Majority of school leaders have raised safeguarding concerns to authorities during pandemic

The majority of school leaders polled by a headteachers’ union said they had raised safeguarding concerns about pupils during the pandemic, a select committee was told.

Tim Bowen, president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said that 60% of almost 4,800 members who responded to a recent survey “said during the pandemic they had raised safeguarding concerns with social care, the police and other services”.

He said that members were asked to rate support for pupils from other agencies.

He said that 18% of respondents indicated that they felt “either poorly supported or very poorly supported” by social care, and 15% gave the same assessment of support from mental health services.

Giving evidence to the Lords Public Services Committee, Mr Bowen (pictured) said concerns for pupils increased in lockdown when they could not attend school in person.

“During the pandemic and certainly during the first part of lockdown, March, April and May of last year when on-site attendance was reduced, criminal gangs and county lines gangs appeared to exploit the situation and school leaders in this sector were increasingly concerned about their pupils,” he said.

“There has been concern long before the pandemic, but clearly I think the situation has worsened over the last year and a half.”

Chief Constable Simon Bailey, who was until recently the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for child protection, told peers: “In the way that the Government is now having the conversation around the violence against women and girls, there should be an expansion of that conversation that talks about vulnerability, exploitation and abuse.

“Because candidly, 50% to 60% of all my frontline officer staff is now spent dealing with domestic abuse, mental health crisis, vulnerability and exploitation.

“It’s crying out for that leadership from the very heart of Government and from the very top of Government.”

He said: “Every child now is potentially at risk purely because of the way that the world has evolved and the way that the internet has developed.”

Online predators are targeting youngsters who have camera phones, getting them to take and send abusive images of themselves, Mr Bailey said.

“There’s a perception, I fear, amongst parents in particular that whilst their son or daughter are upstairs in their bedrooms that they’re safe and secure,” he said.

“Unfortunately there is a risk, and we’ve seen this during the pandemic, that whilst they’re in their bedrooms they unfortunately are being groomed, they’re being exposed to external threats and just in the last four months of this year we’ve seen a 170% increase in the volume of self-generated sexual images.

“The vast majority of those images are being abstracted from videos that are being taken in children’s bedrooms and within their homes and the most prolific group of young people within those groups are young girls aged 11 to 13 years of age.”

He went on: “Until such time, in my opinion, the tech industry is held to account for what they are permitting on their sites and facilitating I fear we will not be able to significantly alter the risk and manage that threat to young people.”

He said that children spent more time online during the pandemic, with an increase in online exploitation.

“But we have also seen an increase in violence, a normalisation of carrying sharp objects, knives, and undoubtedly children will have been exposed to domestic abuse,” he said.

“We are getting now a far broader appreciation and understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences.”

Charities have seen an increase in demand and “these charitable groups are struggling quite frankly”, he said.

He added that police officers were “too frequently … having to step in to deal with complex issues that would be better served in the domain of our other statutory partners”.

And he called for greater sharing of information between agencies, noting: “There are too many people that are zealots around the Data Protection Act and are too frightened of the implications of sharing too much information.”

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