When the Creative Youth Network, a youth service based in Bristol, started reaching out to vulnerable young people using the digital tools at hand during lockdown, they must have been aware of the additional barriers it was likely to introduce.
But what struck me from its account of the experience in the media, was that it also opened up new opportunities.
In some cases, young people could be more engaged when speaking to staff online, and youth workers could get a valuable insight into the family’s home life, sometimes flagging up safeguarding issues.
Of course, this has not been the experience of all children’s services, forced to adapt and curtail their activities at pace.
Certainly, social workers anxiously assessing the risks facing families based on a phone call or video chat could paint a different picture.
But it does underline that the pandemic has challenged our assumptions. So how can local and national Government build back children’s services so they are better equipped to meet needs in the ‘new normal’ era?
Putting children at the heart of recovery
The recovery process will progress far more smoothly if it is backed by a single cross-Government strategy that considers the needs of children, young people and their families in the round, from conception to age 25. Children and families must be treated as equal partners in developing and implementing these plans.
Listening to children, parents and the practitioners who support them will help us reflect on why the pandemic did not affect everyone equally. In particular, we need to understand why black and ethnic minority groups were hit so hard and what resources should be allocated to overcome these and other inequalities.
Evidence and data should also be gathered on how needs have changed. Many children and families were not having their needs met or their rights upheld before COVID-19 struck and the pandemic has often made things worse.
In a recent survey of over 4,000 families conducted by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, 86% of parents said that lockdown has had a negative impact on their disabled children’s learning and communication. In three-quarters of cases, the vital care and support these families rely on had stopped altogether, leaving parents and young siblings to take on all care responsibilities around the clock.
We should also prioritise improving our understanding of how children’s wellbeing and mental health has been affected. Specialists in psychology, mental health and neuroscience, have highlighted the mental health risk of lockdown to school children.
Similar warnings apply to very young children. Our analysis of research and policy relating to the mental health of under-fives, predicts that COVID-19 is likely to increase the strain on babies, infants and their parents, and that now is the moment to make their emotional wellbeing a priority.
Invest in children and young people’s futures
Responding to these needs will be impossible for local authorities unless the Government commits to a comprehensive, long-term funding settlement that acknowledges the immense strain that council budgets are under.
The National Children’s Bureau, working with a coalition of children’s charities including NSPCC, Action for Children, Barnardo’s and The Children’s Society, has shown that available funding for local authority children’s services fell by £2.2bn between 2010/11 and 2018/19.
Councils have worked hard to reallocate funds from other budgets and they have partially plugged the funding gap, with spending on children’s services only falling by £536m in the same period.
This precarious situation is unsustainable and is forcing local authorities to make difficult decisions. While they know the best long-term solution is to invest in early intervention services, like children’s centres and youth workers, they simply cannot afford to do this. Instead, they are spending a greater proportion of available funding on children in crisis today.
I am convinced that properly funded early intervention services would have been invaluable during lockdown, when so many vulnerable children did not take up the school places allocated to them, and were effectively hidden from those who could have helped.
Planning for recovery
Even before the pandemic, the pressure on children’s services was at a high. Following COVID-19, councils can expect a further spike in demand for help.
This month, we should start to see how these challenges can be met. NCB is convening a meeting of the children’s minister, parliamentarians, representatives from the children’s sector, and children and young people themselves, at an event by All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children.
The meeting will consider the national action needed to support children, young people and families to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I hope we can agree that only by developing a recovery plan in partnership with children and families, co-ordinated across Government and backed by significant investment, can we hope for an integrated response between different services at a local level.
While the true extent of the devastating impact of coronavirus will only be revealed in the coming months and years, stories like that of the Creative Youth Network, should give us optimism.
Support for children can be built back better, but only if we listen to the important lessons learned.
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau