By Adelaide Brown, Policy Scotland Intern
As many adults have had to make the transition of working from home amidst COVID-19, so too have the children and young people had to transition to learning from home. Many parents stretched thin from overseeing both their work and their children’s education have probably questioned exactly when their children may be returning to a structured school environment, and the children have probably questioned when they can return to their friends and extracurricular activities. Likewise goes for the teachers and education professionals, of course, who wonder when their work can resume some semblance of normalcy.
As of the date of writing (16 July), schools in Scotland are planning to be back in session from 11 August, with no physical distancing in classrooms on the condition that coronavirus (COVID-19) numbers continue a downward trend. Education Secretary John Swinney announced an extra £100m of funding over two years to help children return to school and “recover any lost ground”. £30m of that funding is proposed for laptops for the 70,000 most disadvantaged pupils, citing concerns of the impact home learning has had on the attainment gap. This attainment gap between children from lower and higher income families existed well before coronavirus (COVID-19), and as evidenced by this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, it impacts the life-course of children from lower income families in a profound way.
While many parents and their children look forward to the possibility of returning to the sense of normalcy which school provides for any number of reasons, we consider the preparedness of schools to address the ever-growing and evolving needs of families when young people step foot in schools once again. Wealth gaps surely will have widened as people have been furloughed or made redundant, and with mental health reports from the past supplying us with the knowledge that youth often suffer disproportionately during times of economic recession, such possibilities must be anticipated and mitigated. Atop mental health concerns are those of physical health: early reports from physicians have pointed to an increase in the neglect and abuse of young and other vulnerable people during this time. There have also been increased reports of domestic abuse against women and children during lockdown which marries the mental and physical health concerns. The adversities children may have faced while away from school are numerous.
The work and responsibilities of school professionals will therefore need to be expanded upon to address the mounting challenges faced by school-aged children and young people and their families, and especially the most vulnerable of them. As Tom Madders, Campaigns Director at YoungMinds, said, “some of the most vulnerable young people in our society – including those who have experienced abuse, violence or neglect – are often the hardest to identify. We need to ensure that effective support is available for all children who need it now and as restrictions lift”.
The question is then, how can existing policies address these needs and close these gaps so as to ensure bright futures for the children and young people in Scotland?
Getting It Right For Every Child
Getting It Right For Every Child, or GIRFEC for short, was introduced in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act (2014) and is deemed “a key part of the Scottish Government’s strategy for making Scotland the best place in the world for children to grow up”. This is done “by facilitating a shift in public services towards the early years of a child’s life, and towards early intervention whenever a family or young person needs help”. GIRFEC is one of the key ways that Scottish schools can respond to the evolving needs of children and young people as schools reopen.
As teachers, head teachers, school social workers, and trusted adults from community organisations will be back to working with children and young people with potentially higher needs, GIRFEC’s understanding of wellbeing is a valuable way to foreground this work. The SHANARRI indicators are a useful tool for decisionmaking when considering if a child is in need of outside intervention and support from their role. SHANARRI stands for the following:
- Safe: protected from abuse, neglect, or harm at home, at school, and in the community
- Healthy: having the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health, access to suitable healthcare, and support in learning to make healthy and safe choices
- Achieving: being supported and guided in their learning and in the development of their skills, confidence and self-esteem at home, at school, and in the community
- Nurtured: having a nurturing place to live, in a family setting with additional help if needed or when/ where this is not possible, in a suitable care setting
- Active: having opportunities to take part in activities such as play, sport, and recreation which contribute to healthy growth and development, both at home and in the community
- Respected: having the opportunity, along with carers, to be heard and involved in decisions that affect them
- Responsible: having opportunities & encouragement to play active and responsible roles in their schools and communities and, where necessary, having appropriate guidance and supervision and being involved in decisions which affect them
- Included: having help to overcome social, educational, physical and economic inequalities and being accepted as part of the community which they live and learn in
If these adults feel that any of the SHANARRI principles are being violated and that it would be best for them to step in to correct this, they can do a number of things, including connecting families to resources they’d be eligible for to help foster wellbeing for these children.
Critiques of GIRFEC have been offered by Emma Coles, et al. (2016), stating that, “Tensions have arisen around issues such as professional roles; intrusion, data sharing, and confidentiality; and the balance between supporting well‐being and protecting children. Despite the policy’s intentions for integration, the service landscape for children and families still remains relatively fragmented”. In particular, the inclusion of the Named Person scheme was rife with controversy from its introduction, and the plan for this scheme was eventually scrapped in September 2019. However, the principles underpinning this policy – that we should invest in collaborative, integrated services to ensure children’s wellbeing across all the SHANAARI indicators – remain ever-relevant.
