Safeguarding: Return to Education

ETF Associate Polly Harrow looks at the impact of Covid-19 and the restrictions it has prompted and considers their impact on safeguarding and the issues that must be addressed as learners return to face-to-face learning and a ‘new normal’ is established.

Safeguarding in education and skills-based training has become an increasingly challenging area of work for Designated Safeguarding Leads, Deputies and other staff working within the safeguarding remit. With the arrival of Covid-19 and the attendant lockdowns and restrictions, safeguarding practitioners had to move purposefully and quickly to ensure that those responsibilities continued to be prioritised. The response from the sector in ensuring safeguarding remained effective during the pandemic has quite rightly been acknowledged as commendable.

It was understood from the off that learners being ‘locked down’ at home did not automatically equate to them being in a safe and secure environment; indeed, it was not long before serious safeguarding issues began to emerge which were compounded by the lockdown, including rising rates of domestic violence and abuse incidents, between adults and also between children and adults, significant increases in online risk and exploitation, and the huge upsurge in mental health concerns.

In their report Out of Sight, Vulnerable Young People, Covid–19 Response, published in July 2020, The National Youth Agency (NYA) pointed to some startling statistics:

  • Over one million young people with known mental health needs, which have been amplified by the pandemic; 84% reporting worse mental health after education closures and reduced access to support.
  • Two million young people with emerging needs triggered by the pandemic.
  • Over one million young people ‘at risk, at home’ from domestic violence and abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health needs.
  • 700,000 young people persistently absent from education, employment or training.

‘Young people’ in the context of the NYA research are between 8–19 years old, so a proportion fall outside the scope of post-16 education; however, the scale of the impact of Covid-19 on our learners cannot and must not be underestimated.

Safeguarding practitioners in the FE and skills sector are sadly familiar with learners who are estranged from family or carers, homeless and/or ‘sofa surfing’. The impact of Covid-19 on these learners is clear; it is simply not possible to stay within the strict lockdown rules and move from one house to another. Add to that the increase in numbers becoming newly estranged due to the pressures of lockdown, be they familial, financial, physical or emotional.

In terms of online risk in the virtual world, there is much evidence of the huge rise in gaming, gaming addiction, use or access of pornography, distribution of self-generated nudes, and talking to strangers. One hugely popular game requires gamers to successfully avoid the police whilst establishing the equivalent of county lines drug dealing operations. The more drugs they sell, the more money they make, the more things they can buy. If they are arrested, then watching an information piece gets them immediate release.

Many of us will be aware of the reported increases in hate speech linked to the spread of Covid-19, directed at Chinese and South East Asian people in the UK, and indeed the conspiracy theories which have been promoted about both Coronavirus itself and the vaccination programme. Some of those supporting these views are well known celebratory figures, influential to young people.

After the recent case of the ‘youngest convicted terrorist in the UK’, radicalised by far-right extremists, there is renewed focus on the threat of radicalisation and grooming through gaming and online chat rooms, where disinformation can easily be promoted. This, in a time of isolation, remote learning, separation from family and friends, alongside any other emotional trauma which may have been suffered, is what the police describe as ‘the perfect storm’, leading to an increase in arrests for terrorism charges among children as young as 14. Sara Khan, the UK lead commissioner for countering extremism, stated that far right extremists are ‘deliberately radicalising the UK’s children’.

So, given our understanding of the long-term effects of this pandemic on our young people, how does education deal with what is being termed ‘the new normal’?

Included in the NSPCC’s report Isolated and Struggling (June 2020), research from the University of Bath explores how neuroscience can inform safeguarding. I would go further and suggest that neuroscience could and should inform the wider curriculum also. Understanding the neuroscience, alongside adopting a ‘trauma informed’ approach, as it is sometimes called, is based on an understanding of how the teenage brain develops and how the period of changes in the adolescent brain can lead to increased desires for peer approval, reduced ability to delay gratification, and boosted impulsive decision making. A ‘trauma informed’ approach understands the physical, psychological and emotional impact of traumatic lived experience.

To plan and prepare for the return to education of young people so affected by the pandemic, it was important to be acutely mindful of the learning from neuroscience and the development of the teenage brain, and focus our staff development and approaches on a range of activities designed to fit best with that learning, to maximise engagement and impact across our learners bodies.

Enrichment programmes and wider college strategies can focus on a range of activities including positive relationship building, restorative practice, positive social communication, facilitation of constructive social groups, promotion of physical and mental health and wellbeing, and positive social rewards. Raising awareness of ‘fake news’, disinformation and widespread fraudulent scams remains a priority.

Building on the widespread sector training linked to the Prevent agenda, refresher training on return to full opening is a good idea, given the known increased activity discussed earlier in this blog. FE Prevent Co-ordinators offer support in keeping the sector informed about extremist threats and this essential information sharing can inform both tutorial and pastoral/enrichment activity.

Regular safeguarding briefings are valued across all staff and help to create an ‘informed staff’ high-vigilance approach to reporting and referral.

The term ‘vulnerable group’ seems to have accrued a wider range of characteristics during the pandemic, but certainly it is important to consider not just the potential increase in numbers of estranged learners, but also the children of front-line workers who, like children of armed forces personnel, could be more vulnerable due to their lived experience through this period, and may need careful attention on return to full time education.

In summary, planning and preparation for a return to education needs to be done with care and concern and in full recognition of the multitude of experiences learners had during this strangest and toughest of times.

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