Keeping children safe in education: managing concerns in the COVID-19 era

At a time when vulnerable children are more at risk, schools play a critical role in keeping them safe, says Andy Pyper, safeguarding manager at Entrust

Although the exact extent of its impact is yet to be seen, reports are suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown may have had a devastating and long-lasting impact on many of the UK’s most vulnerable children – and may have led to an increase in the number of children in vulnerable situations.

Even in ‘normal’ times, school is a much safer place than home for many young people in the UK. Exact numbers are not easy to calculate, but a 2017 Children’s Commissioner report estimated that:

  • 670,000 children in England are classed as having family-related vulnerabilities
  • 31,193 are involved in the criminal justice system
  • 407,924 are in the troubled families programme
  • 46,053 between the ages of 10 and 18 are members of a gang

Some of the most common situations for vulnerable young people in the UK include domestic abuse, neglect, exposure to criminal and sexual exploitation and county lines drug trafficking.

Worryingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the NSPCC has indicated that the pressure of coronavirus on family finances, health and wellbeing could have made many children’s home lives much worse. In a recent briefing paper, Isolated and struggling: Social isolation and the risk of child maltreatment, in lockdown and beyond, it noted that “the conditions created by COVID-19 have increased the likelihood that both stressors and vulnerability will increase, at a time when the protective services we normally rely on have been weakened, and families have reduced social support and connections to rely on”.

The NSPCC has already seen how this has played out, with reports of physical abuse having risen by 53% during lockdown earlier this year.

‘Back to school’ and the safeguarding challenge

This means that safeguarding in schools – especially when it comes to monitoring and managing concerns – is more important than ever before. But in these testing times it comes with even more difficulties than usual.

While schools closed their doors during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, in April and over the summer, more children were exposed to greater risk – but with less oversight and support from teachers and other adults in school.

And, even now that schools are back, challenges persist.

A great deal will have changed since teachers last saw many of their students – and issues that may have gone undetected during lockdown are likely to start to come to light, whether that’s due to greater visibility of concerning behaviour or children opening up to an adult they trust. And students who were no or low risk before lockdown may now be a cause for concern.

Alongside this, as schools face the possibility of further closures and quarantines, the challenges that come with managing safeguarding concerns remotely are pertinent once again.

Approaching the management of concerns in the new context

There are several signs that teachers and other adults in schools can look out for when assessing the vulnerability of a child in their care. These are often specific to certain types of abuse or exploitation, and the earlier they can be identified, the better.

For example, when it comes to gang-related drug trafficking via county lines, there may be small signs from the very beginning of a child’s exploitation – including unexplained absences or lateness, unexplained money in their possession or use of language that they haven’t previously used. And, with emerging evidence suggesting that heightened awareness of trafficking and the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns are causing gangs to recruit vulnerable children locally, early identification is vitally important.

Crucially, schools need to have a joined-up system for managing safeguarding concerns in place in order to link signs and understand how they might relate to a bigger problem.

Tools like MyConcern – Entrust’s recommended safeguarding software designed to support the reporting, managing and reporting of concerns – can help to give schools a holistic view of a pupil and join the dots more easily. It also enables designated safeguarding leads to review issues raised by a number of adults to create a complete picture of a child and how vulnerable they may be.

Entrust can also provide staff with professional development and guidance to help them to spot, log and deal with safeguarding issues appropriately, and plan for any future periods of remote learning.

Providing support to vulnerable children

In the current context – with staff facing increased time pressures and potentially fewer touch points with students, as some work remotely – working out what support students need is no mean feat. Especially as employment uncertainty, reduced hours and redundancy will mean that many families will face changing circumstances over the coming months.

It’s vital that schools find ways to not only consistently monitor and report concerns, but also to have a robust safeguarding strategy in place to ensure that all children are getting the right support.

Entrust’s Online Free School Meals Eligibility Checking can help schools get a better picture of a child’s circumstances and identify what support might be required. Specifically, this tool helps schools to check children’s eligibility for free school meals and detects changes in their circumstances while boosting the school’s Pupil Premium. Once families are signed up, the system regularly checks their eligibility and informs schools if their circumstances change, ensuring that no child misses out on a free school meal if they’re eligible for one.

A vital role

At a time when vulnerable children are more at risk, and more children are at risk of becoming vulnerable, schools play a critical role in keeping them safe.

Given current ways of working, this isn’t easy – but getting the right infrastructure and services in place can help schools and their safeguarding leads to make certain that they are doing all they can to protect pupils.

Entrust is a trusted partner with the expertise and tools to make sure schools are doing all they can for their pupils. To find out more about how we can help your school to manage safeguarding processes, visit our website or get in touch with our team of experts.

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