Rising to the back-to-school challenge

By Tim Aldridge | 14 September 2020

As I write I have recently emerged out of a period of quarantine. After a family holiday in France we were shut away for 14 days. It started off OK, and for the first week we actually quite enjoyed it. We started off with high aspirations, doing regular exercise, playing board games and de-cluttering.

Then things began to unravel. At the start of week two my seven year old son managed to break the television with his belt buckle, he said he just ‘pinged it’? On day eight he started digging holes in the garden. By day ten both kids insisted on wearing roller skates all day and it deteriorated from that point onwards. Fortunately we emerged from quarantine moments before I was obliged to self-refer to social services!

The London borough of Newham saw an initial fall in referrals due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As expected, the highest drop in contacts was those from schools.

Many local families were fearful of sending their children to school, given their perceived vulnerabilities, and the high impact of the first wave on the local population. In common with other areas, we anticipate an increase in demand for services as schools return.

During this pandemic, domestic violence cases have increased by 20% during lockdown as many people were trapped at home with their abuser.

Locally, we saw domestic abuse accounting for a higher proportion of referrals, and the severity of the concerns also increased.

To manage the potential rise, we will temporarily increase capacity in our multi-agency safeguarding hub to offer more consultations. As part of sustaining the innovation programme NewDay we have two education specialists joining our early help service to support schools working with children where domestic abuse is a factor.

In Newham, we have been focused on engaging with local families and providing reassurance. A key focus has been to explain the negative impact on children of the disruption to their schooling and the benefits of returning to school. We know this is likely to have had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised families – and it will be children from more affluent and privileged backgrounds who are more likely to bounce back the quickest. This means the focus across schools and education services over this academic year must be on doing all we can to deliver a recovery curriculum that aims to close this gap.

We know that children’s mental health and wellbeing thrives when they have safety, supportive networks and stability. Due to the disruption over the last six months, there has been a negative impact on the mental health of children and young people. The greatest impact is being felt in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

In Newham we have set up a new Children and Young People Mental Health Partnership in response. Tailored training has been developed for schools, and our HeadStart colleagues are providing a wide range of interventions to help young people in their return to school.

The COVID-19 outbreak has thrown a spotlight on the existing health and financial disparities and inequities across the country and areas like Newham. Statistics from Public Health England show diagnoses and death rates were highest among people from black and Asian communities. The impact of this pandemic hit Newham hard, with over 300 deaths during this current wave. Unless we deal with disparities head-on as a council the gap will widen.

Beyond the illness, loss of life and economic upheaval, the ‘collective trauma’ of George Floyd’s death has left us all feeling overwhelmed with difficult emotions and questions and yet has also galvanised us to not lose hope.

The Black Lives Matter movement presents us with a once-in- a-generation opportunity to root out systemic racism at a personal, organisation and societal level. I don’t want our children to witness, experience or repeat the same conversations in five, 15 or even 20 years’ time.

The tragic story of Mercy Baguma, found next to her malnourished one-year-old son in a Glasgow flat, has shone a spotlight on families who have no recourse to public funds and are not able to work due to the pandemic.

We are working with local voluntary and community sector partners to design a holistic model to deliver services ‘then and there’ and ensure no family falls through the net. It is a real example of how in these difficult times, innovation can benefit the neediest in our community, a challenge that is central to public service.

Tim Aldridge is the corporate director of children’s services at Newham LBC


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Childrens services Public health Safeguarding Communities inequality Coronavirus