Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said some children are ‘sadly are safer in school than out of it’ as a report found nearly all children in England had fallen behind during the pandemic
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Shutting schools again due to Covid risks further cases like the murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, the boss of Ofsted has warned.
Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman described the death of Arthur, who was abused and killed at home in Solihull last year, as a “tragedy” and a “callous murder”.
She warned there were children “who sadly are safer in school than out of it” and admitted there were youngsters who have disappeared from teachers’ view during the pandemic.
Her comments came at the launch of Ofsted’s annual report, which found that nearly every child in England had fallen behind at school due to the pandemic – and loneliness, boredom and misery had become “endemic”.
The disruption to routine, lack of activities and school time meant some children developed physical and mental health problems, it said.
Tom Wilkinson/PA Wire)
The report also found vulnerable children who were at risk of harm or neglect had disappeared from teachers’ line of sight, resulting in significantly lower levels of referrals to social care.
Arthur’s stepmother, Emma Tustin, 32, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 29 years at Coventry Crown Court on Friday after being found guilty of the six-year-old’s murder, while his father, Thomas Hughes, 29, was sentenced to 21 years for manslaughter.
Asked if further school closures could result in other cases like Arthur’s going under the radar, Ms Spielman said: “Yes. Schools closing clearly has some significant risks for children around the reduction in quality of education for a large proportion.
“But we know that there is a minority of children who, sadly, are safer in school than out of it. And we have to recognise that, by closing schools, we make that minority less safe.”
Ofsted is leading a probe into all the services involved with child protection in Solihull, where Arthur died, with work starting next week.
Ms Spielman said: “Despite the best efforts and commitment of so many thousands of parents, teachers, social workers, carers, all the other staff who work in the sectors, the challenges of the pandemic have been so great that nearly all children fell behind in their education.
“Some had a worse experience than others and of course that worse experience for some extends to things outside education, to things in their personal circumstances, as in the very tragic case that we’ve all spent so much of the weekend reading about.”
Asked about cases where some social workers had to conduct visits to vulnerable children via video call rather than in person during the lockdown, Ms Spielman said: “We absolutely were and are concerned by this.
“Clearly it’s very hard to assess how well a child is doing when you only see them on screen. You don’t know who’s in the room with them. You don’t know who might be influencing what they say or don’t say.
“And we talked about this throughout last year and, in addition, about things like the loss of the teacher line of sight because so often recognising abuse and neglect takes a number of observations from a number of directions to coalesce into action for the child.”
Education Committee chairman Robert Halfon said 100,000 “ghost children” have not returned to class since schools reopened.
“Urgent work must be done with local authorities, schools and regional commissioners to ensure that those 100,000 children are returned to school,” he said.
Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said: “This shocking report lays bare how lockdowns have left many children more vulnerable to harm, struggling with their mental health and at risk of grooming by perpetrators out to sexually or criminally exploit them. Some vulnerable children have still not returned to school.
“Long-standing issues, including huge cuts to government funding for councils, a shortage of suitable care placements and over-stretched mental health services meant many services were not well-placed to weather the Covid storm.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Schools play a very important role in the safeguarding of children by identifying and reporting signs of abuse.
“In any period of closure there is clearly a risk that they are less able to do this and that cases may go undetected.”
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has repeatedly said he wants schools to stay open but unions have warned that disruption may worsen following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The best place for young people to be – for their education, their physical health and their mental health – is in the classroom with their friends and teachers, which is why protecting face to face education continues to be our absolute priority.
“As the Government’s ambitious education recovery plan continues to roll out, it’s encouraging to see evidence emerging of children making progress following the impact of the pandemic.
“We know there is much more to do, which is why we are investing almost £5 billion in high quality tutoring, world class training for teachers and early years practitioners, additional funding for schools, and extending time in colleges by 40 hours a year.
“This unprecedented support, alongside time in the classroom with teachers and support staff, will help children and young people to make up for learning lost and get back on track.”
The Government has announced a review into the circumstances leading to Arthur’s murder.