How has the pandemic increased safeguarding and welfare risks?


The current exceptional circumstances and changes to school provision over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought various safeguarding issues to the fore. In this article, Steve Burnage considers the various elements that need to be considered as schools move forward after lockdown.


  • School closures have had a dramatic impact on child protection referrals.
  • Evidence suggests a rise in undetected abuse.
  • Schools should be clear on how to identify newly vulnerable learners.
  • Schools should evidence that emotional health and wellbeing are at the heart of their school.
  • Positives that have come out of the pandemic should be remembered.
  • Planning for recovery should be the focus.

The current picture

In a press release from Ofsted (December 2020) the Chief Inspector of Education and Children’s Social Care, Amanda Spielman, warned that school closures during national lockdown had a ‘dramatic impact’ on the number of child protection referrals made to local authorities. And, while that number has risen since schools re-opened, it has yet to return to previous levels, raising fears that abuse could now be going undetected.

Children will have experienced a variety of different challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some will have been bereaved; some will have faced challenging or abusive circumstances at home; some will have been victim to online abuse; others will have been affected by family members losing their jobs; and some mental health issues may have been exacerbated. Such challenges may become particularly evident upon return to school.

In contrast, but importantly, some children will have found that being away from school relieved certain anxieties or pressures, or bullying from peers, and a return to school will be challenging for them too.

School leaders are reporting that these challenges are, in many cases, leading to an increase in social, emotional and mental health concerns. Often, these vulnerable learners are needing additional support and access to services such as educational psychologists, social workers and counsellors.

So, what can schools do to raise awareness of safeguarding and wellbeing concerns, and offer much needed support to additional vulnerable learners now that we are coming out of lockdown?

Figure 1

Supporting vulnerable learners

In their report Lessons from Lockdown, Barnardo’s share ten strategies for schools to implement to support vulnerable learners on returning to school and to learning:

  • Be clear with children and young people about what will happen when they return to school, and listen to their concerns.
  • Adopt a phased approach to returning to school, so that children and young people
  • are not overwhelmed by a sudden change in their routine.
  • Talk to them about the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had and use the school’s platforms and networks to raise awareness of the issues affecting them.
  • Know which pupils are vulnerable and keep in contact with them to ensure they can get the support they need.
  • Tell them where they can access support services.
  • Facilitate social events for them, so they can rebuild their friendships and support each other.
  • For those who are transitioning to a new school or college, give opportunities to have ‘closure’. For example, hold leaving events like proms, even if they have to be delayed.
  • Ensure that there is a place in school where they can access one-to-one support and raise their concerns.
  • Work with local partners to support them to access specialist mental health support when they need it.
  • Think about their whole family and consider the support the school can provide to families who may be struggling, financially or otherwise.

There is a ‘Checklist – Ten strategies to support vulnerable learners on returning to school and to learning’ in the Toolkit to help schools consider their effective implementation of each of these ten pointers.

To support newly vulnerable learners, school leaders may wish to access the free MindEd learning platform for professionals, which includes a coronavirus (Covid-19) staff resilience hub with materials on peer support, stress, fear and trauma, and bereavement.

The Wellbeing for Education Return programme is a joint initiative from the Department for Education, Department of Health and Social Care, Health Education England, NHS England, and Public Health England. It can be found on the MindEd hub.

Useful strategies include:

  • building a mental health and wellbeing team in school
  • placing mental health and wellbeing at the heart of the school’s ethos, as shown in figure 1 above (you might consider using the ‘Checklist – Leadership and management: Supporting wellbeing and mental health in school’ included in the Toolkit to audit your current provision and agree future action)
  • understanding how pandemics affect learning in schools (see the table below).

So, it must not be forgotten that there have been tremendous positive outcomes of the pandemic, in terms of learning and teaching and, within a climate of concern about safeguarding, wellbeing and mental health, schools would do well to celebrate these positive outcomes too.

The DfE guidance notes that schools should consider the provision of pastoral and extra-curricular activities to all pupils, designed to:

  • support the rebuilding of friendships and social engagement
  • address and equip all pupils to respond to issues linked to coronavirus
  • support pupils with approaches to improving their physical and mental wellbeing.

The guidance acknowledges that schools are a vital point of contact for safeguarding services, which are critical to the wellbeing of children and families. These referral and liaison mechanisms should continue to be considered in any case where it is felt this would support the wellbeing of a pupil.

Moving forward

As schools move out of lockdown and back to full engagement in face-to-face teaching, school leaders will build a fuller evidenced-based picture of the extent to which the pandemic has impacted on safeguarding and wellbeing for their learners and develop an integrated strategy to support them. Figure 2 outlines five principals for wellbeing recovery in school.

By engaging with these five principals and the other strategies outlined in this article, it is hoped that school leaders will continue to support the safeguarding and wellbeing of all learners on their recovery journey out of lockdown.

Further information


Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

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About Author

Steve Burnage

Steve Burnage has a breadth of experience leading challenging inner-city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Steve may be contacted by email or via his website

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