As schools close their doors to most pupils to tackle the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, teachers and charities have expressed their fears about the plight of vulnerable children from poverty-stricken and chaotic homes.
Schools across the UK will be closed from Monday until further notice – except to children of key workers, and vulnerable children who have a social worker or Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan.
But concerns are mounting that some vulnerable children will fall under the radar without the safety net of school to monitor their wellbeing and act as a safe environment for them to share problems with their home life.
Worries are also rising about how families struggling financially will cope with providing food for their children without the provision of free school meals – particularly if schools are closed for a prolonged period.
While the government has said schools will be able to provide meals or vouchers for supermarkets or local shops to families with children on free school meals, the concern is that there will be many more families who are barely coping who will be tipped over the edge but left without that crucial support.
HuffPost UK spent a week at Moorside Community Primary School in Ovenden, near Halifax, West Yorkshire, last year to highlight how funding cuts and rising poverty are pushing schools to breaking point.
Staff revealed how they often went home at night crying – worried about sending children home to environments where they might be hungry or even unsafe.
School holidays heighten these feelings of dread. And now the coronavirus crisis has led to closures for an unspecified period of time, despair among staff has escalated.
If they are living in households with domestic violence or neglect, we are not there to keep an eye on them and see that they are coming into school safely every day.”Dani Worthington, headteacher, Moorside Community Primary School
Dani Worthington, the school’s headteacher, told HuffPost UK: “The current situation and the closure of schools has brought our worries about our vulnerable children to a whole new and frightening level.”
The government has said vulnerable pupils with a social worker will still be able to attend school. But Worthington is scared for those who fall short of these criteria but are still extremely susceptible to risk.
“We as a school are concerned about the children who sit directly underneath this who maybe don’t hit the criteria or haven’t yet been assigned a social worker but are still at risk.” she said.
“Their situation could soon escalate into them needing a social worker in the near future.
“These are often the most vulnerable children because without school, they have not got any professional looking after them.
“It is the worry about what these children will potentially experience at home without having the outlet of school. They often use school to express their worries and concerns – but they’re no longer going to have that.
“If they are living in households with domestic violence or neglect, we are not there to keep an eye on them and see that they are coming into school safely every day.”
Worthington is also perturbed at what powers schools will have to ensure vulnerable children actually do attend school during the coronavirus shutdown as they often come from chaotic homes and have poor attendance levels to begin with.
“These are the children who are usually the poor attenders due to their parents not bringing them into school. The worry is that their parents of vulnerable children might say: ‘None of their friends are coming into school, so they won’t either.’
“The question is: how enforceable is this and do we have any remit to make them come into school?”
Like many other schools across the country, Moorside is in a deprived area with high levels of poverty, and hunger is a huge issue. For some children, the food they get at school – such as the free school meal, and the breakfast bagel they get at the start of each day – is all they have.
Worthington says the risk of children going without food during the school closures is “heartbreaking”. While she welcomes the government’s pledge to give supermarket vouchers to those eligible for free school meals, she says there are many families on very low incomes who don’t meet the criteria for free school meals but are still struggling.
“Some of our families just don’t have the money to feed their children and rely heavily on schools so if we are shut for a prolonged period, that support will no longer be there.”
She also wants reassurance that any vouchers provided can only be spent on food and not on “beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets”.
As a school, Moorside works with a food bank and drops off food parcels on a weekly basis to several families who are struggling. School staff have pledged to carry on making sure these families get these parcels during the closure.
The school has also drawn up a list of its most vulnerable children and families and are going to make sure they maintain regular contact with them.
Worthington explained: “We are going to make sure every child is spoken to at least once a week, but with the vulnerable children, we will do this more often and aim to do it on a daily basis.
“I have had staff and pastoral staff tell me that they are willing to go to these families’ homes and take them food and check on the children.
“But as a headteacher, I also need to consider the safety of my staff and their wellbeing and the concern is that they may put themselves at risk. There is also the risk of them catching coronavirus from the families or passing it on to them.”
