Agenda item

Children's Services Update on Covid Response

For the Select Committee to receive a presentation from the Director of Children’s Services providing an outline of the impact and response of the Children’s Services Department to the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Committee received a presentation from the Director of Children’s Services, outlining the department’s response to Covid-19 (Item 7 in the Minute Book).


The presentation was introduced and the Director invited Assistant Directors within the service to present their specific service areas to the Committee.  Members heard first about the department’s work with children and families during lockdown.  Page 38 of the agenda pack set out the planning through a phased approach for managing with fewer staff throughout the pandemic, whilst also identifying key priority services which had to be kept operational throughout all three phases.  It was highlighted that the service maintained the position in phase one throughout, and all statutory services and timescales were kept in place.  Members noted the new guidance which was issued to staff very early on, and constant engagement between senior managers and teams, with an emphasis on maintaining a good audit trail on decisions made during this time.   The data slide as set out on page 40 of the agenda pack detailed the number of referrals in March and April compared to the same period last year.  It was explained that an increase in demand had been experienced in June this year as some families had not received services from other agencies and had gone into crisis, and more emergency steps had been implemented.  However it was noted that even with the move out of lockdown, officers were expecting the increased numbers to remain due to other factors such as unemployment and increased mental health issues.


The different ways of working with children and families during lockdown were explained, and whilst there had been visits by staff wearing full PPE, 90% of work involved the use of technology, which included virtual meetings with older children and assessments for virtual court hearings.  The outstanding work undertaken by all staff to maintain support and commitment to children in care during lockdown was also highlighted to the Committee, and attention was drawn to page 42 and page 43 of the agenda pack which detailed the breath of this work.  Members also noted the continued strong partnership working in Hampshire during lockdown in the sharing of information and a responsive approach.  The Committee heard that whilst staff had adapted quickly to a new way of working over the last few months, managers continued to be mindful to individual staff wellbeing, and the importance of frequent contact and support.


Page 48 of the agenda pack highlighted areas of working during lockdown which had been positively received, worked well and would continue, as well as areas of improvement.  It was noted that whilst resource planning was underway for an anticipated spike in demand, work was also underway to explore the transition of staff to office based working whilst maintaining some of the identified new positive ways of working within the service.


The impact of Covid-19 in relation to education was explained to the Committee and the background to the closure of schools for all children other than those of key workers and vulnerable children was set out.  It was noted that Hampshire extended the definition of vulnerable children to include early help children in their assessments.  The Committee heard that close working with headteachers and social care to ensure vulnerable children attended school was prioritised, and it was noted that Hampshire achieved a higher proportion of vulnerable children attending school than seen nationally.  For those children with an EHCP, each school put in place individual risk assessments and children with an EHCP only attended school if safe to do so.


The implementation of home learning was set out, and it was heard that all schools had adapted rapidly to this, and the focus was quality of learning over quantity, with a mixture of online tasks as well as practical tasks which could be conducted inside and outside the home with an emphasis on enjoyment alongside learning.  Support from the DfE was also highlighted and also the department’s advice on English and Maths lessons to primary schools.  Members heard that regular communication and support had been provided to schools by the department, and these were highlighted at page 57 of the agenda pack.  The focus on wellbeing and mental health was also highlighted and signposting to appropriate support.  The wider reopening of primary schools on the 1 June was explained, and also the challenging circumstances around this in relation to individual schools and numbers of key worker children and vulnerable children attending each school which could limit other year groups being able to be brought back in.  It was heard that at the end of that week, more than 25,000 pupils had returned in Hampshire.  The Committee heard that the wider reopening of secondary schools to Year 10 only on the 15 June resulted in more than 37,000 pupils returning in Hampshire at the end of that week, and the support to schools in relation to the awarding of GCSE grades to Year 11 was also highlighted.


Members noted that in relation to education, it was very much business as usual but doing thing differently, and the special educational needs team had worked hard to ensure those children in need of an EHCP continued to have these processed, and had secured 98% of year 6 EHCP’s and places to go into year 7.  The online work of the music service, inclusion team and specialist teaching advisors was also highlighted as well as the work of the careers service.  Members also noted the primary behaviour service work in ensuring children received continued education.  An additional slide was presented as set out on page 30 of the updated presentation.  The next steps in working closely with schools to support opening in September were explained, and tensions in relation to bubble sizes, zoning and limiting access to specialist space was highlighted.  Members also noted that in the event of any future lockdowns, schools would need to be able to adapt to remote learning rapidly, which was particularly important at Year 11.


The Committee heard that in relation to the Children’s Services Capital Programme, property colleagues and contractors had adapted well to the challenges of Covid and major construction projects were progressing well and adhering to Government guidance.  It was explained that some construction sites had initially closed as a result of Covid to review health and safety plans, but were now operational again.  In relation to non-essential school repair and maintenance work, all schemes would continue to be reviewed on a case by case basis, with work commencing when appropriate and safe to do so, and in consultation with headteachers and governing bodies. 


