Thousands of teenagers are at risk of never returning to full-time education and becoming easy prey for criminal gangs amid the Covid-19 crisis, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.
A “lost generation” of teenagers could slip out of sight following the coronavirus lockdown and months of school and college closures, according to Anne Longfield.
More than 120,000 teenagers in England – around one in 25 – were already falling through gaps in the school and social services systems before Covid-19, a report by the children’s commissioner suggests.
Ms Longfield is worried even more children, including those who have finished Year 11 or who have had their apprenticeships collapse, will “fall off the radar” following lockdown if action is not taken.
The children’s commissioner’s analysis, which looks at data of teenagers aged 13 to 17 in England who were on the radar of schools and children’s social care, concludes that 123,000 teenagers in England fell through the gaps in mainstream provision and became invisible to services in 2017-18.
It suggests that teenagers in Liverpool, Medway and Blackpool were more likely to fall through the gaps in provision than in West Berkshire and Rutland, and in Barnet and Kingston upon Thames in London.
The report calls on councils to urgently work with schools, police and youth workers to focus resources on teenagers “at risk of becoming ‘invisible’ to services, or who have gone missing under lockdown”.
“These teens are easy prey to criminal gangs and abuse, and are at very high risk of becoming not in education, employment, or training (NEET). Ensuring that they are able to recover from the crisis and have a way of getting back into education, training or work is vital,” it adds.
The commissioner is calling for summer schemes, including sports clubs, play schemes, holiday clubs and youth clubs to be run for these vulnerable teenagers and to be led by trusted adults and role models.
The Government should work with local areas to remove any barriers to delivering these schemes and it should advise schools to support these schemes from the new “catch-up” funding, the report says.
Ms Longfield said: “This summer I am particularly worried that teenagers who have finished Year 11, who have seen their apprenticeship collapse, or have simply lost their way through lockdown will simply fall off the radar.
“Teenagers in colleges have so far been left out of catch-up funding.
“Many of these children, and I fear many thousands of other vulnerable teenagers, have had very little structure to their lives over the last six months.
“School was often a stretch for them, and I am concerned we are never going to get some of them back into education.
“If we do not act now, this could result in a lost generation of teens – dropping out of school, going under the radar, getting into trouble, and at risk of being groomed by gangs and criminals.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges are acutely conscious of the risk that some pupils are vulnerable to drifting out of education, and they have worked very hard during the lockdown to check on these young people and keep them engaged.
“We would support any programme to provide extra support to help schools and colleges in this task over the coming months.”
Judith Blake, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Children’s social care referrals have fallen by more than half in some areas, from an average of almost 1,800 per day, which raises concerns that not all young people are getting the support they need. Councils are working with their partners and communities to try to identify children who may be at risk.
“As this report reinforces, it is vital that councils have the funding they need to support children, young people and families as part of the national recovery. The impact of the pandemic on some children will be far-reaching, and it will be essential that the right services are there to support them.”