Agenda item

Impact of COVID-19 on Education and Children's Social Care


The Assistant Director Education and Skills introduced the report and stated that a previous report presented to the Committee in July had requested data on attainment, but explained that this was currently not available. She stated that therefore this report outlined how the service was supporting children on a holistic level. She stated that a survey had been sent out to schools to collect this information, and the completed report had been sent back to schools for their information. She added that it was also good to hear that the Youth Cabinet were undertaking work relating to mental health, as this was a concern within the service.

The Assistant Director Education and Skills stated that the main elements of the report related to the socialisation of children, particularly those children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), as children required socialisation with their peers that they did not necessarily receive during the pandemic. She stated that some children had enjoyed isolation, whereas others had not, so the report highlighted a mixed individual picture. She explained that work was being undertaken to support children’s socialisation and consultation had been undertaken during the pandemic to find out what schools needed. She commented that from this consultation the team had set up ‘The Hangout’ and ‘The Junior Hangout’ to improve children’s socialisation.

The Assistant Director Education and Skills stated that the pandemic had also had an impact on children’s learning, as schools had reported that children had lower stamina and resilience for learning. She highlighted that the School’s Forum had also reported increased speech and language problems among the EYFS cohort, which could lead to an increased number of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in the future. She stated that the team were therefore working closely with schools to ensure teachers and other professionals were working with children experiencing speech and language difficulties.

The Assistant Director Education and Skills added that the team were also seeing challenges amongst Year 11 pupils in schools, but highlighted that the government was still planning for exams to take place next summer, but this was dependent on a number of factors including the new Omicron variant. She clarified that schools were still experiencing problems relating to COVID-19 as some schools were seeing significant outbreaks, and children and staff were having to self-isolate, so the team were working to mitigate these challenges. She stated that attendance was currently 90% which was lower than pre-COVID levels, but in line with the national average. 

The Assistant Director Children’s Social Care (CSC) and Early Help added that the team had now moved to business as usual, with 98% of contact happening face-to-face, with remote contact only occurring as an exception after being risk assessed. She explained that the team were also using hybrid working, with some people in the office and some people working from home. She added that the courts had also decided to maintain a hybrid system, with the majority of court proceedings occurring via video, and only occurring in-person if necessary. The Assistant Director CSC and Early Help explained that an Ofsted focussed visit had occurred in June, which had found that Thurrock had been creative during the pandemic and staff had received regular updates on guidance and advice. She added that teams were now starting to meet in-person, particularly when a new starter entered the team as it provided a chance for them to meet and get to know everyone.

The Assistant Director CSC and Early Help stated that throughout the height of the pandemic the team had continued to help children, and had mostly moved online, including all training and the monthly forum meetings. She added that during the height of lockdown, central government had lifted some duties required by social workers, but Thurrock had continued as business as usual for as much as possible. She stated that face to face meetings with foster carers were now beginning again, but felt that foster carers had adapted to using the technology well. She added that some children who had not been living at home had struggled as they could not have regular face to face contact with their families, but some older children and teenagers had enjoyed the video calls with their families as it meant they could talk to their families more regularly and fit these contact meetings around their lives. She explained that in May 2021, 129 contacts had been via video and 67 contacts had been in person. She explained that the team had also worked to help care leavers who had felt isolated during the pandemic, by providing them with laptops, Wi-Fi and bikes to maintain work and social contact. She added that some care leavers had also been affected by the reduction in Universal Credit payments and the rise in gas and electricity payments.

Councillor Anderson highlighted the rise in domestic violence incidents during the pandemic, and asked if these were reducing now lockdown measures had eased. He queried what Thurrock Council could do to reduce domestic violence in the borough. The Assistant Director CSC and Early Help replied that Thurrock worked closely with partners such as the Domestic Violence Board to look at trends in domestic violence, both within Thurrock and on a national level. She stated that domestic violence rates had increased during COVID-19, but referral rates for children had decreased due to the closure of schools. She added that Thurrock had a specialist Domestic Violence Worker that worked with both men and women to create a safe environment for them, and worked with police to ensure children at risk of domestic violence were quickly assessed.

