We are letting down children by not reopening schools, so the Government tells us. The narrative is founded on the premise that unless Reception, and Years 1 and 6 return vulnerable children in our society will suffer.
But who are they? What does being vulnerable mean?
For many comfortable people it really means children who are ‘not like ours’. Children who are poor by ‘my definition of poor’. Children who find learning difficult in our schools ‘by comparison to my kids’. Children who do not live in ‘my part of town’. All or none of these may be vulnerable children but it is far more complex.
We too easily work off of stereotypes, simply being poor does not mean a child is vulnerable. Being financially comfortable does not mean parents are engaged and caring of their children either.
Vulnerability, says the dictionary, is being open to injury or appearing as if you are. On that definition many children if not all are vulnerable at some point in their lives.
There is an official legal definition.
- children and young people who have a ‘child in need’ plan, a child protection plan or who are a looked-after child
- children who have an education, health and care (EHC) plan, that is those aged up to 25 with complex needs who need more support than is available through special educational needs support.
- children who have been assessed as vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities (including children’s social care services) and include children and young people on the edge of receiving support from children’s social care services, adopted children, those at risk of becoming NEET (‘not in employment, education or training’), those living in temporary accommodation, those who are young carers.
Each of these children is likely to have persistent multiple vulnerabilities eg a child categorised in the first list above may have suffered poor parenting, experienced domestic violence, have a mentally ill parent, be missing school, be a young carer and have resistance to trusting adults.
How many vulnerable children are there by any definition? If you look at the detailed tables provided by the Children’s Commissioner you might think that every child in the country is vulnerable. If this were true the bar would be so low that others might argue there is no vulnerability at all. While interesting numbers risk becoming meaningless.
It is suggested there are, at any one time, 3-4 million children from 0-17, who fit the legal definition. An estimated 1.6m of whom receive limited or no public services. Hence about 120 children per school, across all years are legally vulnerable.
Many vulnerable children receive no services
Even with vulnerabilities, if children have a strong and positive support network they do not need public service help. Most children have families who help them, through awful experiences of being bullied or emotional stress or perhaps illness. Families and friends help these children through periods of vulnerability by building their emotional resilience and listening to them. Our limited investment in public services does mean that those who really need help may not get it as the Commissioner points out.
So what do we mean when we say that we want children to go back to school because if not, ‘the vulnerable children will suffer’ ?.
The attendance at school of vulnerable children has been expected from the outset of the COVID-19 lockdown. Given that law has set out how we prioritise vulnerable children the issue is really how do we get them there. Opening up schools to any or all children INCLUDING some who MIGHT be vulnerable helps no-one.
It only builds the haystack and the needles get harder to find. What we need are stronger public services; schools that can exploit the knowledge and willingness of its local community members to help support the vulnerable to get to school. This will ensure those children with multiple vulnerabilities get into the schools already open to them.
I spoke to a headteacher who described how struggling parents had come to her weeks ago asking for a place for their children as they ‘could not cope anymore’. These children in need were accepted. She already had severely disabled and key worker children in the school everyday as well as children living in public care. She has not needed a Government to direct her or tell her the school has to be open to all Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children. In her view to open to all now, while COVID-19 is not under control, could put those vulnerable children, some with underlying health conditions, at greater risk.
Talking about ‘vulnerable children; has to be more than a hollow gesture. It has to do more than virtue signalling for those ‘ comfortable parents’ who are reliant on schools and secretly desperate to get their own children back into theirs. It must contain solid policy, delivery paths and public service investment. It must focus all our minds on the health and safety of our children first and not on filling the pockets of those who prioritise money over people.