GIRFEC’s potential impact on problems children face
As aforementioned, COVID-19 has likely widened wealth gaps, and negatively impacted mental and physical wellbeing. The NSPCC, for example, has reported an alarming 32% spike in calls from people concerned about the effects of domestic abuse on children and young people since the beginning of lockdown, stating that: “since the [beginning of] lockdown 1,500 adults contacted the NSPCC Helpline about the risks to children” of which 58% of these cases led to referrals or referral updates to local authorities. The report goes on to read, “In some cases, fears about the virus were exploited to withhold access to children, cut off contact to family and friends, and monitor movement under the pretext of keeping them safe from the virus. Those affected said this made it difficult to leave and speak out”.
The NSPCC report accompanies broader reports from the Justice Department which states they’ve recorded a relative increase of domestic violence against women and children, with some cases proving to be more severe during lockdown and perpetrators using abusive behavior specific to coronavirus, such as “spitting at victims or within the house; coughing on or at victims/children; threatening victims with infection; and coercing victims to allow access into their home”.
Fegert et al (2020) note in particular that past data indicates economic recessions result in higher reports of domestic abuse. This abuse, paired with isolation and quarantine necessary to suppress the virus, prevents survivors from accessing support systems and protections outside the home, which can lead to “adjustment problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and even suicide of both, adults and young people”. These are phenomena we must be concerned about right now, along with “additional quarantine-related mental health problems includ[ing] low mood, irritability, insomnia, anger and emotional exhaustion” in addition to self-harming behavior. WHO echoes many of these mental health concerns in this report. Teachers and social workers in schools will therefore likely see an increase in the need to connect these children and families to mental health resources, and may also need to intervene via child protective services.
The most vulnerable populations to these concerns are those coming from low income environments, refugees, and children and families with pre-existing mental needs such as autism. Such concerns stem from “increased economic pressure [on] low-income families due to lack of savings”, “a lack of medical and psychiatric specialist care for [refugees]”, and “[the] depriv[ation] of professional support systems [for] families and parents [who] have been left to cope on their own…due to closure of specialized and complex educational settings for children with developmental problems and multiple handicaps”.
Given the discussed reports on domestic violence, maltreatment, mental health, and the attainment gap, it’s clear that teachers and support workers both inside and outside of school will be quite busy upon school re-openings as they work to ensure the wellbeing of school children and their families in complex, varied and evolving ways, working on a case-by-case basis with each individual child. No doubt, an all-encompassing task. A COVID-19 education recovery group sponsored by the Scottish Government share concern over these and other issues, and are thus working to address them in the time ahead.
GIRFEC creates a vision and provides principles of intervention (led by SHANAARI) so that schools can rise to the challenges COVID-19 has introduced or increased the severity of for children and their families. However, it is likely that resources such as social workers, youth workers, and counsellors will need more investment to respond to the growing needs of the school aged population and their families, and I hope that policymakers will centre children’s wellbeing in every plan for a successful recovery.
- BBC. 23 June 2020. Scottish schools aim to reopen full-time in August.
- Bhopal S, Buckland A, McCrone R, et al. “Who has been missed? Dramatic decrease in numbers of children seen for child protection assessments during the pandemic” (PDF). Arch Dis Child. Epub ahead of print: [accessed 28 June 2020]. doi:10.1136/ archdischild-2020-319783
- Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014
- Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014: National Guidance on Part 12: Services in relation to Children at Risk of Becoming Looked After, etc.
- Coles, Emma, Helen Cheyne, Jean Rankin, and Brigid Daniel. 2016. “Getting It Right for Every Child: A National Policy Framework to Promote Children’s Well‐being in Scotland, United Kingdom”. The Milbank Quarterly. 94(2): 334-365
- Fegert, Jörg M., Benedetto Vitiello, Paul L. Plener & Vera Clemens. 2020. “Challenges and burden of the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic for child and adolescent mental health: a narrative review to highlight clinical and research needs in the acute phase and the long return to normality”. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. 14 (20)
- Getting It Right For Every Child: Wellbeing (SHANARRI)
- NSPCC. 2020. “Calls about domestic abuse highest on record following lockdown increase”
- Scottish Government. 2020. “Workstreams of the C-19 Education Recovery Group” (PDF)
- Scottish Government, Justice Analytical Services. 2020. “Domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) during COVID-19 lockdown, for the period 30/3/20 – 22/05/20” (PDF)
- Sosu, Edward and Sue Ellis. 2014. “Closing the attainment gap in Scottish education” (PDF), Joseph Rowntree Foundation
- University of Oxford. 16 June 2020. “Children show increase in mental health difficulties over COVID-19 lockdown”
- World Health Organization. 2020. “Mental health and psychological resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic”
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