Coronavirus: 4 key issues for vulnerable at-home pupils

Despite schools remaining open for vulnerable children, some of these pupils will stay at home - here's how to help them

Zofia Niemtus

Safeguarding and Coronavirus – how to protect your pupils remotely

While schools have remained open for vulnerable and at-risk pupils, not all pupils will qualify and not all will take up the offer. 

Here's how schools are still providing help to those pupils.

Coronavirus: Safeguarding vulnerable pupils

1. Selecting the right help for the right pupils and families

For struggling families, help will be needed beyond learning and free school meals.

Leanne Forde-Nassey, headteacher of alternative provision The Key Education Centre in Hampshire, says she is eager to ensure that time and resources are spent where they are most needed.

“We’re talking to our families to ask what it is that they need the most help with,” she explains. “But then the question is how honest they would be with us. Some of the families that we know might need more help might be less likely to say so. 

“We’ve got some quite affluent families, which have children with specific unproductive behaviours and needs, so there aren’t any concerns in the home in that respect. Then there are others: we’ve got siblings who share a pair of shoes.

“And take sanitary products, for example, a lot of girls get those from us. So how do we manage that? Do we give every girl a pack?

"It’s all those little things we do every day that are second nature to us but when we’re not there, how do they get those needs met? That’s what’s keeping us awake at night at the moment.”

2. Staying in contact with pupils

When students are at home, how best can schools check on them?

Keziah Featherstone, head at Q3 Academy Tipton in the West Midlands, has opted for regular phone contact with vulnerable students who aren’t attending. 

“We know who our most vulnerable students are and [if they aren’t in school] their year managers will call them daily to ensure they're OK,” she says. 

Vic Goddard, headteacher of Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex, is taking a similar approach.

“We’re going to stay in daily contact with our vulnerable students and keep offering them to come into school,” he says. “Even if they don’t initially, they might feel differently after a month, so we’re going to try and be flexible on that. 

“The only thing we can do is stay in contact as often as possible. If we are concerned, we will do a face-to-face and knock on the door, but we aren’t the police or the army and we can’t force people to do anything."

At Parklands Primary in Leeds, those on the child protection register who don’t come into school will get “doorstep contact” (when they must be seen) twice a week, says headteacher Chris Dyson.

“And every child at the school will be spoken to by phone at least once a week for wellbeing,” Dyson continues. “We’ll be saying ‘How are you? We’ve not stopped thinking about you,' getting the latest updates, those sorts of things.”

Forde-Nassey and her staff are also planning to continue with visits “where there are safeguarding concerns”, but as a small unit with several staff already in isolation, there are logistical difficulties.  

“What we’ve got to be really careful about is making sure we have enough staff,” she says. “And not all of our staff have business insurance to be able to do visits. I don’t want to put demands on staff of things that we don’t already expect them to do. 

“For a teacher, they may not have that relationship with the family. The only person who might have been in the home is the family support worker, so for that family, it’s hard. It’s a minefield of fragile relationships.” 

Andrew Truby, executive headteacher of St Wilfrid's, St Thomas of Canterbury and St Joseph's schools in Sheffield, says safeguarding checks will be taking place online.

“For our most vulnerable children, what we’ve done through the virtual school is deploy a lot of our support staff and safeguarding team to do regular check-ins with the children in their homes, virtually or by telephone,” he says. “We’re going to check they’re OK, and if we’ve got ongoing safeguarding concerns, making sure they get access to support where necessary. 

“Where we’ve got particular concerns, with a child in care or something like that, we’re working with their social workers individually to put the right things in place.”

3. Contact from families

There’s also the issue of how families can contact staff. 

“What we don’t want to do is give every child full access to every teacher,” Forde-Nassey says. “Our children are less likely to be saying, ‘I’m not certain about that bit of home learning,’ and more likely to be emailing a teacher to say, ‘I’m not safe and I don’t know what to do.' And that’s where we need to protect our staff and have a system, especially if they’re in isolation themselves and can’t deal with it.”

As such, the school is advising families to get in touch via a central email address, which will be monitored by staff, who will make decisions about whether a concern should be passed on to a teacher. 

Goddard’s school is employing a similar procedure, with an emergency line available 24/7.

“All of the parents will have an emergency 24-hour phone number,” he says. “It’s the phone we take on school trips. We’re saying, ‘If there’s a real emergency and you can’t go to anybody else, phone this number,’ and we’ll be taking it in turns to man that.”

But one anonymous teacher from a secondary school in the North of England voiced concerns about their school’s approach.

“We have given every child a card with the school email on. I am going to sit down with each and explain how to protect themselves, how to stay safe, who to ring if they are worried or in danger or if they need food. But we are asking a lot of those kids. Do we really expect them to be able to use this stuff?”

4. Outside services

The anonymous secondary school teacher also has concerns about the gaps between school and social services. 

“We have a lot of very vulnerable children who we check on every day. Some of those children will be in extreme danger if those in charge of them at home know that no one will see that child for weeks at a time. Some of those children will not eat. Some of those children have severe mental health issues.

“My biggest fear is that one of them will come to extreme harm, or even death. I know of two pupils who, without our daily interactions, risk slipping into a situation where I genuinely fear they will commit suicide.”

We spoke to a child and adolescent mental health services worker (who also asked not to be named) about what young people receiving treatment will be able to expect during school closure. They confirmed that the situation is still unclear but moving fast.

 “We’re thinking about all of our cases on their level of need and looking at our high-risk cases especially – how we will continue that support that our young people need. We’re exploring the possibilities of continuing face-up-face contact but also thinking of phone or web sessions. But it’s still all being arranged at the moment.” 

The key for the time being, they continued, was for adults to tackle conversations around closures in as calm and child-friendly a manner as possible. 

“Children are like sponges and absorb everything around them. So if the adults in their lives – whether it’s teachers and parents – stay calm and deal with the issue practically and openly, this should reduce any added anxiety the children will have.” 


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Zofia Niemtus

Zofia Niemtus

Zofia Niemtus is deputy commissioning editor for Tes (Maternity cover)

Find me on Twitter @Zofcha

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