Coronavirus: Government urged to raise volunteer force to identify at-risk children ‘falling through the cracks’ during lockdown

Exclusive: ‘We do not even know who every vulnerable child is,’ minister told after announcing education support plan

Vincent Wood
Monday 20 April 2020 15:57
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Education Secretary: I can't give you a date for when schools will re-open

The education secretary has been urged to do more to protect vulnerable pupils not currently recognised by the government, amid concerns some children will fall through the cracks as the coronavirus cripples the institutions that once supported them.

This weekend Gavin Williamson announced a raft of measures to support disadvantaged school children, including free laptops and internet access for care leavers, those with support workers and those due to sit their GCSEs who are in need of government help.

However, the minister has been urged to announce comprehensive support for school-age children who may lack access to the support the government has provided – amid warnings officials have no idea how many at-risk children there may be across the country.

Children could be at risk of harm, for example, through potential abuse and financial difficulty. The group also includes those in need of support from social services.

In a letter to Mr Williamson seen by The Independent, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Layla Moran called on the government to create a network of background-checked volunteers, including substitute teachers and retired education professionals, tasked with identifying and reaching out to at-risk children and their families.

“At the moment, we face two urgent problems”, the letter to the minister states. “Firstly, we do not even know who every vulnerable child is. Due to this pandemic in particular, many children will find themselves in this bracket for the first time, and they need urgent support. Secondly, we need to make sure the children we do know are vulnerable are receiving all the support we can provide as a society.

“My deep worry is that I am hearing multiple agencies raise concerns about this issue including schools, police forces, local authorities, youth services and many others. Yet, to date, the government has not announced an adequate or comprehensive package of measures to help vulnerable children during this pandemic.

“We know that children are prone to falling between the cracks in the system and I urge you today to take a clearer lead in ensuring no child becomes victim to circumstance at this difficult time”.

The call for former professionals to step forward comes after the NHS saw its ranks bolstered by retired doctors and nurses who returned to the front lines of the nation’s response to Covid-19.

But away from its impact on medical institutions, the coronavirus has continued to disrupt institutions normally relied on by those in need – including schools, which would normally offer networks of care and support, safeguarding measures to identify those at risk of abuse, and free meals to ease financial burdens on low income families.

In the weeks since the lockdown began, food banks have seen surges in demand while the number of universal credit claimants has skyrocketed.

In turn the Department for Education has earmarked funds for the NSPCC and Childline to support their emergency phone lines while calling on local councils to ensure no one is forced to leave care while the outbreak continues.

However Ms Moran, who is also calling for the Department of Education to lead an emergency taskforce for vulnerable children to identify best practices, and for an immediate uplift in child benefit of £150 per month to be considered, described the number of unidentified children at risk in the country as the “elephant in the room” when it came to the government’s response.

She told The Independent: “This is a national emergency, and the government needs to take action to reflect that. That’s why the education secretary must urgently announce comprehensive support for vulnerable children, as has already been done for the vulnerable in other parts of society.

“It’s important that we recruit the trained, experienced volunteers we know we need to work with schools and local government to find and help these vulnerable children, and that a national emergency vulnerable children taskforce is convened to coordinate the government’s approach.

“An uplift in child benefit to leave no family hungry or without money to cover the costs of their kids being at home, echoing what has already been done in France, is also urgently needed.

“I hope that the secretary of state takes affirmative action as a priority, and that the measures we have recommended are taken forward.”

A DfE spokesperson said:"Being in school can keep vulnerable children and young people safe and ease pressure on families, which is why we have enabled these children to continue attending despite schools being closed for other pupils.

“We thank schools and social workers for the work they are doing to keep vulnerable children safe and in school at this challenging time and we are supporting them to do this.”

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