Attention was also drawn to projects relating to Austen Academy and Deer Park schools as outlined on page 65 of the agenda pack, and it was heard that productivity would inevitably be slower as a result of Covid, but officers were currently managing budgets and timelines within the contingencies initially set for these schemes.  However, it was noted that a second lockdown could have implications for achieving these timelines.  Officers also highlighted that all new school places schemes would be available for September.


The final area of work presented to the Committee was in relation to access, resources and business development.  It was heard that it was very much business as usual, and very little activity was stopped, but some statutory data deadlines were suspended by the DfE, and some tender processes were paused.  Some of the earlier work undertaken at the start of lockdown focussed on payments to providers, as well as protection of council funding where necessary.  It was explained that some of the work most significantly affected was in relation to Early Years and Home to School Transport (HtST), and as the Committee had already received an item on Early Years earlier in the agenda, this would not be presented in depth.  In relation to HtST, numbers were down significantly as a result of lockdown, and the financial support to the sector was explained.  As a result of guidance around social distancing, it was heard that capacity on vehicles would be significantly reduced, and this would inevitably present challenges in September.  It was noted that guidance around this was still being awaited from Government, but officers would be working closely with schools in how best to support them.  The Assistant Director explained that more parental mileage allowance would be offered instead of transport, and all eligible SEN families would be written to with an offer of this from September.  Members noted that during lockdown, a successful primary admissions round had been completed as set out on page 71 of the agenda reports pack, and temporary legislation had enabled school admission appeals to continue. 


Page 73 of the agenda report pack highlighted the Early Years work and attention was drawn to the brokerage service which was set up within 24 hours for families and providers to ensure no one who needed childcare went without.  Page 74 of the agenda pack highlighted the DfE return for Early Years Recovery as of the 11 June 2020, and updated figures were verbally provided to the Committee.  It was heard that as of 2 July 2020 , 576 group providers were open and 65 closed, with all school based providers open.  616 childminders were now operating with 106 remaining closed, and a total of over 9000 children were now back in childcare.


In response to questions, Members heard:


·         That the number of requests for consideration to become foster carers had increased over the last few months, and assessment processes for prospective foster carers were continuing.

·         That to ensure enough resilience to keep Swanwick Lodge and other children’s home open, two children’s homes housing three children in total were temporarily closed, and those children were moved to other appropriate homes.  Officers were looking to re-open the homes later in the year.

·         In relation to looked after children, it was heard that the majority had coped well, and lockdown had enabled the strengthening of relationships between some children and their foster carers/social workers during this time.

·         CAMHS workers have been able to offer therapy sessions to children where needed, and work has continued in supporting children’s emotional wellbeing.  It was noted that some older teenagers with challenging behaviour have found lockdown difficult, but officers were working hard with partner agencies to keep these young people safe.


Councillor Malcolm Wade declared a personal interest at this point in proceedings as a governor at a school.


·         That schools have reported that vulnerable children attending school have had access to small group work which has benefited them, and stands these children in good stead ahead of September.

·         That primary schools and secondary schools can claim additional costs from the government in respect to Covid, but there were limits to what could be claimed.  Officers were working closely with schools on this before the deadline to submit first claims by 21 July.

·         That the Government have announced funding of £1 billion for catch up funding, which would be split into various streams but officers were not sure yet how much each school would receive, and how this would be distributed.

·         That from September, some teachers at secondary level may have to move from bubble to bubble to teach some specialist subjects, due to the smaller numbers of specialist teaching staff.


Councillor Jackie Branson declared a personal interest at this point in proceedings as a chairman of governors at a secondary school.


·         That letters have been sent to schools to be shared with school staff in recognition of their hard work during the Covid pandemic, from both the Director and Executive Member for Education and Skills.

·         That work was ongoing in examining practices which have worked well during Covid, and some of the virtual meetings may remain in place to maintain ongoing relationships with some older children who often don’t enjoy face to face meetings. 

·         That if technology wasn’t available to some vulnerable families because of issues such affording broadband, then visits during lockdown were made ensuring appropriate health procedures were followed.

·         That Government advice had to be followed in keeping schools closed based on scientific advice.

·         That in relation to GCSE grades for this year, teachers judgements would only play a small part in the awarding of predicted grades.  It was heard that an algorithm would be used based on Key Stage 2 results, and the progress of their current school in recent years.

·         That it was difficult to determine at this stage whether there would be an upward trend for elective home education as the cohort changes rapidly, with an average length of 3/4 months before returning to mainstream school. 

·         That the referral numbers for children have increased in relation to the previous year’s numbers, and there has been an increase in the complexity of cases coming into child social care with higher level child protection work.  It was heard that the number of children on a child protection plan has risen, as well as the number of children in care which could be as a result of the Covid pandemic and issues arising from this.

·         That in terms of free school meals during the pandemic, these have continued at school, and during the summer each family entitled to free school meals will be provided with a voucher to access free school meals as a result of the Marcus Rashford campaign. 

·         That further guidance is awaited from the DfE in relation to HtST and how this will be implemented in September.


Individual Members of the Committee thanked all officers within the department for their hard work and achievements during the Covid pandemic, and the Chairman reiterated this on behalf of the Committee.




That the Children and Young People Select Committee noted the impact and response of the Children’s Services Department to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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