A generation of Norfolk’s children are at risk of being “failed” and “forgotten” as issues with already struggling support services are worsened by the impact of the coronavirus lockdown.

Eastern Daily Press: Nicki Price, founder of SENsational Families. Picture: Nicki PriceNicki Price, founder of SENsational Families. Picture: Nicki Price (Image: Archant)

Experts fear the scale of the “fallout from the Covid-19 crisis” for young people is being masked, with vulnerable children trapped in abusive homes and homeschooling widening attainment gaps and cutting off access to mental health support.

Councillors, campaigners and families have told of children being “tragically let down”, excluded from mainstream education, and “actively suicidal” before receiving support.

It comes after Norfolk faced serious criticisms of its special educational needs provision, while children and young people’s mental health services remained in special measures last year.

The former MP and mental health advocate Sir Norman Lamb warned of “lifetime consequences” for those at risk and called for greater ambition for the county’s children.

Eastern Daily Press: Independent Norfolk county councillor Sandra Squire. Pic: Norfolk Independent Group.Independent Norfolk county councillor Sandra Squire. Pic: Norfolk Independent Group. (Image: Norfolk Independent Group)

While Norwich headteacher Binks Neate-Evans warned that education professionals were “becoming increasingly worried about the impact as the disruption continues” and local councillors stressed the “nightmarish” impact of digital inequalities during the pandemic.

The key areas of concern highlighted are:

• Mental health services for children and young people remain in special measures,

• Families facing year-long waits for special educational needs support,

• Warnings of a “black hole” for the most vulnerable young adults,

• Teachers and youth workers increasingly concerned about continued homeschooling,

• Existing “low aspiration levels” and a gender gap in educational attainment,

• A “digital divide” in technology access disadvantaging poorer students,

Eastern Daily Press: John Fisher, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services. Pic: Norfolk County Council.John Fisher, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services. Pic: Norfolk County Council. (Image: Norfolk County Council)

• Fewer police child abuse referrals and fears at-risk children may be recruited by gangs,

• And warnings of increasing deprivation for the 15pc of children who live in poverty.

READ MORE: Council’s SEND record slammed by MP as shock report reveals UK-wide failings

The Department for Education (DfE) said the government had always recognised “the impact of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged children and their families, and are committed to doing whatever we can to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind”.

Eastern Daily Press: Binks Neate-Evans, headteacher at West Earlham Infant School. Photo: SubmittedBinks Neate-Evans, headteacher at West Earlham Infant School. Photo: Submitted (Image: Archant)

A spokeswoman said primary schools were being encouraged to invite more pupils to return to the classroom, and the DfE was working to develop “a long-term package of support for children to catch up on lost learning”.

While Norfolk County Council (NCC) said they had “high aspirations” for every child in Norfolk and “absolutely understood” how difficult delays were for families.

“I am sorry that we have not been able to keep up with the huge increase in demand on our services,” the children’s services cabinet member said.

And a spokesperson for the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) said specific improvements had been made but “we know there is lots more to do”.

‘She’s been massively let down’ - the reality of special educational needs failings:

Alarm bells were rung over a recent report into the county’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision, which saw inspectors highlight “significant areas of weakness”.

Watchdogs found long waiting times for assessments and support, a lack of trust, and children left “isolated” and at “crisis point” before receiving help.

And John Fisher, cabinet member for children’s services, admitted that issues with the services were “certainly not what I want for the children of Norfolk”.

Eastern Daily Press: Norman Lamb. Picture: Jamie HoneywoodNorman Lamb. Picture: Jamie Honeywood (Image: Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk)

However, inspectors did also welcome a transformation plan put in place by the council as “far-reaching, ambitious, well-planned and securely financed”.

But families and a charity chief executive hit out at the council following the report’s revelations.

Nicki Price, from SENsational families said Mr Fisher’s response to the report was “infuriating” and risked losing the confidence of families.

She said: “We’re working with families whose children are in the wrong schools and can’t get education, health and care plans (ECHPs). One family was told they’d be seen nearly a year ago. It’s just so frustrating.”

Eastern Daily Press: Mike Smith-ClareMike Smith-Clare (Image: Archant)

One mother of a child with SEN, who wished to remain anonymous, said repeated school moves had affected her daughter’s mental health.

