A “whole host of children have been lost to the pandemic” as schools remaining closed has meant vulnerable pupils have lost contact with authorities and social services, experts have warned.
As the Government is facing pressure to get children back into the classroom as quickly as possible, experts are warning that children being away from school is keeping them “hidden” from social services, with some more disadvantaged than others.
Psychiatrist Dr Bernadka Dubicka said: “It’s the hidden ones that worry me the most, the ones that I’m not seeing and the ones that nobody is seeing.”
The chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists told the PA news agency: “There’s a whole host of children that have been lost to this pandemic, perhaps who are being abused in the home or who are living in really traumatic circumstances that have just lost contact with their teachers and other sources of support.”
Her concerns were echoed by children’s charity the NSPCC, which believes there has been a drop in the number of children being referred on to social services in England by school professionals since the lockdown.
Policy and public affairs manager Abigail Gill said: “What we see through our Childline and helpline of an increased risk to children being in lockdown isn’t being borne out in them actually being able to access help through children’s social care.”
Referencing figures from the Local Government Association (LGA), Ms Gill added: “Earlier on in the pandemic in the first lockdown those referrals dropped by about a fifth. That for us as a charity talking about abuse and neglect is a real cause for concern.”
“The longer this goes on I think the deeper those issues are going to be,” she said.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to confirm this week there will be no return to school after the February half-term break, as ministers had hoped.
Pupils have been in and out of school for almost 12 months, but Dr Dubicka said the limited “return(s) to school has been a disaster for many families”, with children in some parts of the country more disadvantaged than others.
She explained: “In areas where there’s been a relatively low prevalence of the virus and schools could open and things were relatively normal, many of those children and young people will have done OK.
“Some schools seem to have managed it a lot better but in other schools children are being sent home repeatedly for two-week periods, being locked down at home unable to leave the house during the autumn term.”
She described the effects of repeated lockdowns and school closures as “not universal”, and said: “As always, it’s the most deprived and most vulnerable children and young people who have been affected the most.”
Dr Dubicka urged the Government to “get the right people around the table” to be planning for the short and long terms of children’s futures, as well as their mental health.
She added: “Children and young people have been completely neglected during this pandemic – they’ve always been the last to be thought about.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Supporting and protecting vulnerable families has been at the heart of our response throughout this pandemic which is why we have kept schools, nurseries and colleges open to vulnerable children including those with social workers.
“We are also placing social workers in schools to help spot the signs of abuse and neglect more quickly and work with teachers to support children at risk.
“We have given councils £4.6 billion to help them meet additional demands, invested in increased capacity at the NSPCC helpline, and our See, Hear, Respond charities’ partnership led by Barnardo’s is directly supporting thousands of vulnerable young people.”