Pandemic a ‘pressure cooker’ for issues facing vulnerable children, Ofsted chief warns

Fiona Simpson
Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a “pressure cooker”, exacerbating concerns already surrounding vulnerable children in England, Ofsted’s national director of regulation and social care has warned.

Yvette Stanley, Ofsted's national director for regulation and social care, said the pandemic had exacerbated a range of problems in services for children. Picture: Ofsted
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted's national director for regulation and social care, said the pandemic had exacerbated a range of problems in services for children. Picture: Ofsted

The inspectorate was forced to suspend full inspections of schools, early years providers, local authority children’s services and children’s homes in March amid the first national lockdown.

Ofsted's annual report, published today (1 December), states that “both the education and social care systems in England have been severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

It adds that while it is “in many ways still too early to fully judge its impact...the crisis has underlined the importance of putting children’s welfare first.”

Responding to the report, Yvette Stanley said difficulties faced by care leavers, domestic abuse, and the sufficiency of foster care and residential placements are among issues that “have become more acute during Covid”.

“In a sense it has acted like a pressure cooker to speed up the concerns we have had for some time,” Stanley said, praising “sterling” partnerships developed between local authorities, schools and health services in the face of the crisis.

“The good partnership we’ve seen through Covid needs to be maintained to make sure we can address this. There is nothing in here that any one organisation can solve on its own,” she said. 

Stanley warned that the crisis has highlighted a lack of sufficiency of both foster care placements and residential care placements, including in secure children’s homes.

The report praises the work of staff in children's homes, foster carers, personal advisers and social workers in working to “make contact with children and encourage them in their learning and their development and maintain contact with parents and siblings” but states “the sufficiency issues we see in many areas may be leading to greater use of unregistered provision”. 

Stanley said: “The absence of a surplus of foster carers means there is very little choice and particularly for siblings, teenagers and disabled children the choices for these matches can be very limited so we also know that the foster care population are slightly older and will want to retire so really we need to build up the recruitment of foster carers.

“In the residential space, we have said for a number of years now, that we are really worried about the very tight supply that there aren’t enough places, in the right regions, for the right children and particularly we’re worried about children in need of specialist provision.”

Stanley also called for more support for care leavers affected by the pandemic and said this was “likely” to form an “important plank” of the promised Care Review.

“There is likely to be a debate about what sort of accommodation there is but also a wider conversation about what sort of care, these young people are receiving - are they being supported socially, economically and emotionally to transition into the adults the best parents would want them to be,” she said.

The report also raises concerns over the impact of the pandemic on the increase of children now being home schooled.

According to a recent report by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the number of children registered for elective home education on 30 September was a third higher than last year’s figures.

Stanley said this could be down to a “number of reasons”, however, warned that in some circumstances “some may be taking that choice to avoid agencies being able to see what’s going on for the children within their own family”.

Other reasons may include parental anxieties surrounding the pandemic and lack of services for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) which were cut due to lockdown restrictions. 

The report states that before lockdown in March, “area SEND inspections pointed to a lack of a coordinated response from education and health services in many local areas”.

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