“It’s had a massive impact,” she said. “She is frightened of school. She will have meltdowns. She’s got no self-confidence. She’s really, really low. There’s just no support.

“She’s been massively let down by the system.”

READ MORE: Fears Norfolk’s children ‘being left behind’ due to lockdown digital divide

Ms Price added: “If these issues are historic why is the rate of tribunals going up? That money could be better spent on helping children.”

She said lack of SEN mental support was a continued problem.

“It all comes down to funding,” she said. “Children are having mental health problems because they’re out of education. They’re getting into county lines and crime. They’re particularly vulnerable to that kind of exploitation.”

The father of a young adult who had received SEN support said: “The best thing you want for your children is to give them wings. That takes a bit longer for people with SEN.”

Eastern Daily Press: Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Chris BishopEducation secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Chris Bishop (Image: Archant)

Sandra Squire, independent Norfolk county councillor said she had been highlighting SEN issues since being elected three years ago.

“In Norfolk we struggle particularly with SEND,” she said. “It’s consistently the EHCP timetables.

“It was the very first thing I spoke about when I was elected as a councillor three years ago.

“Here we are three years later and I’m asking the same question. It’s just not going away.”

Eastern Daily Press: Sandy Lysaght and partner John Simmonds, with their children Kai, 12, Emily,10, Megan, 8, and Ella, 3. Photo: Sandy LysaghtSandy Lysaght and partner John Simmonds, with their children Kai, 12, Emily,10, Megan, 8, and Ella, 3. Photo: Sandy Lysaght (Image: Archant)

Ms Squire said the council was poor at communicating with parents and said children missing out on education had long-term consequences for their futures.

She added: “The longer it goes on the worse it gets. They miss out on their education and the support they should get. You can’t always fix that.

“There is a feeling from parents that they’re turned down just to see who will appeal and take it to tribunal.”

READ MORE: ‘I don’t like feeling my children would do better outside of Norfolk’ - pledge to close school gap between boys and girls

Mr Fisher said: “I absolutely understand how difficult this is for families and I am sorry that we have not been able to keep up with the huge increase in demand on our services.

“Requests for EHCP assessments have nearly doubled over the last five years and it’s a pressure that is being felt all over the country, with the majority of authorities receiving similar inspection reports.

“We need a national solution to this issue but we are not prepared to sit and wait. That’s why we’ve developed an ambitious transformation strategy - backed with £120m of investment to create more specialist places for children and young people and to support schools to help their children much earlier, before their needs escalate. “

But Mike Smith-Clare said the inspection report had highlighted another key issue - the “cliff edge” in support for young adults aged 18-25.

Eastern Daily Press: Jackie Westrop (left) from Swan Youth Project. Photo: Downham Market RotaryJackie Westrop (left) from Swan Youth Project. Photo: Downham Market Rotary (Image: Archant)

“I think they’ve been let down tragically,” he said. “Opportunities, education and advancement should be part and parcel of life’s journey. Unfortunately, it’s become a lottery.”

Mr Smith-Clare said too many care leavers in Norfolk were not in employment, education or training, or were simply “destination unknown”.

“The last thing that I want is a generation that gets lost under the radar,” he said. “We’re talking about the most vulnerable people going into a black hole.”

Speaking after the report was published, Sara Tough, executive director of children’s services at the county council, said: “Obviously we want all children in Norfolk to flourish and we want their outcomes to be achieved in terms of the ambitions that they have as they grow up.”

Eastern Daily Press: The NSFT's service for children and young people on 80 St Stephens in Norwich. Photo: Google MapsThe NSFT's service for children and young people on 80 St Stephens in Norwich. Photo: Google Maps (Image: Archant)

The council’s plans to transform its SEND services includes creating 500 extra specialist school places across the county, building up to four new specialist schools, creating new specialist units in mainstream schools and expanding existing ones.

And the council stresses that its “vision” for Norfolk is to be a county where “all children and young people with SEND reach their potential and thrive [and] parents are confident that there is enough good quality local SEND provision”.

‘Let down at every turn’ - parents anger over lack of SEND support services

The parents of a 10-year-old child with ADHD and autism say they feel they have been “let down at every turn”.

Andrew Hull, 49 and Morag Reekie, 45, waited a year for their son Jimmy to be diagnosed before they paid to go private out of desperation.

“It went against everything I believe in,” Ms Reekie said.

