The Liberal Democrats have called on education secretary Gavin Williamson to address questions about the government's record on keeping vulnerable children safe during the coronavirus epidemic.
In a letter sent to the education secretary today, Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, expresses "deep concern" regarding the safety and wellbeing of looked-after children, as well as "the low numbers of vulnerable children attending school and the drop in referrals of children to social services".
"It is imperative that you come before the House, at the earliest possible opportunity, to give all MPs the opportunity to scrutinise the decisions that have been made on keeping vulnerable children safe to date," she writes.
Coronavirus lockdown: 80% fall in teachers in school
The letter comes as government data released today reveals that the numbers of vulnerable children in school last Friday was double that of the previous week.
Coronavirus: Getting more vulnerable pupils into school
According to the data, 78 per cent of schools were open on Friday 24 April – an increase from 61 per cent on the week before.
Over that same time period, the number of children in attendance classed as vulnerable increased to 49,000, compared with 24,000 on Friday 17 April – the last Friday of the Easter break for most.
However, while the number has increased, it has not returned to pre-Easter levels of 61,000 vulnerable children attending.
The number of teaching staff in schools has also risen. On Friday 17 April, there were 59,000 teachers in schools, while a week later that number had gone up by 63 per cent to 96,000.
Answering questions in Parliament would also give Mr Williamson the opportunity to explain "what proactive steps the government is taking to safeguard vulnerable children, especially those in care, at this time, not just which safeguards are being relaxed due to the pandemic", says Ms Moran in her letter.
She adds that a breakdown of the latest attendance statistics shows that "in reality, of the 24,000 of ‘vulnerable’ children who attended school on Friday 17 April, only approximately 14,000 were those ‘in need’ compared to the estimated 6,000 with an EHCP [education, health and care] plan".
She says that while she is pleased that attendance figures had improved in the last week, "10 per cent attendance at most is still, I think you would agree, a figure that needs to be improved upon."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the low levels of attendance among vulnerable children might be accounted for by their prior difficult relationships with school attendance, and the public's attitude towards the lockdown measures.
"First of all, I think a lot of people are concerned about those vulnerable children – Layla Moran, school leaders, the children's commissioner, the secretary of state – because by definition, they are vulnerable and school is a place of safety for them," he said.
"But it was always going to be quite difficult to get them into school. If you are the child of a doctor, and your mum is a key worker, you may feel the moral need to be in school, whereas if you are termed vulnerable, and maybe had a tricky relationship with school, that was always going to be a harder group to reach.
"This is by definition a group where their relationship with attendance may have been mixed, even when their friends were going to school, so the thought that they should go in when their friends are not could make them feel stigmatised."
He added that furthermore, the public response to the lockdown meant that "I don’t think we should be surprised there will be lots of parents who think, whether their child was vulnerable or not, they would be safer at home".
Mr Barton said a focus on pupils with EHCPs could also be "misleading", as for some young people with autism, the lack of familiar staff and support in school currently meant they might be safer at home.
"It’s the children at risk of violence and abuse where we want to do everything we can to ensure they come in," he said.
However, he added that since the end of the Easter holidays, there had been a sense of "normal learning" resuming with the introduction of the online Oak National Academy and BBC resources, and said that ASCL members had been ringing vulnerable children to encourage them to return to school and check on their wellbeing – which could explain a rise in the numbers of vulnerable children in attendance in the past week.
Mr Barton added there was a need to share best practice from settings that were successful in ensuring high numbers of their vulnerable pupils attended.
"Schools that are doing the best with these young people are probably framing what they’re doing in school rather differently," he said, adding that working with familiar staff at a different pace, using activities that "might seem quite special" could be a way of making sure higher numbers of vulnerable pupils come to school.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Schools and early years settings remain open for vulnerable children, who are encouraged to attend where it is appropriate for them to do so, and the children of critical workers.
“The government’s first priority has always been protecting the wellbeing of children and where vulnerable children are not attending an educational setting we have asked local authorities, schools and colleges to continue to keep in touch with them and other vulnerable young people.
“We thank social workers, teachers and education staff for all that they are doing to keep children safe during this challenging time."