@OfstedNews' Chief Inspector of Education and Children’s Social Care has warned that the invisibility of vulnerable children as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic should be a matter of national concern.

Launching this year’s Ofsted Annual Report, Amanda Spielman said that school closures during the first national lockdown had a ‘dramatic impact’ on the number of child protection referrals made to local authorities. And, while that number has risen since schools re-opened, it has yet to return to previous levels - raising fears that abuse could now be going undetected.

Amanda Spielman100x100Amanada Spielman said:

"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.

"When nurseries and schools closed in March, they were told to remain open to the most vulnerable – which of course meant those whose need was already identified. And even of these, we know that relatively few actually attended. The rest stayed at home – some, inevitably, in harm’s way."

Today’s report finds that the low numbers of children who attended school during the first national lockdown, combined with disruption to community health services, directly affected the ability of local safeguarding partners to identify children and families in need of early help and protection. As a result, local authorities are now more likely to be responding to a legacy of abuse and neglect. The Chief Inspector said it is imperative that all agencies now work together to prioritise the most urgent cases.

Throughout the autumn, Ofsted has been also reporting concerns about the number of children who have not returned to school after lockdown and who are now ostensibly being home-educated. A recent survey of local authorities suggests there are now more than 75,000 children being home schooled – a 38% increase since last year. However, from Ofsted’s visits to schools, it appears many parents have removed their children because of their fears about COVID, rather than a genuine desire to home-school.

It is also concerning that a significant proportion of children who have disappeared from school are those known to wider children’s services – for instance, because they have complex needs or previous attendance issues.

Amanda Spielman continued:

"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."

The Annual Report notes that pupils with special education needs and/or disabilities (SEND) have been particularly affected by the pandemic. Their access to additional support and healthcare was sharply reduced during the lockdown, and early identification and assessment suffered when they were not in school. For some children, this will cause lasting harm.

A year of two halves

This year’s Ofsted Annual Report presents a year of two very different halves: the ‘pre-COVID’ period from September 2019 to March 2020, and the ‘post-COVID’ period that followed. Routine inspections of education providers have been suspended since March, while Ofsted’s regulatory work in social care and early years has continued throughout the pandemic.

During the first lockdown, many hundreds of Ofsted staff were quickly deployed to other government departments, local authorities and other frontline services, to support the national response to the pandemic.

Today’s report reflects on the divided year with insights from each period, and highlights common themes across time and remits. The report also finds:

  • The judgement profile for schools remained broadly stable over the first year of the new inspection framework, with 86% rated good or outstanding.
  • Similarly, in early years, the profile of overall effectiveness judgements is largely unchanged since last year, with 96% of providers rated good or outstanding.
  • Phonics and early reading are the foundation for later success. But not all schools implement phonics well, because staff are insufficiently trained, and books are not matched to pupils’ knowledge.
  • In the further education and skills (FES) sector, apprenticeship providers were the least effective provider type, with 10% judged inadequate. Problems in the sector worsened during the pandemic, as 36% of apprentices were furloughed; 8% were made redundant; and 17% had their off-the-job learning suspended.
  • Area SEND inspections point to the lack of a coordinated response from education and health services in many local areas. This fractures the way professionals work together and means the quality of services and support falls short of what is expected.
  • The vast majority of children’s homes (80%) are currently good or outstanding. However, there are not enough suitable places to meet the needs of all vulnerable children in care, and this has been exacerbated by Covid-19. National and local action is needed to create a system that works for children.

While the COVID-19 crisis has clearly presented huge challenges for the education and social care sectors, Ofsted has also seen impressively resilient and creative responses from many providers.

Ms Spielman said:

"This has been an extraordinary year, in which education and children’s social care, like the rest of society, have been hugely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen heroic efforts made, and I would like to thank all our teachers, social workers, childminders, leaders and everyone working in education and children’s social care for going above and beyond in the most trying circumstances, and continuing to put children and young people first."

Kate Green MP 100x100Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“The Government’s response to the pandemic has left children out of sight and out of mind with extremely damaging consequences.

“Teachers and education providers have been working incredibly hard to support children throughout the pandemic but have not had the support they need from government.

“This report should be a wake-up call for the government to provide schools and education services with the support they need to remain open safely.”

KevinCourtney100x100Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:   

"Ofsted is right to acknowledge that their annual report comes in the midst of an extraordinary time for schools, pupils and staff. Schools are scrabbling to do the best they possibly can for their pupils, with too little money and insufficient support and guidance from government. Other services that support children and young people are also struggling, leaving schools to provide much more than education to pupils and families.  

"We all know that children are better off in school, both because they learn better and because of the care that schools provide, but the lack of resources and space to provide for social distancing mean too many schools are having to send pupils home because of positive cases in schools or because they do not have enough staff.  

"Teacher and leader workload has gone through the roof during this pandemic. While much of this has been unavoidable, in order to make schools as Covid-secure as possible, too many teachers are also under pressure to prepare for the return of Ofsted inspections. And Ofsted is misguided in its confidence in returning to using the Education Inspection Framework when full inspections restart, failing to acknowledge that the EIF has had a devastating impact on workload, particularly on primary schools. 

