Children whose safety may be at risk if they stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic are – for the most part – not taking up the offer to continue attending school, according to Scotland’s commissioner for children and young people.
In an exclusive interview with Tes Scotland, Bruce Adamson revealed the uptake of the places set aside in schools and childcare hubs for vulnerable children was “very, very low”.
He said the low uptake probably came down to a combination of stigma and poor communication. He said there might also be some practical difficulties, like travel to and from hub schools, which were preventing families from taking up the places.
Mr Adamson – who said the coronavirus pandemic would have a “disproportionate effect” on families experiencing poverty – is also calling for the Scottish government to introduce a national scheme for the continuation of free school meals.
He would like to see direct payments of at least £20 per week per child paid into the bank accounts of families whose children claim free school meals – double the amount many councils are giving families currently.
Free meals: How councils plan to provide free meals
The Scottish government announced recently it would be providing an additional £30 million to councils so they could support families unable to access food as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. It said the funding would allow local authorities to help, among others, families with children who were eligible for free school meals.
Coronavirus: Call for a better system to provide meals to school pupils
However, Mr Adamson said that local authority provision for free meals was “very, very mixed” and that direct funding from the government would be better than the wide variety of approaches being taken, including food vouchers for shops, food deliveries and pick-ups that required “struggling families to go some distance” every day to collect meals.
Mr Adamson said: “We have been surveying local authorities and provision [of free school meals] is very, very mixed – there are lots of different approaches. Our strong call to government is that it should be starting to look at putting cash direct into the bank accounts of families. A national scheme where direct payments go to families would cut through a lot of this.”
He continued: “Closing the schools was the right thing to do for public health and to keep people alive – everyone understands that. But it does create particular challenges in terms of child protection and the support we need to keep providing to families.
“The take-up for children for whom there are concerns about their care and protection [in terms of them taking places at childcare hubs] has been very, very low. It’s difficult to get exact numbers but what we are hearing is for key workers the take-up is as you would expect, but for children we have concerns about it is very low.
“It’s understandable, I think. Parents and carers might be a bit confused – there could be problems with communication – and they might feel there is stigma attached to their children being in school when other kids are not, or there might be practical difficulties. It could be that key workers were coming in to help children get ready for school and dropping them off. Those services could have dropped away.”
In the wake of the first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that schools would close on 20 March, the education secretary John Swinney said that the Scottish government would not “cut adrift vulnerable young people, who often rely on school life for hot meals or for a safe, nurturing and supportive environment”.
Midway through the first week of the school closures, Ms Sturgeon said that around 1 per cent of pupils were continuing to attend childcare provision – often in schools – but she stressed the figures were early estimates, and gave no breakdown of the numbers.
In light of vulnerable children not attending school, Mr Adamson said it was vital councils kept in touch with families and supported them in other ways.
“What is essential is that we are still keeping in touch with families who need support,” he said.
“That can be done in lots of ways – it can be done with a phone call or a Skype call or a conversation at a safe distance from the doorstep – but what is really important is that families still need to get that support.”
Mr Adamson said that for some children the lockdown would be “catastrophic” and could have an impact on their mental health into adulthood. As well as food security, he said he was concerned about families having enough outdoor and indoor space and "digital exclusion".
One of the positive aspects of the lockdown, he said, was the “amazing communities” that were being built online – and the artists and coaches who were making content available for free.
Disadvantaged families who lacked devices and data were being excluded from this, he said.
But it was not just “the fun stuff” these families were being excluded from, it was also education, he said.
He called for the government to put pressure on telecommunications companies to provide significant increases in data, or to provide unlimited data.
“I’m not suggesting it should be charity but the government should support business on a not-for-profit basis to increase provision,” said Mr Adamson. “In other countries there have been government initiatives but also business has come forward and done these things for the social good. Either way, we need to come up with solutions, otherwise the huge resources and supports that are being in place are not going to reach the children who need them most.”