Children will become traumatised during the coronavirus crisis as they are exposed to deaths, domestic violence and abuse, John Swinney has warned.
The Education Secretary said the disruption to schooling will lead to the lockdown concealing harm that is being done to children and more will become classified as “vulnerable”.
The mental health, physical health and safety of youngsters will be affected by the absence of formal schooling, Mr Swinney said during a virtual session of Holyrood’s Education Committee.
Amid fears that the crisis will exacerbate the attainment gap between rich and poor children, Mr Swinney confirmed the government was considering bringing vulnerable children back to school earlier than others.
He also said the Scottish Government’s Education Recovery Group (ERG) would consider tutoring, including one-to-one sessions, to help the poorest children make up lost ground.
The Education Secretary called on the UK Government to keep providing cash to pay for free school meals when it was pointed out the Scottish Government’s £70 million food fund would run out in a matter of weeks.
Evidence submitted to the committee by the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) raised “major concerns” that only around 1% of “vulnerable” children were attending childcare hubs during lockdown.
Some young people who were previously not viewed to become vulnerable will become vulnerable as a consequence of the experience around coronavirus.”
Mr Swinney said he had to “acknowledge” there would be “a significant set of issues” for children arising from the pandemic.
“Indeed, some young people who were previously not viewed to become vulnerable will become vulnerable as a consequence of the experience around coronavirus,” Mr Swinney said.
“Many more young people will be exposed to bereavement and sometimes in circumstances where they do not have access – because of lockdown – to family support that would allow them to come to terms with that bereavement. These are very real issues and we know from all the work we have done over the years on adverse childhood experiences that they can contribute to a position of trauma.”
Lack of children at childcare hubs
Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said he was concerned by how few children were attending childcare hubs, where problems at home could be picked up.
We are sitting in the eye of a perfect storm which will let down a whole generation of vulnerable people during this lockdown.”
Tory education spokesman Jamie Greene
He also pointed to a mental health treatment backlog and Police Scotland data showing there had been 2,500 child concern reports in just one week.
“As someone said, we are sitting in the eye of a perfect storm which will let down a whole generation of vulnerable people during this lockdown,” Mr Greene said.
Mr Swinney said ministers were working with councils and the third sector to reach out to vulnerable children at home. But he acknowledged that in some homes “support is not what it should be” or children “may be exposed to domestic violence or other forms of abuse”.
The Education Secretary said: “There will be some greater problems arising as a consequence of Covid, which will affect the mental wellbeing, physical health and safety of individuals and we must be ready to address that, which is why the government has set up the Education Recovery Group (ERG) and why I’m involved in discussions with the third sector on the holistic support they can provide to address some of the examples of trauma which will undoubtedly be created as a consequence of Covid.”
Mr Swinney said that “a strong point of reassurance” was that of children with a child protection plan in place, 90% had been visited last week by local authority representatives.
But he wasn’t going to pretend that the lack of schooling was not an “obstacle” to councils providing that service.
“We are having to accept that the absence of formal interaction through school will mean it is more difficult for us to identify child harm within our society. That is why it is important we have the hubs in place to try and provide that support,” the Education Secretary said.
According to Mr Swinney, there had been 1,400 vulnerable young people in the hubs around the country the day before.
He admitted the Stay at Home message may have “unnerved” people about sending children to hubs, but said he would like to see the numbers attending increase.
When asked by Labour’s Iain Gray if children from deprived backgrounds should get additional tuition – even one-to-one tutoring – Mr Swinney said the idea was “reasonable” and would be examined.
Mr Swinney confirmed that the most vulnerable could come back to classrooms earlier in a staggered approach to reopening schools.
“One of the possibilities is to bring back young people into formal schooling from deprived backgrounds at an earlier stage than others to try and sustain their education. That would have to be very carefully considered,” he said.
SNP MSP Alex Neil asked the Education Secretary about free school meals during the summer holidays, pointing out that the £70m food fund would run out in a “few” weeks.
Mr Swinney replied that the ERG was looking at what would happen during the summer holiday. Although he did not have a “definitive answer” on free school meals, he was “very keen” to make sure there was “effective provision”.
But he warned the coronavirus had put a “strain on the public finances” which he urged the UK Government to reflect on.
Mr Swinney said that if UK ministers changed its approach from one of investment to constraint then the Scottish Government would receive less cash through the Barnett Formula.
If this was the case, Mr Swinney said the ability of the Scottish Government to help the most vulnerable would be “significantly challenged”.
“There has to be an acknowledgement of the financial challenge this presents to the Scottish Government and an encouragement to the UK Government to take action to make sure that we have access to resources to resolve some of those questions,” Mr Swinney said.