Councillor Kent stated that Children’s Social Care had moved mostly online during the pandemic, and asked how this had impacted staff. The Assistant Director CSC and Early Help replied that some staff had caught COVID, and two staff remained off work due to long COVID. She explained that during the pandemic staff had worked on a rota basis and had supported each other. She clarified that all staff had access to the required PPE when appropriate, and had utilised creative ways of visiting children, such as meeting at the park. The Corporate Director Children’s Services added that she had liaised with the Director of Public Health and ensured that social workers and foster carers were prioritised for their vaccines. She stated that once the vaccine resource base had increased, some schools, SEND pupils, and vulnerable staff were also prioritised for their vaccines. Councillor Kent thanked teachers and social workers at Thurrock Council for their hard work throughout the pandemic. He stated that schools had continued to teach and had remained open for the children of key workers, whilst moving teaching quickly and efficiently online. He commented that he had heard anecdotal evidence of older teenagers working better and having better learning outcomes whilst learning from home, and asked how the Department for Education would take forward the learning from the pandemic, and implement different modes of learning where appropriate. The Assistant Director Education and Skills replied that the Department for Education were currently undertaking research into learning experiences for children and looking at the positives and negatives of different types of learning modes. She stated that during the pandemic schools had worked together to help one another, and met with Thurrock Council weekly to discuss their needs and concerns. She added that any learning identified by the Department for Education would take some time to be agreed, but would utilise and implement those positive experiences in the future. Councillor Kent felt it was good to see laptops and Wi-Fi being provided to those families that needed it, but asked if families had received help with connection and data costs. He stated that prepaid Wi-Fi cards were available relatively cheaply, and asked if the Council had looked into this. The Assistant Director CSC and Early Help replied that these had been offered to care leavers when necessary. The Assistant Director Education and Skills added that school’s had picked this up with the appropriate families and had worked with the Council to identify solutions, particularly with SEND children.

The Chair felt it was good to see Children’s Social Care had returned to business as usual as soon as possible, and thanked the team and schools for their efforts throughout the pandemic. She stated that COVID-19 had been the biggest educational disruption since World War 2 and had affected different parts of the country in different ways, due to regional lockdowns. The Parent Governor Representative stated that it had been challenging to ensure all children maintained their learning during the pandemic, but schools had provided both online and paper based materials as required. She explained that governors had met virtually either weekly or twice weekly during the height of the pandemic and schools had continued to work hard. She thanked all the teachers for their hard work during this difficult time, and for their continued work now as COVID cases in schools continued to rise. She stated that COVID in schools created a domino effect, which often meant the majority of the class and the teacher could be self-isolating at any one time.

The Parent Governor Representative explained that primary schools were now seeing their EYFS cohort struggle with phonics, particularly those children for whom English was a second language. She stated that schools were now offering early morning tutoring and breakfast clubs, but there was some reluctance to take this offer up by parents. The Assistant Director Education and Skills thanked governors for their hard work during the pandemic, and felt that the whole schools system had done well to adapt. The Church of England Representative stated that she was a teacher who had changed jobs during lockdown. She felt that different schools were using different methods of teaching, but all were providing laptops and SIM cards where necessary.

The Chair questioned what support was being offered to Year 11 pupils who would be sitting their GSCEs next summer. The Assistant Director Education and Skills replied that schools were offering additional booster classes and catch up sessions. She stated that although the government had confirmed that exams would be held next summer, this was dependent on COVID levels, and this uncertainty could cause anxiety for some students. The Youth Cabinet Representative stated that a vaccination bus had been stationed outside of her college, which she had found useful and a positive experience. She added that lots of her friends and teachers had attended the vaccination bus to get their vaccine, although she felt advertisement of the bus and the vaccine rollout as a whole had been poor on social media. Councillor Thandi questioned how vaccines were being delivered in schools. The Parent Governor Representative replied that the schools immunisation scheme were delivering the programme.

RESOLVED: That the Committee:

1. Supported the work that schools are undertaking to enable children and young people to experience positive learning opportunities.

2. Recognised the work of children’s social care to improve outcomes for children and meet their needs as we have entered into the recovery phase of COVID-19.

Supporting documents: