Headteachers have spoken of pupils waiting for six years to be removed from families in cases of serious abuse as they called for more support for children’s services.
At the NAHT school leaders’ annual conference in Telford, a motion was passed to lobby the Government “to address the crisis in recruitment to children’s services posts”.
There was also a call to carry out an urgent review of safeguarding in all councils, to make sure there are enough staff to investigate referrals from schools.
The NAHT said that all referrals needed to be addressed during a time-specific period, adding that “the recruitment crisis and impact of Covid-19 on staffing levels is placing children at serious risk of harm”.
Debra de Muschamp, head of Iris Learning Trust in the North East, told the conference: “When you pick up that phone and call it into your local team, it’s always a stressful and very significant act.
“When you have children at risk of neglect or harm in your school community, you worry and worry and play it over in your head.
“Have I done enough? Could I have done more? Have I missed something? How must it be to be in that child’s shoes?
“You call it in, a referral is made, the process is started and you know hopefully that this will lead to decisions being made with a variety of outcomes, including the heart-sinking decision, no further action, no thresholds met.”
She added that the “capability and capacity” to deal with an increasing level of complex cases post-pandemic was not there.
Headteacher Melanie Davies said: “We are told within our authority that early intervention is key, and I firmly believe that.
“We are still sitting waiting for two quite concerning referrals for families that don’t meet threshold, and we put in what’s called a tier-two referral in our authority, which is early intervention, team around family, all of those sorts of things.
“I put those referrals in on the 17th of January. I still wait to hear on the outcome of those referrals.
“In the meantime, we’re supporting those families in school and things are not improving. Is it going to take something serious to happen in those children’s lives for somebody to step up and support them?” she asked.
Maxine Stafford, from Sheffield, said her school had seen a “triple, threefold increase in the numbers of children in social care, with social care involvement.
“The latest family I’ve had, there are three children. It has taken me six years to get the children the support that they deserve.”
When the eldest child arrived at her foundation, she contacted social care, as it was a sexual abuse case.
“Every time they got a new social worker because of recruitment and retention, we went back to the beginning,” she said.
“These children now have been abused and abused and abused. And it has taken six years to get these children removed from that family.”
Clem Coady, headteacher of Stoneraise School in Carlisle, said that sometimes when they looked for help in Cumbria “we’re getting the answerphone, so we’ve fallen through and we can’t even speak to somebody on the other end of the phone”.
He said the difficulty in recruiting social workers saw locum staff being used, and only on certain days.
“We’re on the west coast of Cumbria, and members highlight the difficulty of trying to get the social worker on certain days, because the local authority, in order to get those locums, employ them on a four day week,” he added.
“So some days of the week there’s less social workers available to give them that attractive long weekend and the schools are then having to use the police powers to put children in protective care over the weekend,” he said.
The conference also passed a motion to support school leaders in Devon and Cornwall to engage with the police and social services so there is “clear understanding” that a growing issue of county lines in the area represented “a significant safeguarding risk to the children and young people in our schools”.
John Wilkes, headteacher of Budehaven Community School in Cornwall, said: “There’s nothing worse being a headteacher knowing that you’ve lost all ability to help just one young person succeed and be OK, especially if they’re lost to county lines, child sexual exploitation or child criminal exploitation.”
He said there was an “alarming” increase in county lines activity in Cornwall and that there needed to be more support from police and social services over the issue. As a headteacher, he found he ended up informing the police “far more than them informing us”.