A lot of children won’t have access to a computer or laptop or might not have internet access at home."Dani Worthington, headteacher, Moorside Community Primary School
The impact on the children’s education is also troubling Worthington and she says, once again, the poorest in society will be at a disadvantage.
“Children will be missing out on a huge chunk of their education. We are sending educational teaching packs home and there are also online educational sites where children can log in and do learning.
“But a lot of children won’t have access to a computer or laptop or might not have internet access at home. I asked parents if they had access to the internet and for those who don’t, I am providing a bigger pack of written teaching resources.”
Emma Bradley, a parenting expert at childcare networking site childcare.co.uk, told HuffPost UK the school closures will affect the families who have just been managing to keep their heads above water the hardest.
“While we know about our most vulnerable children, there will be many others who are slipping through the net.” she said.
“These are the families who have just about been coping and scraping by but natural catastrophes like this will tip them over the edge.
“These will be people like low income families on zero hour contracts who have just about been surviving but won’t be able to now.”
The home is a pressure cooker for many of these families anyway, so being cooped up in isolation is not going to be healthy for children in homes where there might be domestic violence or addiction.Emma Bradley, parenting expert at childcare.co.uk
Bradley, a former teacher and whose husband is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school, is worried that although the government says vulnerable children can still attend school, schools will be powerless if they choose not to.
“A lot of these children live in chaotic and disorganised households and their parents are already disengaged from education. At the moment, they do what they have to do to avoid the risk of prosecution.
“But if these children don’t go to school during the coronavirus closures, will anyone be tracking them or rounding them up?”
Bradley added: “There is going to be so much risk. The home is a pressure cooker for many of these families anyway so being cooped up in isolation is not going to be healthy for children in homes where there might be domestic violence or addiction.
“Shutting the schools for health reasons is the right thing to do. But we also need to make sure we are looking after the most vulnerable in society.”
The coronavirus outbreak has exploded into the lives of vulnerable children and families at a time when they were already suffering.Imran Hussain, Action for Children
Imran Hussain, Action for Children’s director of policy and campaigns, told HuffPost UK: “The coronavirus outbreak has exploded into the lives of vulnerable children and families at a time when they were already suffering.
“Millions of children are locked in poverty with cash strapped councils having to cut back vital children’s services.”
Action for Children’s frontline staff have already been running unofficial food banks and dropping food parcels to the homes of vulnerable families. But Hussain said the added instability of this huge health and economic crisis means families who are struggling to keep their heads above water are terrified of going under.
He added that as families face cuts in working hours and incomes falling off a cliff, many more children than the 4m already in poverty face months of financial hardship and called for a government rescue package to lift up the incomes of those on low pay.
Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, believes the government needs to provide emergency measures for struggling families and make it possible financially for every family to self isolate – particularly when children are losing out on the benefit of a free school lunch.
She believes increasing child benefit by £10 per child per week during the pandemic would be the simplest and most direct way to shield children in low income families from damaging hardship.
“The government must move swiftly to match its support for business with emergency measures for struggling families,” she told HuffPost UK.
“That doesn’t mean only extra tins of tuna or bags of pasta. It means a temporary uplift in family benefits so that parents need not suffer the indignity of going to a foodbank – if they remain open – but can feed their children and have heating on if necessary at home.”
The risk to children’s learning is huge, especially for children in low-income families who already tend to do less well at school.”Becca Lyon, Save the Children
Becca Lyon, head of UK poverty campaigns at Save the Children, welcomes news that children receiving free school meals will continue to get support, but she says more support is needed.
“This is an incredibly stressful time for parents, particularly those on low incomes.” she said. “The UK government must urgently put forward a package of measures to support struggling parents who lose their job, have to take unpaid leave or reduce their hours.
“The risk to children’s learning is huge, especially for children in low-income families who already tend to do less well at school.”