Labour and a leading children’s charity have warned about a likely jump in referrals to child social services and family courts as schools return this week, calling on the government to commit extra resources to help.
Keir Starmer has also called for the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to address parliament on the return of school pupils in England and Wales.
The Children’s Society has said it expects referrals to children’s services to rise in the coming weeks, with schools playing a pivotal role in spotting neglect and abuse.
A government study of provision for children and young people during the coronavirus lockdown, between April and June, found an 18% drop in referrals to children’s social care services compared with the average over the three previous years.
In a joint letter the shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, shadow attorney general, Lord Falconer, and shadow children’s minister, Tulip Siddiq, asked ministers “urgently to outline the government’s plan for handling the increase in family breakdown cases, which could overwhelm the family courts as children begin returning to schools”.
They added: “This occurs in the broader context of huge backlogs across the justice system, including the family courts, which have been caused by a decade of court closures and cuts, as well as being further exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.”
Iryna Pona, the policy manager for the Children’s Society, said six months of school closures “has left many vulnerable children hidden from view”, with the expected upsurge likely to put significant extra strain on social care services and family courts.
She said: “It is absolutely vital that these services are given the guidance and resources they need to manage the demand and ensure that vulnerable children are protected from harm.”
In a statement ahead of the full return of children to English schools this week, Starmer praised the work of teachers and other school staff, and called for Williamson to brief MPs about “how he will make up for the damage already done, bring pupils up to speed and mitigate against the ongoing risk from the pandemic”.
Starmer said: “Labour want and expect children to be back at school. Every day that schools were closed was a day of opportunity, learning and support lost. This situation was worsened by the exams fiasco and the government’s chaotic approach to education.
“We cannot keep repeating those same mistakes. Young people’s futures cannot be held back by the Conservatives’ incompetence.”
In his own statement released ahead of the return to schools, Williamson said: “I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been but I do know how important it is for children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their development and wellbeing too.
“But it is down to the sheer hard work of so many teachers and school staff that from today pupils will be able to learn in their classrooms together again. It has not been easy for parents nor schools, but we could not have got to this point without your support and I cannot say thank you enough for this.”
A government spokesman said: “We have worked hard to keep the justice system running throughout the pandemic – cases involving the welfare of children have been prioritised, remote hearings increased and we have opened extra courts so cases can be heard as quickly as possible.
“We are also increasing the number of social workers placed in hundreds of schools and investing over £100m in remote education, which can help vulnerable children stay in contact with schools and social workers.”
Source: The Guardian