Closing the gap

By Ann McGauran | 21 July 2020

Jenny Coles is a keen sailor and not opposed to the occasional nautical reference. Her written statement this month as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) focused on the need for a recovery strategy to help people ‘navigate unchartered waters’ as we both tackle and learn to live with coronavirus.

In her statement, which marked the start of the organisation’s virtual annual conference, she said the toll of the pandemic on children’s futures must not be underestimated. This frankly-spoken president called for an overhaul of welfare reforms, including the ‘ill-fated Universal Credit’ and the ‘loathsome benefit cap’. She also said children’s services directors and their teams had shown ‘extraordinary leadership’ during the ‘tsunami’ of pressures they were facing during the crisis.

She stated that lockdown had exposed the inequalities and social injustice in society.

Then, last week, the ADCS released a discussion paper Building a country that works for all children post-COVID-19 aimed at putting children, young people and their experiences of the pandemic at the heart of national recovery planning.

The paper also sets out what is required to restore the public services they depend on, and captures the ‘positives and gains’ made during this very complex emergency.

The pandemic has heightened the challenges faced by many children and families, including poverty, poor quality housing, access to technology, safe places to play and food, according to the paper. It has called on the Department for Education to spell out the impact of COVID-19 on childhood across Government and to lead on securing enough resources for children’s services in the Spending Review.

Launching the report, Ms Coles said achieving a country that works for all children in a post-COVID world calls for long-term strategies to close the gap in terms of education, health and poverty. Speaking to The MJ, she highlighted ‘education, and the amount of time that has been lost to children, not only in terms of their learning, but in terms of their socialisation and broader support – the emotional health and wellbeing that they get from attending school’.

During lockdown there has been disparity between the haves and the have-nots – those young people who have access to good technology and parents who have time to support them at home in their learning, and those where they haven’t got access to that technology, she added.

On funding, she underlined the point that cash for children’s services and special educational needs and disability (SEND) cannot keep being addressed on a piecemeal basis. The chancellor’s autumn statement is the time to finally put things on a firm footing, she believes. ‘Yes, the autumn statement is the time to set out a three-year Budget. We’d welcome that.’

According to Ms Coles, the bigger impacts of the pandemic will only hit later this year, when the system will be under great financial pressure. ‘There’s been a lot of extra funding put in, but of course what we anticipated – the big pressures for children’s services across the piece – is going to come later on in the year.

‘But that money is already being spent at the moment – and rightly so – to cover costs. That’s what is really worrying local authorities – that gap.’

What directors of children’s services are most concerned about, she explained, are those families who were probably coping before the crisis, but who are now being drawn into a situation where they are finding it hard to do that.

She added: ‘There’s that hidden demand and the hidden requirements for help, with more families falling into not being able to be as resilient as they would have wanted to be.’

There have been some positives during this most grim of times, she pointed out, including a decrease in criminal activity. These offer opportunities for prevention, particularly around exploitation and gangs, she said. But unfortunately these gangs are beginning to reform, she added – and there are also cases of children going missing during COVID in many areas.

The widespread use of new and different ways of working during the pandemic, including use of Skype and WhatsApp as a way of ‘visiting’ children has not replaced face-to-face contact. But Ms Coles said councils have ‘taken risks on things that before they would have spent six to eight months implementing’.

‘People got those technologies within a week and I think that ability to act quickly has been really helpful and we won’t be going back from that’.

There are concerns about the ‘whole tide of health being drawn away to adult health – and that’s a worry. For children, those developmental checks and mental health checks, the longer it is left the harder it is to catch up’.

In conclusion she said the host of unsolved challenges before COVID haven’t gone away and will probably re-emerge – along with the whole tsunami of new issues caused by the pandemic.

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