Uncertainty continues over when and how children will fully return to the classroom, as school leaders wrestle with how to accommodate and teach children whilst trying to maintain social distancing and effective ‘bubbles’ between groups of children.
However, the real challenge is still to come. Of those pupils identified as ‘vulnerable’ by the government back in March, only a small percentage have physically attended school since the lockdown, and nearly two million children have barely done any schoolwork over the last three months.
We know that transition (going to a setting for the first time, moving to another one, starting school or moving into a new class) represents a time of great uncertainty for children, with the potential for increased risk related to behaviour and mental health, and increased educational needs. Our work with local authorities has consistently shown that exclusions increase as children move from primary to secondary school, and that Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) are often used as a ‘comfort blanket’ for children making the transition either from early years to primary or primary to secondary school.
Demand for EHCPs has reduced in most areas as some children are going unseen by children’s professionals. But when transition back into schools takes place – after nearly six months out of education for some pupils – a surge in both needs and ECHPs is likely. Children with SEND are much more likely to be excluded than their peers, which further limits their ability to learn. Behaviour can be the only way to communicate feelings of stress or anxiety, levels of which are likely to be higher than ever when schools do return.
All of this demonstrates a greater need than ever for local partnerships to work together to agree how their collective resources, skills and expertise can support children through this once-in-a-generation challenge. As children start to return to the classroom, these local partnerships need to set a collective ambition for how they will respond together to additional needs.
To support this, we are hosting a second High Needs Roundtable, following on from the first roundtable held last November. Our aim is to set out the system ambitions that local partnerships should seek to commit to, in order to help ensure that children with additional needs are getting the best support at the earliest level possible. We are fortunate to have a range of sector leaders joining the discussion including the Council for Disabled Children and the Department for Education, and will be publishing the outcomes of the discussion afterwards.
Public services continue to face a great deal of uncertainty, but planning ahead is still possible, and more important than ever. We hope that our upcoming event will help the sector as they get ready for the next set of challenges, and encourage local partnerships to set system-level ambitions.
As we all continue to wrestle with the uncertainty and continued anxiety that Covid is creating, the only lever we have is to plan – and plan we must.