Schools are far more than mere exam factories. Across the UK, teachers in 32,000 schools and colleges care for children on over half the days in any given year. Or we did until the lockdown in March 2020. Since then, children have missed the best part of two full terms. And while they were out of our sight, some were at risk. Six year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, for example, may have been rescued from the terrible abuse he suffered had his teachers been able to see him every day.
But while most children have returned to class now that Covid restrictions are ending, some are still absent. News of anecdotal cases circulate within the profession. A colleague tells me that two sisters in her school never returned. The girls – both teenagers – have been kept at home, apparently to protect vulnerable adults who are shielding in their household.
It was therefore no surprise to hear Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, suggest that perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 children are now missing from school registers. According to the commissioner, these children ‘fell off the radar’ during lockdown and have never returned to class. Remarkably, several local authorities do not know how many children have been impacted by this epidemic of missing children.
The impact on those young people should not be understated. In a society that has made child safeguarding into an industry and wrapped it up in paperwork and red tape, those children are now missing out on the most basic protection of all: the eyes and ears of the community.
We have known that since the dawn of time that people are less likely to get up to no good if they are being watched. And teachers and schools have often been the first to notice safeguarding concerns. Unlike social workers or other authorities who often can only arrange fleeting visits, we see children almost every day and can spot the signs when they are in trouble. We also implicitly understand that children are our future and need protecting as well as nurturing. ‘Women and children first’ might be an unfashionable code of conduct these days, but it offers more security to the future of society than prioritising the elderly.
But children were never the priority during the pandemic. Early on, it was clear that they tended to suffer milder symptoms, or no symptoms at all. The infection fatality rate in the under-18s has been calculated at just five per 100,000. To put that into perspective, the overall case fatality rate for chicken pox is 9.22 per 100,000 – but we have never considered locking down society during outbreaks.
Covid – of course – presents a much larger risk to adults, but the truth remains that lockdowns were of marginal benefit to the health of children. Young people have however paid a hefty price, and lost learning was only part of it. Relationships are formed and nurtured in real life that can never be replicated in two dimensions on a screen, or in text messages. Problems that would be noticed in person are much more easily overlooked in an email exchange. And some children were forgotten by society.
Dame Rachel explained that ‘We are always worried about children being pulled into gangs because they are not in school, we are worried about children with huge family safeguarding issues, we are worried about their mental health needs not being met.’
This is very true, but how can we help them? She suggested that ‘we need one identifier number for children and then, whichever service comes in touch with them, they will know that one number and know who they are.’
That’s not an idea I would back. Every child in a state maintained school already has a Unique Pupil Number (UPN). But children are more than numbers in a spreadsheet and data like this won’t show when a child is in pain, or in suffering. It is when a child is back in school that they are likely to be noticed.
The answer lies not in more identification numbers, but in rebuilding real-life relationships that have been lost during the pandemic, whether that’s with children’s teachers or with their peers. The government should make getting children back in school its priority now, and ensure that future strategies focus on keeping children, and their teachers, safe in schools, rather than dialling in from home.
Let’s be clear, while work events were taking place – with wine – in the Downing Street garden, my pupils were isolated at home, struggling with the lesser delights of remote learning. They deserve a full inquiry, so that future cohorts of children are put first when the government is faced with hard choices when it comes to public health. Poor Arthur deserves it; the sisters in my colleague’s school deserve it, and the estimated tens of thousands of other children who have fallen off school roles deserve it too. And if government cannot protect the young, it is time for a new government.