"The best thing Ofsted could do today would be to announce that their routine inspections will not begin again this academic year. 

"In matters of curriculum, Ofsted tells government only what it wants to know. Those who work in schools have long pointed to the damage being done by the government's dogmatic preference for one model of teaching reading, based on synthetic phonics. Research published last week by UCL suggested that most teachers think new phonics tests for Year 2 pupils are a waste of children's time. Such voices are not heard in this report. It is remarkable, also, that in a year when many schools have been passionately engaged with issues of racism, social justice and equality, Ms Spielman can find no space for them in her report." 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, which represents leaders in the majority of schools, said:

“We are pleased Ofsted has stepped up to highlight the unsustainable pressure schools are under. NAHT has been alerting the government to this intolerable strain for some weeks. It is to be hoped that the Chief Inspector’s view will now persuade the government that it needs to bring immediate relief to an overburdened system.

“In short, Ofsted’s view is that the government expects too much of schools and offers them too little support. We agree.

“A significant step, which will bring some relief to school leaders, is the Chief Inspector’s comment that she does not intend to return to routine inspection in January. This is something that NAHT has consistently called for.

“Ofsted reports a school system that is performing very well. The vast majority of schools are rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. And the Chief Inspector was at pains to say that schools are doing far more than they are often given credit  for. But it also reveals the intolerable strain that system is under and which the challenges of Covid have only highlighted and exacerbated.

“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 their 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.

“By the time the next Ofsted Annual Report is published – and we are hopefully through the worst of Covid – it would be unforgivable if the government had allowed these problems to continue unaddressed now they’ve been so sharply exposed.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“Thanks to the professionalism of staff in schools, nurseries, colleges and children’s homes, this report shows that the standard of education and support that children and young people receive has remained high. 

“The safety and wellbeing of the most vulnerable children has always been our focus, which is why we kept nurseries, schools and colleges open for those children throughout the pandemic. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the teachers and support workers who have gone above and beyond to support vulnerable children since national restrictions were first introduced.  

“It remains a national priority to keep full-time education open for all. We have allocated £1 billion to schools to supports all children to catch up on lost learning and are offering at least two years’ targeted tuition through the National Tutoring Programme to those who need it most.”

Unregistered schools

  • Unregistered schools are unlawful and present a risk to children. They often do not teach a balanced and informative curriculum and unregistered schools can expose pupils to dangerous and extreme influences.
  • The Department remains committed to ensuring that anyone found to be running an unregistered school faces the full force of the law and strengthening Ofsted’s powers to make sure they can shut down illegal schools.

Quality of apprenticeships

  • The Secretary of State has been clear that boosting further education is at the heart of his vision for a world class education system.
  • We are investing significantly to level up skills and opportunity across the country. In addition to our £3 billion National Skills fund, we have announced a £400m increase to 16 to 19 funding for 2020-2021, creating longer, higher-quality technical apprenticeships.
  • We are continuing to look at how the apprenticeship programme can best support the changing needs of businesses so more people can get ahead and all employers can benefit.

Attainment gap

  • While the attainment gap narrowed by 9% between 2011 and 2019, many children have had their education disrupted by coronavirus, and we cannot let them lose out.
  • Schools are putting remote education in place for pupils self-isolating and our £1 billion Covid catch up package will tackle the impact of lost teaching time as a result of the pandemic, including a £650 million catch up premium to help schools support all pupils and the £350 million National Tutoring Programme for disadvantaged students.
  • Schools and FE providers have been working extremely hard to develop remote education contingency plans. This is testament to their commitment to ensuring any missed learning is recovered and that we prevent the attainment gap from widening further.

Mental health support

  • Our Wellbeing for Education Return programme is supporting staff in schools and colleges to respond to the additional pressures some children and young people may be feeling as a direct result of the pandemic, as well as to any emotional response they or their teachers may still be experiencing from bereavement, stress, trauma or anxiety over the past months.
  • Our mental health support builds on the transformation of services through the NHS Long Term Plan, backed by an extra £2.3 billion investment in mental health per year.
  • The Department for Education is providing £1.6 million to expand and promote the NSPCC’s helpline, offering advice and support on how to raise concerns about children at risk during the coronavirus outbreak.

SEND provision

  • The safety and wellbeing of the most vulnerable children has always been a priority. That’s why we kept nurseries, schools and colleges open to those with Education, Health and Care Plans throughout the pandemic, where it was safe to do so, and provided clear guidance on who was eligible to attend.
  • We have supported local authorities, education providers and health services to respond to the challenges effectively, providing local authorities £3.7 billion to meet additional demands including within children’s services. We’re also increasing high needs funding for those with the most complex Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) by £780 million this year and a further £730 million next year, to help provide the support that parents rightly expect for their children.
  • Reforms to the SEND system in 2014 introduced vital support for children, young people and their families. Our current cross-government SEND review that is currently underway is looking at ways we can continue to ensure that this support is consistent, high quality, and integrated across education, health and care.

Ofsted’s programme of interim visits this term is giving further insights into the impact of COVID-19, and a third set of reports will be published later in December.

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