Existing vulnerabilities and learning gaps have been exacerbated by the pandemic to such an extent that they are unlikely to be solved by a quick “catch-up” initiative, the Local Government Association warns today (25 Mar) in a new report, “Better connected: How local education and children’s services in England have responded to the coronavirus pandemic“.
The report, commissioned by the LGA, which represents councils in England and Wales, shows that education inequalities have mushroomed during COVID-19 lockdowns, with potential gaps in learning greater for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and other vulnerabilities.
The report, Better connected: How local education and children’s services in England have responded to the coronavirus pandemic, highlights how the pandemic has led leaders across education and children’s services to gain a more sophisticated and shared understanding of vulnerability and hardship. This has fostered stronger information sharing and joint working to support vulnerable families, and in some cases, exposed levels of deprivation and hardship that were previously hidden to settings, schools and services.
The report says schools and councils have seen increasing levels of financial hardship and poverty in families through increased eligibility for free school meals, and higher levels of demand for support from early help services, including from those “off the radar” and more self-referrals.
Other concerning issues highlighted, include:
- A backlog of demand for statutory children’s social care concentrated into much shorter timeframes after all pupils returned to settings and schools, with a slowdown in family courts leading to more children remaining in care for longer periods. Some councils reported a fourfold increase in families requiring support.
- A greater complexity of needs of children entering the care system, often related to county lines, substance abuse and increased mental health needs.
- Extreme fatigue and risk of burnout among local leaders, and a strain on local resources amid the relentless nature of decision-making, changing demands, staff sickness, reduced capacity and increased responsibilities.
- Significant pressures on budgets as a direct result of the pandemic – due to increased financial hardship, higher expenditure on items such as IT, supply staff, cleaning and manage test-and-trace, and increased costs to children’s social care. Several schools had to set deficit budgets.
- Although schools and councils recognised the pressures that the Government was under in responding to rapidly-changing circumstances and unprecedented challenges, and appreciated opportunities for two-way dialogue, they described a strained relationship between central and local government, with plans being developed unilaterally and without the usual consultation and testing with councils.
- The role of the early years sector as a provider of early education underpinning crucial child development rather than as childcare support for working parents, had not been fully appreciated in national policy-making.
The report stresses that local education and children’s services will only genuinely “build back better” if a long-term strategy is established which provides intensive, holistic, joined-up support for families at risk and those who are potentially vulnerable. It says this needs to be delivered in a pro-active and preventative way, supported by dedicated long-term funding for early intervention focused on the most vulnerable communities and the most disadvantaged pupils.
It also say there needs to be a re-casting of the partnership between central and local government, based on mutual trust and genuine, two-way communication to share, test and develop a consistent national policy framework, both now and in a post-pandemic future.
Councils, acting as local convenors, can bring schools, further education, health, children’s social services and voluntary and private sector businesses together to implement education recovery and are ideally placed to undertake this role locally. Recovery must include even the youngest children.
Furthermore, councils and school leaders strongly believe that the pandemic has necessitated a rapid expansion of virtual working that should form part of the toolkit for education and children’s services in future.
Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said:
“Those working in children’s services, in early years settings and in schools, have done an incredible job during the pandemic to make sure children are safe, are still receiving an education and can access the help they need wherever possible.
“However, the impacts of COVID-19 will be with us for years to come. They will show up in economic hardship, mental health issues, attainment gaps and more, and it will be up to councils, schools and their partners to support children and their families to navigate these challenges.
“A quick “catch-up” initiative does not do justice to what is needed to ensure the best outcomes for all children and young people.
“Instead, we need to tackle head-on the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. This requires a long-term strategy and funding to target the most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils; adopting more holistic working practices which have flourished during the pandemic; and realigning communications between central and local government to help develop and establish better education and support policies that put children at the centre of our recovery.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:
“As this report points out, the Coronavirus pandemic has had a greater impact on some children than others. The challenge of recovery is not an equal one.
“Disadvantage and attainment gaps existed before the pandemic, and it is those children schools were most worried about before that are in greatest need of support now. Covid has both highlighted and exacerbated the huge problem of poverty and inequality in our country.
“Children are returning to school needing not just academic help, but a wide range of pastoral, mental health and wellbeing support too.
“Unfortunately a simple return to ‘normal’ isn’t going to solve things, and it isn’t going to be a quick job. It will take a considerable long-term investment of time, money, energy and resources, which the government must recognise and provide.
“And while education recovery can and must be led by education experts, the issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.
“Poverty and disadvantage, poor wellbeing, SEND, discrimination and inequality are the fundamental issues creating disadvantage. These must be addressed by government if we are to make a real difference in the future.
“This will require the support of well-integrated and well-funded services across the whole of a child’s life. Sadly, these services have been seriously damaged by a decade of austerity.
“Schools cannot pick up the pieces alone. Inequality will remain entrenched in the UK unless the government takes urgent action and prioritises all the services needed to help those children that most need it.”