Children in need suffering due to ‘Brexit paralysis’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The children’s commissioner says the government has been paralysed by three years of Brexit and is failing the one in 10 children who are classified as ‘in need’. Pete Henshaw reports

The government’s Children in Need review brings into “sharp focus” both the dire educational prospects of disadvantaged children and the current paralysis affecting much of Westminster and Whitehall, the children’s commissioner for England has said.

Anne Longfield has launched a strongly worded attack on government inaction after the Department for Education (DfE) published the findings of its Children in Need Review (DfE, 2019; SecEd, 2019a).

She attacked Westminster manoeuvring around Brexit and the Conservative leadership contest and said that the three years spent on Brexit have done nothing to improve the prospects of disadvantaged children, which remain “wretched”.

She said that out-going prime minister Theresa May’s most recent proposals to include a mental health component as part of initial teacher training (SecEd, 2019b) is nothing more than a “twiddle” when compared to the problems children in need are facing.

The DfE’s review defines “children in need” as those who need or have needed support from a social worker.

Between 2012 and 2018, around 1.6 million children were “in need” and in 2018 one in 10 children were classified as such.

The review emphasises that 98 per cent of schools in England have children in need and identifies a range of things that can affect these children’s education before they start school, including income, poor housing, domestic violence, addiction, and parental mental health.

The review catalogues a range of educational outcomes under which children in need fair much worse than their peers – even after social work involvement has ended. These include GCSE results (fewer than one in five children in need achieve a pass in GCSE maths and English) and access to higher education. Unveiling the review’s findings last month, education secretary Damian Hinds said: “Overall, if you’ve needed contact with a social worker at any time, since year 5 in school, on average you score 20 grades lower across eight GCSEs.”

In response, the DfE has unveiled plans to raise the “visibility” of these children, including speeding up in-year admissions so that vulnerable children can access a place more quickly and improving communication between social workers and schools, including making sure social workers are informed when a child they support is excluded from school.

At the same time, T7heresa May unveiled plans to train all new teachers so they can spot the signs of mental health difficulties and to update statutory guidance for schools to make clear their role in protecting young people’s wellbeing (SecEd, 2019b).

However, Ms Longfield is not convinced or impressed. In an article responding to the review, she wrote: “While I am pleased that the review recognises the scale, changing nature and impact of disadvantage on many children’s lives, the big question we should all be asking is: what are you going to do about it?

“The DfE cannot resolve these problems alone – it requires cross-Whitehall focus, and funding; it needs early help, social care and CAMHS services to be provided to these kids. All that requires money.

“Incredibly, we still don’t know for sure when the next Spending Review will occur. It should already have happened. We hear it might be in the autumn; it might cover one year not three; it depends on Brexit. This delay is having real consequences for children and families.”

Ms Longfield said there was an “absolute paralysis affecting much of Whitehall and Westminster”. She added: “It is three years since Brexit became the national political priority – three years in which half of the youngest children in need have grown up failing to meet their early development goals, a lifetime disadvantage. While the Westminster manoeuvring continues, on and on interminably, government itself has ground almost to a halt and the prospects for many of these kids remains wretched.”

She attacked both Mr Hinds’ and Ms May’s responses: “The prime minister called for all teachers to be trained to spot emerging mental health conditions in kids – I don’t think they have that much trouble spotting them; they have trouble finding anyone to treat them.

“I have called for a long time for a CAMHS professional to be available in every school. Now, when we hear that teenagers in Liverpool are being paid £1,000 to stab other kids (BBC, 2019) and the government publicly recognises that one in 10 kids with a social worker lurches in and out of the service for four to five years, the PM calls for a twiddle to teacher training?”

Ms Longfield said that the DfE’s proposals offer nothing to “dramatically improve the services the government knows can change life chances”, such as Troubled Families and health visitors. Ms Longfield is concerned that the Troubled Families programme, which supported around 600,000 children last year, ends in March 2020 but that no replacement is yet lined up.

She wrote: “The only action points (in the review) relating to children’s services are promises about improving Ofsted grading and social work practice. Telling schools they ought to ‘do more’ is unrealistic and unfair when the services on which they and families rely are being cut to shreds.”

Ms Longfield welcomed the plans to improve admission procedures and the “visibility” of these children, but added: “The elephant in the room remains. How will any of this be funded? Over the last year, my office has provided the DfE, No 10 and the Treasury with all the evidence they need to persuade them that investing in early help is the right thing to do – and also the most financially prudent in the long term.

“The next government must look seriously at the life chances of vulnerable children in England. The new prime minister will have to decide whether this is a priority. The great tragedy for thousands of children is that these decisions could and should have been made ages ago.”

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