At the Westminster Insight SEND conference, Sonia Blandford says government is ignoring a worrying rise in SEND and CAHMS referrals that we are not prepared for

Strange. Challenging. Unprecedented. Just a few of the words we have all used to describe the period since COVID-19 has impacted on all of our lives. But while it’s been difficult enough to understand from the position of a secure family home with no prior needs or experience of disadvantage, there are many for whom it has been simply devastating.

In our work with education settings all over the country, we are detecting a major seismic event: a tsunami of referrals to SEND teams and CAMHS provision that will overtop the flood defences.

Let me talk you through some of the situations students we work with have found themselves in. (All names have been changed.)

Kadija is 18 and shares a bedroom with her mum, a single parent who survives by working and claiming benefits. Her older sister has had mental health and drug problems, so living at home is a trial.

Kadija was to have taken A levels. But her mocks, disrupted by family trauma, resulted in a C, E and U, against predicted grades of A*, C and C.

She is getting little additional income through occasional shifts in the pub her house, and she has little or no motivation to continue with her ambition to go to university to study medicine. Kadija is vulnerable and disadvantaged but does not fall within Educational, Health, Care Plan (EHCP) or Free School Meals support or subsidies.

Then there is Tess. She is 16, with high-end physical and cognitive disabilities, and significant emotional needs. Tess is disabled and vulnerable, but she lives in a rural area and her support system – including specialist teaching and learning services – located 90 miles away. They take over two hours to get to her.

Luke is 10, a looked-after child, fostered by a single parent and living in an overcrowded home. The family are reliant on benefits and regular support from social services. Luke’s key worker has been self-isolating for 10 days, and Luke has had no contact with him.

Kadija, Tess and Luke share a common situation, which makes them vulnerable and disadvantaged – they do not have the normal points of reference shared by so many of their peers. Their world is different, needing significant structure and support.

Trying to seek support when the structure of their lives has disappeared has been traumatic

For all children and young people, it is home that provides the benchmark for their lives. We know that ‘home’ is where we develop and nurture our core strength, and the pandemic has caused us all to revalue the meaning of home and the importance of the quality of shelter, food, safety, personal growth, health, and love that it holds.

So have Kadija, Tess and Luke. But for them and thousands like them, watching the news or scrolling social media, trying to seek support when the structure of their lives has disappeared has been traumatic.

Education institutions and third sector organisations have stepped in to care for vulnerable and disadvantaged young people over the past 16 months. Teachers have provided daily one-to-one support, checked meal vouchers had arrived and that there is somewhere to sleep, clothes to wear.

In the meantime, government’s key focus has been on learning. But in truth Kadija, Tess and Luke have a long way to go before this is their priority. Their teachers, carers and support networks face the challenge of providing new stable reference points before any form of learning can take place.

Physical and emotional security, love and belonging are their priority, so our key question must be this: How will we get them the highly specialised and urgent support they need to overcome the social, emotion and mental health issues caused by lockdown?

Some of these young people would have been on a road towards more positive life outcomes, overcoming ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) through the care and support of their school communities.

But many have been re-traumatised. And for them, specialist help is not a luxury, but an absolute and immediate necessity.

And supporting that ought to be the government’s priority.