ETF Associate Polly Harrow considers what the term ‘vulnerable’ means and how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on the way vulnerable learners are thought about.
During the pandemic it was noticeable that the term ‘vulnerable’ has been used increasingly to refer to a wide and varied range of characteristics, encompassing certainly a broader scope than commonly hitherto used in the FE and Skills sector. When we look at the meaning of the word vulnerable, we find terms such as weak, defenceless, helpless, exposed; in educational terms, we refer to vulnerable children and young people as ‘at risk’ though this term covers a myriad of often complex reasons.
The Department of Education’s Vulnerable Children and Young People Survey of October 2020 refers to vulnerable children as either Looked After Children (LAC, or Children Looked After CLA), children on a Child Protection plan (CPP) or Children In Need (CIN).
These cohorts are readily recognised and understood as being ‘vulnerable’ by staff in an educational context, and often qualify for inclusion in that paradigm on the grounds of having an attached social worker. Typically, post-16 organisations would include Care Leavers as a matter of course. However, as safeguarding practitioners are very aware, a significant number of children and young people (CYP) without a social worker can also be included by way of their presenting needs, which are often just as pressing as those of their social worker supported peers. Indeed, government guidance shifted during the period of lockdown from having ‘an attached social worker’ as a vulnerability identifier, to include ‘children and young people on the edge of receiving support from social care services’ in recognition of the broader scope required in addressing vulnerabilities across the post-16 cohort.
Many post-16 organisations also recognise vulnerability in other specific cohorts; young carers is one group who have rightly received focused attention and concern as the challenges of being a young carer have become more widely acknowledged and understood. Key safeguarding concerns relating to young carers particularly include mental health, physical exhaustion, missing education and isolation. Educare reports that 62% of young carers have been bullied whilst in education. Overall, young carers tend to have lower levels of attainment than their peers, and those achievement gaps, as with all cohorts, need to be addressed in individual organisations and by the sector as a whole.
In research published in October 2017, pointedly titled When Did We Forget About Young Parents?, the authors called for ‘urgent attention’ to support the needs of young parents citing a range of negative outcomes for the children born into disadvantaged households. Isolation, poor mental health, negative societal attitudes and financial difficulties were some of the key issues raised, alongside the considerable challenges of continuing, or returning to, their education.
Children and young people who are estranged (studying without the support or approval of family or carers) have typically removed themselves from a dysfunctional environment and the risk of harm. This is a more ‘hidden’ cohort who need focused support and commonly are less likely to declare their status and seek the help they need. Initiatives such as the Stand Alone Pledge can help organisations with their approach to recognising this cohort as vulnerable but alongside support at an HE level, estranged learners in post-16 education are by default homeless or in temporary accommodation and subject to the additional risks those environments can sometimes bring.
In thinking about reopening education, we must reflect on emerging cohorts which we need to include in our vulnerable care package. Children of front-line workers is one such; those who have seen and heard traumatic experience through the eyes of their parents or carers, death and possibly personal bereavement, those who have been separated from parents or carers for considerable periods, in some cases months, and who may have felt extreme levels of the anxieties and fears that so many children and young people have felt through this pandemic. This is a group we must remain aware of and offer appropriate support to. It is worth mentioning here that children of armed force personnel also may experience long periods of parental absence and the attendant organisations such as KELSI and SSCE can give valuable pointers for advice and guidance.
Another group which is not commonly recognised as vulnerable in post-16 education are elective home educated. Whilst many children and young people enjoy a positive home educated experience, it is becoming more widely acknowledged that some schools are ‘off rolling’, meaning that some children are being ‘home educated’ as an alternative to exclusion. In a recent case in northern England, a number of home educated children were found many miles from home, in possession of drugs and alcohol, and not one had been reported as missing despite the fact that they had been away from home for many days. There is growing evidence to link some ‘home educated’ young people to increased risk of exploitation and criminal activity and whilst this is an emerging issue, it merits full and proper attention from those identifying vulnerability.
Having an EHCP (education, health and care plan) is a defining element for inclusion in the vulnerable groups according to government guidance. Conversely, some EHCP learners and their families rigorously disagree with this view, and are resistant to the label of vulnerability being attached when the view of the learner and family is that there is no vulnerability and having a disability doesn’t automatically make a person ‘vulnerable’. It’s an interesting discussion and one which will continue, but there is no doubt that some learning difficulties and some disabilities can, and do, lead to increased vulnerability.
Overall, vulnerable learners are five times more likely to be excluded from education and generally have poorer outcomes than their peers. As we can see, the number of specific groups which can be identified as having strong vulnerable characteristics is growing, and in the last government guidance adopted children, those at risk of becoming NEET and those having difficulty engaging in remote study have also been included in the expanding list. Schemes such as the Pledge to Looked After Children, the Commitment to Care Leavers, the Stand Alone Pledge and the Care Leavers Covenant are all helpful and supportive in offering providers specialist advice and guidance, but more is needed in terms of recognising the extensive needs across these particular cohorts and the resources required across safeguarding and pastoral provision to address those needs effectively.
The ETF launched its completely revised and updated Safeguarding in FE and Training course and refreshed Prevent duty awareness raising modules in May 2021. Both have been developed in consultation with the profession. Find out more on the ETF website.