For the vast majority of children, the summer holidays will have been about carefree days and making happy memories. It is fair to say that 6 weeks without school is probably a happy prospect for most. I loved school as a kid, but the holidays were brilliant!
For some, though, this will have been a far cry from their experience. Instead, their return to school brings respite, at least temporarily, from the difficult circumstances they find themselves in at home.
Whether it is neglect or another form of abuse, schools play a vital role in identifying and protecting children who are having problems at home. By sheer virtue of daily contact, teachers and staff are well placed to spot the signs that all is not right.
As any teacher will know, what happens at home can go hand in hand with what happens in school. Neglect, for example, could manifest itself in patchy attendance, disruptive behaviour, difficult relationships with peers and poor attainment. But this is not an exhaustive list. Let’s face it, if you are sofa-surfing to avoid a desperate home situation, it is likely that you will find it nigh on impossible to concentrate in class.
So, now that teachers and pupils up and down the country have returned to classrooms, it is a good time to remind ourselves about what schools can do – and are doing well, in most cases − to help children at risk of or actually suffering neglect at home.
Ofsted's report – ‘Growing up neglected'
Earlier this year, Ofsted and the inspectorates for police, health and probation services carried out a series of inspections focused on older neglected children (those aged between 7 and 15).
We examined services in 6 local authority areas, including local authority children’s services departments, police, youth offending services, education, health, and probation services. Our focus was to understand how local partners are working together to identify and prevent neglect.
We found children who had experienced neglect for much of their childhood and who were now experiencing other forms of abuse. Some were escaping neglectful homes, which left them vulnerable to grooming by gangs and sexual and criminal exploitation. Some were becoming involved in offending behaviour themselves. Others experienced not just neglect, but also domestic abuse or parental drug misuse.
Sadly, the findings show that the neglect of older children often goes ‘unseen’ by local agencies, which tend to focus on presenting issues rather than on the causes of children’s behaviour.
But what about the role of schools?
Our report shows that schools are an important part of the multi-agency response to neglect. Regular contact with children and the knowledge school staff have about children and their families often support a wider understanding across all partners about the range of risks and the needs of neglected children.
Schools that were supported by local partners and were well engaged in the multi-agency system played an effective part in helping to identify neglect early. They also provided effective, tailored support to pupils. Regular meetings between schools and partners, in which expertise, information and planning are shared, mean that concerns about individual children and families are speedily identified and shared.
School support works
We saw examples of additional support in schools giving neglected children better access to education and helping them begin to achieve their potential. Examples of additional support include counselling and one-to-one support to help children improve their behaviour. Some schools were playing a significant role in advocating for children and their needs. In these schools, teachers took the time to know and understand children’s circumstances, carefully planning support within school, as well as engaging with partners in wider multi-agency planning.
Do not be afraid to challenge
Some schools were challenging effectively other agencies’ poor decision-making. For example, schools challenged delayed responses to children’s needs or a lack of progress in providing the right support. These schools recognised that they needed a clear process for escalating their concerns if children’s situations did not improve.
School moves should be managed carefully
Significant change, like moving from primary to secondary school, can be difficult for any child, but it can pose real challenges for children suffering from neglect. A lack of parental support, stability and security at home may make the process for these children incredibly stressful. Some schools recognise this additional level of stress. Good communication between the school and other partners working with the family results in well-planned and managed transitions.
Staff who are well trained in recognising the signs of neglect made a difference. In some schools, specific tools helped staff assess the risk of neglect and monitor children’s progress or deterioration. In one school, careful recording of concerns and wider information about a child in a timeline helped staff to identify increasing evidence of neglect. They were able to recognise when they needed to refer the child to children’s social care and to provide clear and detailed referral information.
School nurses have a vital role
School nurses in some areas are making a big difference to older children. They are identifying neglect that had previously gone unseen, as well as working with children and parents to address it.
Inspectors saw school nurses working flexibly to reach out to older children living with neglect, such as by taking children to important health appointments, seeing them in a range of settings that best suit them, and not giving up on parents who were reluctant to engage. However, the limited capacity of the school nursing service in some areas restricted the quality and breadth of work that they were able to provide.
Schools aren’t a ‘silver bullet’
Our inspections tell us that all agencies need to get better at identifying neglect in older children and at recognising that children’s presenting issues, such as offending behaviour or being a victim of exploitation, may result from neglect. Professional curiosity should mean that adults look beyond behaviours and ask about the cause behind it.
We saw good examples of schools making a real difference for older neglected children, but they cannot do this in isolation. Local partnerships need to support and engage with schools to help them recognise the signs of neglect, and be clear about how and where to refer these children and families for support.