Almost half a million vulnerable children who have been allocated emergency school places to keep them safe during the pandemic were missing from classrooms last week, according to government figures.
Just 24,000 pupils classed by the government as vulnerable turned up at schools in England last Friday, which constitutes 5% of the total entitled to attend school during the lockdown, including over the Easter break.
The figures from the Department for Education (DfE) confirm on-the-ground reports from schools that few vulnerable pupils are turning up.
The Labour MP Tulip Siddiq has written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, expressing concern about the low turnout and calling for more funding for children’s charities and better guidance for local authorities to support those most at risk.
The Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, Layla Moran, called for urgent government intervention. “This is utterly shocking and shows just how massive the problem we face is to look after vulnerable children during the pandemic,” she said. “Government has a responsibility to keep kids safe, and we just don’t know if they are.”
Schools effectively closed on 20 March as part of the national effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but a skeleton service has remained open for children of key workers and more than 500,000 vulnerable pupils, which include those classified as “children in need” as well as 270,000 children with an education, health and care (EHC) plan for special educational needs.
When the emergency schools first opened on 23 March, around 60,000 vulnerable children attended, but by Friday 3 April the number had halved to 29,000. On the same day, 85,000 children of critical workers attended. By last Friday their number had dropped to 62,000, or around 2% of all children of critical workers.
Teachers and social workers say many parents have chosen to keep their children at home for fear they might catch the virus.
Child protection referrals have dropped by as much as 75% in some areas, with family life hidden behind closed doors during the lockdown and children invisible to the authorities.
Siddiq, the shadow minister for children and early years, said: “School is often a safe haven for vulnerable children, and the main source of identification and referral for specialist support. Teaching staff are worried that they are unable to see ‘at-risk’ children as they usually would and that they are not getting help. The very low number of vulnerable children attending school so far suggests that they are right.
“We know that many vulnerable children will be more at risk in this crisis with the financial and social pressures of lockdown exacerbating problems at home. We need to see more funding for children’s charities and better guidance for local authorities to support vulnerable children, as well as reducing financial pressure on their families by fixing problems like parents being unable to access free school meal vouchers.”
DfE guidance states that many children with EHC plans will in fact be better off remaining at home. School staff and social workers have been working to keep in contact with vulnerable families where children are not turning up at school.
Williamson said: “Our first priority has always been protecting the wellbeing of children and young people, but particularly those vulnerable young people with special educational needs or a social worker. Schools are open for them and we’re working to make sure those who should attend do so.
“With up to 130,000 children in school every single day, schools are helping keep the country moving. And we are asking our local authorities and schools to ensure every vulnerable child knows that their school is there to support them, that systems are in place to keep in touch with those children who are unable to attend because of health reasons.”
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