Ofsted warns of risk to children ‘out of sight’ during pandemic

The 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.

Ms 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."

Read Amanda Spielman’s speech at the report launch.

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."

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.