Schools' crucial role in child protection eroded during the pandemic

Asbestos risk to children and staff in more than 5,000 English primary schools

As children return to school the crucial role schools play in safeguarding vulnerable children is highlighted, as research by a national law firm reveals the scale of the drop in child protection referrals from schools to children’s services during the first lockdown.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Stephensons Solicitors LLP sent to 156 local authorities in England and Wales with responsibility for children’s services has found that 99% of the councils* who responded had seen a decrease in referrals from schools.

They were asked to report on referrals made by both primary and secondary schools between the period of time from when schools closed at the start of the first coronavirus lockdown on 23 March 2020 to when they reopened on 2 September 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019.*

Of the local authorities who responded that they had seen a decrease, the average number of referrals from all schools dropped by 59% compared to the previous year, in a year where local authorities, children’s services and other organisations like Cafcass have been working under intense pressure to protect vulnerable children.

Victoria Gethin, a Partner and Head of the Family Law team at Stephensons, said: “These findings underline and highlight the important role schools play in reporting safeguarding concerns about vulnerable children.

“Schools effectively closed from 23 March last year as part of the national effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus. A much reduced service remained open for vulnerable children, together with some key worker children.  One of the often-cited consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is the closure of schools and the impact this has had not only on children’s education but crucially on their welfare – particularly that of children who are at risk while at home.  

“Schools play an essential safeguarding role as independent but informed professionals who report concerns that they may have about children to local authorities, who will then carry out investigations to establish the children’s safety. Sadly, this essential role was severely impacted and eroded as a result of the pandemic.”

The FOI also investigated whether the figures changed once the children returned to school in September. Of the councils who responded, more than half (53%) also reported a fall in the number of referrals from schools between September and December 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019.

While the year on year comparison was down, 94% of councils reported that they saw an increase in the number of referrals from schools when they reopened in September compared to the lockdown period and summer holidays. The average percentage increase in the number of referrals from primary and secondary schools between 23 March to 1 September 2020 and 2 September and 3 December 2020 was 149%.*

“The year on year drop doesn’t surprise me,” commented Victoria. She added: “Although children had returned to the classroom, schools continued to be under considerable pressure caused by the coronavirus landscape as children were taught in year group bubbles, many were sent home to self-isolate when a positive case of coronavirus was detected and school staff numbers were reduced.

“While schools will have done their absolute best, it would have been increasingly difficult for teachers to maintain their essential safeguarding role in this challenging period of time. As schools have now reopened and pupils return to the classroom, this research demonstrates how important schools are to the safety and wellbeing of children.

“This further highlights the importance of the need for a multi-agency approach to ensure robust safeguarding measures are in place for vulnerable children in our communities, as there is a strong possibility that there will be a surge in referrals when schools return and lockdown restrictions are reduced.”

Earlier this month, NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless highlighted that local authorities “need to be ready” for a spike in referrals to children’s services departments as schools reopen. He made his comment during the charity’s How Safe 2021 conference. Between April and November last year the NSPCC helpline saw a 43% increase in calls about abuse and neglect compare with pre-pandemic levels.

If you are a member of the public and you are concerned about the welfare of a child, it is vital that you contact your local council’s social services or in an emergency call the police on 999.

Additional information

*The number of local authorities who have responsibility for children’s services contacted with a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in England and Wales was 156. The number of responses received up to and including February 5 was 88, a response rate of 56%.

*Councils which recorded data on a monthly basis and could not supply information related to specific dates, provided data from beginning to end of closest months.

*Where referral numbers were less than 5, some councils recorded this as <5 and did not provide specific numbers of referrals. In this case, in the collated data 5 was used for the purpose of analysis.