Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) will suffer “lasting harm” as a result of the pandemic after support services were cut, Ofsted has warned.
The watchdog has called on all schools “to make the effort” to help such pupils attend class after their families struggled in lockdown.
Chief inspector Amanda Spielman warned that vulnerable children could lose out if they remain at home, and urged sector leaders to “watch out for bad practices creeping back in” which may compound risks.
Ofsted said it was concerning that a large proportion of pupils who have disappeared from school are those known to wider children’s services, because they have complex needs or attendance issues.
Ms Spielman said: “We don’t want to see any schools off-rolling the most difficult 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– we know that many SEND children and their parents particularly struggled during lockdown, as many services were withdrawn.”
Off-rolling is when a pupil is removed from a school’s register without being formally excluded, or a parent is encouraged to remove a child from a school when the removal is in the interests of the school.
In its annual report, Ofsted noted that SEND pupils lost access to additional support and their healthcare was “sharply reduced” during the lockdown.
It added that early identification and assessment suffered when children with SEND were out of school and they had less access to universal health services.
“For some children, this will cause lasting harm,” the report warned.
The “invisibility” of vulnerable children as a result of the pandemic should be a matter of national concern, Ms Spielman said.
School closures during the first national lockdown had a “dramatic impact” on the number of child protection referrals made to local authorities, she added.
The number has risen since schools reopened in September, but it has yet to return to previous levels, raising fears that abuse could be going undetected.
Councils are now more likely to be responding to a legacy of neglect after local safeguarding partners struggled to identify families in need of early support and protection, according to the report.
In normal times, around 20% of notifications to local authorities about children come from schools and early years settings, the inspectorate said.
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. But we know that relatively few actually attended. The rest stayed at home – some, inevitably, in harm’s way.”
Ofsted has also raised concerns about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on children’s outcomes, as well as their mental and physical health.
“While we do not yet have reliable evidence on ‘learning loss’ from the pandemic, it is likely that losses have been significant and will be reflected in widening attainment gaps,” the report said
There are also concerns about children being lonely and “therefore vulnerable to being groomed online”.
In its annual report, Ofsted painted an overall picture of improvement in the nation’s education system – with 86% of schools rated good or outstanding, along with 96% of nurseries and childminders.
But the watchdog found that in a minority of secondary schools, not all children were receiving a full and appropriate curriculum due to narrowing or misalignment.
Some inspectors found that a large number of pupils were being encouraged into courses (often for GCSE-equivalent qualifications) in which they were likely to earn high grades, but that were unlikely to help them progress in the pathways that best suited their talents and interests.
The report added that not all schools implement phonics well as staff are not supported, which can lead to “greater inconsistency and a lack of rigour” in the teaching of the subject.