The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said the “invisibility” that could result from children’s absence from class risked “cultivating” the “conditions for abuse and neglect” and would lead to lasting harm unless action is taken.
It added that the pressures placed on families by the impact of confinement and a potential loss of income could also “explode” into abuse in a further heightening of the risks.
Chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said that in response, some welfare checks could be conducted digitally to allow child protection experts to assess a young person’s wellbeing.
But he warned that face-to-face checks would also be essential in other cases despite the challenges faced by social workers and others in continuing their “vital” work in the face of obstacles such as staff illness and the risks of infection.
“Don’t assume that by announcing that schools are open to kids who are classified as vulnerable that it’s job done. It’s absolutely not,” he said.
“Those that come to school need to get support and those that aren’t in school need to be on a list somewhere, checked and understood, and have someone thinking, ‘What is the human connection we are making with them.’
“It’s invisibility that creates the conditions for child abuse and neglect.
“There’s opportunity and risk where children are out of sight, out of reach, and it’s fundamental to child protection that children are seen and have access to a trusted adult. Schools play a really important part in that and if you take away school attendance, you lose that immediate access to lots of children.”
Sir Peter said that in addition to checks carried out by professionals, neighbours and friends should raise the alarm — including via the NSPCC’s helpline 0808 800 5000 — if they observe any warning signs.
Children can also obtain help or advice by calling the confidential Childline service on 0800 1111.
Sir Peter also pointed that not all children classed as vulnerable had taken up the school places available to them during the first lockdown. Many other children not in this category might also be in danger of abuse.
He added: “The Government is keeping schools open for those deemed vulnerable but it’s one thing to say that and another to pull that off in practice.
“For every one of those [classed as vulnerable], there’s probably another seven or eight who have experienced maltreatment. The heightened risks and pressures of people being locked down in confined spaces for extended periods of time means this could explode into abuse or neglect.”
Statistics from the NSPCC show that 50 children a day contacted its Childline helpline after suffering abuse.