Covid-19: 'Trauma gap' could overwhelm schools and PRUs

Schools and PRUs may both struggle to cope with a huge rise in pupils affected by trauma during lockdown, so we need to act now

Kiran Gill

trauma

The pandemic has been tempestuous for our schools.

School leaders and staff have risen to each new challenge: keeping children safe, feeding them, awarding qualifications in the absence of exams, and delivering remote learning. 

As well as short-term demands, schools must grapple with longer-term fallout.

Children who have not had access to books, laptops and internet during lockdown will have fallen the furthest behind. Covid could turn the “poverty gap” into a chasm in terms of academic progress.

But there is another gulf becoming apparent: one with the potential to have an even more serious and enduring impact on learning than access to resources: the gap between the children who are safe in lockdown, and those who are not.

This is the trauma gap.

Recognising the prevalence of trauma

Before Covid-19, 1 in 10 children had had a social worker because of abuse, neglect or other threats to their safety.

Now, with families losing work, experiencing bereavement, anxiety and living in cramped conditions for weeks, mental health problems and trauma are exacerbated as exemplified by the rise in domestic violence during lockdown.

Previously, children with good relationships experiencing success at school would get respite from a stressful home environment.

Now, these children are socially isolated and less able to remove themselves from harmful situations. 

Safeguarding calls and video lessons into children’s homes are giving teachers insight into the risks children face, and – as one assistant head described to me – the “tsunami of safeguarding disclosures” we might expect once schools re-open.  

Reviewing school behaviour systems and staff training

Having advised the Timpson Review on School Exclusions, and spent three years researching rising exclusion in England, I have seen the patterns that lead to children being asked to leave their schools. 

A common thread is trauma; invariably the root cause of the challenging behaviour that can spiral to exclusion. 

The schools we work with who see exclusions fall put in place continuous training and tools to help staff recognise where challenging behaviour is not a reflection on them and their teaching, but is related to current or past experiences of trauma.

These schools are improving staff capacity to de-escalate altercations; building behaviour systems which allow students to “re-set”, returning in a calmer disposition to confront and repair damage they’ve caused; and apply interventions for those children who are repeatedly struggling to regulate their behaviour.

It has been inspiring to learn from these leaders over the last year – and see how strengthening these systems and training in schools is high on school-leaders’ mind, with an influx of enquiries about the new cohort of practice-sharing senior leaders we are building.

Resourcing pupil referral units to respond to a rise in exclusions

Exclusion is intended to be a last resort that allows schools to maintain safety in the school community. But those who experience it are disproportionately drawn from the population of least advantaged children.

Excluded children are four times more likely to be free school meals eligible, more likely to have fallen behind academically and twenty times more likely to have interacted with social services. 

The number of children in these vulnerable categories is set to increase. We might, then, expect an increase in the numbers of children whose traumatised and challenging behaviour spirals towards school exclusion, shortly after schools re-open, and in the years following.

Addressing the challenge of rising exclusion will require a clear-eyed response from politicians to match that of the country’s teachers.

The role of PRUs

I am privileged to work with some pupil referral units (PRUs) whose trauma-informed approach to learning has delivered remarkable outcomes for a cohort who have struggled elsewhere.

But the quality of this education hangs in the balance: these schools are already struggling to maintain their therapeutic services and ratio of qualified to unqualified teachers.

PRUs can quickly fall into special measures. In our IPPR research, we found case study pupil referral units where the quality of educational provision and safety had plummeted, following a spike in local school exclusions.

When these under-resourced schools had 50 per cent or even 100 per cent more students than they had been expecting, the supply teachers they relied on could not build relationships, were described by Ofsted as hindering learning with their low expectations and made unsafe decisions – in one instance, locking up fire extinguishers, in another locking fire escapes.

Nationally, our record on serving excluded children is already poor. Less than 5 per cent currently pass a qualification in English and maths. We must do better.

A better society

Covid has galvanised society. We acknowledge our key workers, we clap for our carers, we recognise the simple joys in life that we took for granted. 

We seek to be judged as a society on how we treat our most vulnerable and I am proud to work with school leaders in mainstream and alternative provision schools who embody that. 

Each week they are responding to new challenges amongst their cohort, reading to gain new professional development and reviewing their systems all while balancing the priorities of the unfolding pandemic.

To mitigate the worst impacts of the pandemic on children already dealt the poorest hand, we need our policymakers to prioritise these children too and to resource schools – both mainstream and AP – for the challenges to come.

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Kiran Gill

Kiran Gill is the founder and CEO of the school leadership charity The Difference. She is a former teacher and advisor to the Timpson Review of School Exclusions.

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