered for the NHS was humbling. This was positive, alongside those who helped vulnerable neighbours to get shopping and medication. There is that desire for society and to make a difference, but for all this, there are thousands of children who have remained hidden.

We need to come together as a society in order to continue helping those who are vulnerable. Those who cannot speak up and those who have not been able to simply disconnect and head straight for the pub.

We would like to see the continued return to cohesive societies that look after each other. We would like to see the continued trend of technology being a valuable ally in the battle for efficiency and making the most of funding. We would love to see all of this tied together in order to protect those who are vulnerable.

To conclude

Schools are re-opening and there are challenges ahead. From catching children upon their learning to locating those who need a referral. It will be a challenge for teachers and there will most likely be a month of fluctuation for all. There is no blueprint for how to administer teaching on a day to day basis, let alone during a global pandemic. It will be run on trial and error.

Technology has shown itself to be invaluable and will still be required when children return to school. Not only will referrals need to be raised online and sent over to the local authority, but it will also be able to fill in the gaps once again if classes are quarantined. In a way, this is how society could raise concerns over vulnerable children that they have seen. They could be provided with a simple, easy to use form that could enable quick and easy referrals.

Regardless of how it is administered, of how schools return, what we know is that they should be prepared. As much as no-one wants to consider it, children have spent the last six months away, and some will have been the subject of abuse. This is the hidden lockdown and we need to ensure that these children are spotted as quickly as possible, being referred at the click of a button.