How local government has responded to Covid-19: children’s services

My first piece in this series on the local government response to Covid-19 set out some of the challenges we are facing in adult social care. One of the key areas that has not attracted as much attention has been children’s services, and how we safeguard children and young people at times of crisis. Whilst children are statistically less at risk from the virus, the social and economic changes generated by Covid-19 means child protection has never been more important. Like social care – arguably more so – it’s not a service many people think about as it isn’t visible like bins or potholes, but for me we have no more crucial responsibility as a council.

In many ways, this is a difficult issue for me to write about with authority. Just a few months after Labour took control of the council in 2018, we were inspected by Ofsted. They found that our looked after children’s services were inadequate. This was something of a fall from grace for Trafford following a ‘Good’ rating with some areas outstanding in our previous inspection of 2015.

It was obvious to us that cutting millions from these services would cause such damage. We told the Tories they were wrong to cut over £17m from the Children, Families and Wellbeing Budget in the 2015/16 proposals – proposals they approved on the very day they got the Good rating from Ofsted. Trafford Labour has looked to repair the damage where we can – increasing staffing numbers; reducing social worker caseloads significantly; bringing our youth service back in-house; creating a new youth outreach team; and ploughing £6m a year into reinstating a robust early help offer. This last point is critical: early help is the ultimate invest-to-save service, yet preventative services have been sacrificed in many areas on the altar of austerity.

Covid-19 has necessarily impacted on our improvement journey in Trafford. New ways of working have been required to safeguard vulnerable children, and our social workers have been magnificent in the lengths they have gone to in order to check on the welfare of those we know need additional help and support.

One of the big challenges that the team has faced has been the closure of schools, and what this has meant for the attendance of vulnerable children. Whilst government guidance states that in addition to the children of critical workers, provision should be available for vulnerable children, in reality the number of children categorised as vulnerable (children known to social services, looked after children, as well as children with EHC plans) attending school has been low. In many ways, this is understandable: parents and carers are nervous in the current climate. But it does mean that the principle route by which these children in need of support come into contact with the public sector – in schools – is taken away, thus eliminating the daily oversight we usually have over their welfare.

It’s important to remember that for many children categorised as vulnerable, home life is incredibly challenging. Some live in homes where drug and alcohol addiction is an issue, others may have been the victim of – or witnessed – domestic violence. These are just some examples but underline why, with so many of this cohort not currently attending school, our social work team has had to mobilise at pace. Our officers have been carrying out visits to all children not presenting at school who are known to social services for safeguarding reasons, and have been working with partners including police and health to ensure we have robust oversight of their welfare.

This has been a herculean effort in an already challenging time: the nature of visits has had to change due to Covid-19, whilst staffing numbers have been depleted for the same reason. That said, our teams have been fantastic, working hard to assure themselves that our most vulnerable young people are safe. Audits are showing that 100% of children who should be visited have been, whilst the team is now focusing on how we make the visits even more meaningful despite the new ways of working. The passion that our teams have for the children they work with is amazing.

Of course, the major concerns over lockdown have not just been a rise in domestic violence, mental health issues and addiction problems in families we already know about. There is also a real worry that such a drastic change in everyday life will push many more people into crisis – be it mental, physical, financial or otherwise. Some families not on our radar may well be struggling with children who we would now consider vulnerable as a result. Another knock-on effect of the lockdown that has safeguarding ramifications therefore cannot be forgotten: the reduction in referrals from our partners.

With children not known to social services out of school, and with fewer people accessing health and other holistic services due to the fear of contracting the virus, those agencies from which we normally receive the most new referrals (schools and health) are seeing fewer children directly. We’ve had to work closely with both of these partners and with the police to see how we can increase our oversight, and it’s been pleasing to see that the number of referrals – particularly from health colleagues – has started to pick up again and our social workers can take action if needed.

The work done to give ourselves the assurance that children known to our services are safe has been brilliant. The way the team has adapted to new ways of working is testament to their commitment. But it’s not just social workers who have been delivering critical services in different ways at present. Our education team and the schools they support have gone above and beyond. In addition to catering for the children of critical workers and those vulnerable children attending school, they have had to coordinate an incredibly varied response in a range of other areas.

And what has that response looked like? The team has worked with schools to ensure unprecedented provision to provide childcare on bank holidays and over the Easter break, with more than 20 Trafford schools open on Friday’s VE Day bank holiday. They’ve worked with heads to ensure that free school meal vouchers are distributed to qualifying families, underlining the fact that schools do so much more than just teach. On the frontline, I’ve heard stories of teachers ringing every child in their class to see how they are, and creating engaging online resources so children are able to continue their learning.

At every level, education services are doing their best in unusual times to ensure the best possible education for our kids, as they always do. The key now is what happens next. We can’t rush schools back – and we should, in my view, be focusing on transition and exam-age children (Years 6, 10 and 12) when we do. My own sister is a reception teacher, and from talking to her and friends who are teachers it’s clear the government focus on getting the very youngest children back in is an odd call. Getting five years old to socially distance will be almost impossible, whilst those with big exams in the next year or two surely should be our main priority.

There is a lot to think across children’s services for councils. Whilst the focus of the crisis for local authorities has centred around community response, public health and social care, these critical statutory services have had to respond in ways unimaginable just three months ago. I want to thank all of our parents, carers, teachers, foster carers, social workers and other local authority staff for their work in these bizarre times. You are going above and beyond to keep our most vulnerable safe. Thank you.

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