Policy makers are able to really see vulnerable students for the first time, but will they choose to look? Ask Harry Quilter-Pinner and Kiran Gill
“I had such an extreme reaction to being shouted at. I would often have big meltdowns.” It was when Tara’s headteacher understood that her mother had bipolar disorder that the patterns behind her behaviour could be put together.
“I made sure that the teachers knew not to shout at Tara,” says her head. “When we did have problems and a fixed-term exclusion, Tara never went home – she stayed in my office until she was ready to repair what had gone wrong.”
In this period of her life, Tara was vulnerable. She didn’t have special educational needs. She wasn’t living in poverty. But what was going on at home meant she needed adjustments for her to thrive at school. Now she is a university graduate and runs her own business, but that could very easily have not been the case. “I didn’t want to be a statistic,” she says.
But too often children like Tara – those vulnerable because of circumstances at home – do become statistics.
Children with these vulnerabilities are not guaranteed visibility or funding
In increasing numbers, children in England today experience fear and distress at home: domestic violence, serious mental health problems, family addiction and neglect, sexual or psychological abuse. When these damaging experiences reach such severity that families need a social worker to intervene and protect children, those are the children most likely to underperform at school, and to be not in education, employment or training afterwards.
To make matters worse, reports of domestic violence and serious adult mental health problems rose significantly during lockdown. Which children did this affect? And what do they need to get back on track?
Students with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) are clearly identified. Frontline teachers know which of those students need bespoke input in order to succeed in line with their peers; school governors track the gap in attainment between them and others; and Ofsted can see differences in provision and progress when holding schools to account.
For higher levels of SEND, and for children who have lived in poverty within the past six years (Pupil Premium), it is recognised that schools often take on extra work in order to close the gap and extra funding is made available to meet these needs.
Yet children with the vulnerabilities described above are not guaranteed such visibility or funding.
In the weeks and months coming out of lockdown, we have seen where children’s vulnerability means their school has to take extra measures to keep them safe: doing home visits, buying in mental health support and training staff in trauma-informed practice. Some 52,000 children have met the threshold for a Child Protection Plan, and this group are 25 months behind their peers.
During lockdown, government took the laudable step of asking schools to make a list of who was vulnerable in order to declare attendance. IPPR is recommending that this continue, in a similar way to their identification of pupils with SEND, so that there can be more frontline recognition of their needs and progress.
But to address youth unemployment, rising youth violence and serious mental health problems, we must also recognise the vital and costly work their schools do to keep them safe and help them succeed, especially at the higher levels of need.
We need a vulnerability premium, to reach those children who have had a child protection plan in the past six years. In schools where vulnerability is concentrated, this would allow more to take up specialist training or even to hire a social worker – an idea whose pilot has shown promising results.
These young people need political focus. School leaders already recognise the challenges faced by their vulnerable students, but if we are to mitigate the worst impacts of the yawning trauma gap on our economy and society, policymakers need to join them.
As we know now more than ever, prevention really is less costly than cure.