Fears that vulnerable teenagers could fall through gaps

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has warned that the coronavirus pandemic could see a lost generation of vulnerable teenagers falling through gaps in the school and social care systems.

The new report from the commissioner sets out the risks affecting tens of thousands of teenagers, including persistent absence from school, exclusions, alternative provision, dropping out of the school system in Year 11, or going missing from care.

The Children’s Commissioner highlights the heightened impact of lockdown on the 120,000 teenagers in England – one in 25 of all teens – already slipping out of sight before coronavirus. She also warns these children already at risk could be joined by many more who struggle to adapt to a return to ‘normal’ after six months out of school. Unless these children are re-engaged in society, a whole generation of vulnerable teens could stay at risk of educational failure and unemployment, or crime or exploitation.

The report calls on councils to work with schools and police to focus resources on these teenagers at risk of becoming ‘invisible’ to services or who have gone missing under lockdown. These children are easy prey to criminal gangs and are at very high risk of becoming ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training). The commissioner argues that ensuring they have a way of getting back into education, training or work is crucial for any economic recovery from coronavirus, and that many already vulnerable children who have been missing the structure that school brings will need extra support.

According to the report, the government, schools, local authorities, police forces and safeguarding partnerships should also work together on a plan to identify, track, support and ultimately re-engage these children.

Longfield said: “Even before the lockdown, one in 25 teenagers in England were falling through gaps in the school or social services systems. This puts them at increased risk of unemployment or of exploitation by gangs and organised criminals. 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.

“We need to identify these children quickly and do whatever it takes over the summer to stabilise their lives and get them prepared for the structure of school again. We must not look back in five years at a generation of vulnerable teenagers who fell out of society and ended up drifting into crime and unemployment. They need extra help now as we emerge from lockdown.”