But ongoing problems resulted in Jimmy leaving mainstream education, and his parents have told of the “shocking” lack of support.

Offshore worker Mr Hull said: “He seems to have lost all trust in other adults and teachers. We feel like we’ve been let down at every turn.

Eastern Daily Press: Meet Natasha Harpley, one of the two newly elected Labour candidates for Sprowston Central @BroadlandDC #norfolkvotesMeet Natasha Harpley, one of the two newly elected Labour candidates for Sprowston Central @BroadlandDC #norfolkvotes (Image: Archant)

“Whether its mainstream school or the NHS support. I started out naively thinking that support and care for kids would be there and I’m afraid its just not. It’s shocking.”

Jimmy is now in week 34 of waiting for a plan for support in school, which children are meant to get within 20 weeks.

“People have to fight for their kids to get services that should be there as a matter of course,” Mr Hull added.

Risk of ‘lifetime consequences’ for children affected by coronavirus lockdown:

Eastern Daily Press: Alyssa Girvan and a group of volunteers are putting together a documentary exploring mental health services in Norfolk. Picture: Alyssa GirvanAlyssa Girvan and a group of volunteers are putting together a documentary exploring mental health services in Norfolk. Picture: Alyssa Girvan (Image: Alyssa Girvan)

Significant concerns have also been raised about the impact of lockdown on children leaving them “forgotten”, “vulnerable” and “isolated”.

It comes after the government’s U-turn on extending the free school meals scheme over the summer, following the successful campaign by Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford - which will see almost 14,000 pupils in the county benefit from the £15 weekly vouchers.

And follows warnings that Norfolk’s most deprived areas are set to shift in the wake of the pandemic as those who “just about manage” slip into poverty.

The former North Norfolk MP Sir Norman Lamb said “fallout from the Covid-19 crisis” risked “lifetime consequences” for vulnerable children, as domestic violence and abusive parenting went unnoticed during the lockdown.

“Schools are often the place where these things get spotted,” he said. “But children aren’t in schools and it’s happening behind closed doors.

READ MORE: City’s deprived hotspots to shift in wake of virus crisis, councillors warn

“There may be a child in a home where there are abusive parents. Vulnerable children have had a very different experience. There’s a fear that all of these things will emerge [as lockdown ends] and we see the damage that’s been done.”

Sir Norman, who recently attended a youth mental health summit arranged by the Norfolk Community Foundation, alongside chief constable Simon Bailey, said police referrals for child abuse had gone down over the last few months.

“It will have lifetime consequences,” he said. “I want us in Norfolk to do everything we can to try to minimise the impact that this will have on our children.

“The longer this goes on for the greater the impact will be.”

And he urged the government and the county council to “explore how children can return to schools safely”, saying: “We need to make this a priority for our children’s future.”

And Ms Squire said: “There’s so much money going into supporting businesses but they need to look at what’s being done for children.

“There’s not much point having businesses if our children are suffering with mental health issues and not getting education.

“It’s more important that they get through this and they seem to be a bit forgotten about. They don’t have enough of a voice.”

While Ms Neate-Evans, executive headteacher of Angel Road Infant and Junior School and Bignold Primary School, said “as a profession, we are becoming increasingly worried about the impact as the disruption continues”.

She said: “Parents tell us that over time, children are increasingly missing the social interaction with their peers. A child of a single parent who is trying to work from home, may feel quite isolated and detached from normality.

“We will all have worries about particular children.”

READ MORE: ‘Not what I want for Norfolk’s children’ - council admit SEND weaknesses

And she urged the government to make an announcement on the future for schools, saying: “This is a national pandemic and a national problem.

“The sooner the government clearly communicate expectations for educational provision for September, the better. Schools need clarity on what accountability will look like.”

And Jackie Westrop, from Swan Youth Project in Downham Market, added: “We expect to see that problems actually increase and we know young people are going to have issues when they go back into schools.”

The DfE spokeswoman said: “We have always recognised the impact of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged children and their families, and are committed to doing whatever we can to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result.

“We know the best place for children is in school, which is why primary schools now have the flexibility to invite more children and we are working towards all children returning to school by September.

“We are improving mental health support through videos, webinars and teaching materials created by experts and working with partners to develop a long-term package of support for children to catch up on lost learning, building upon the £100 million of support already made available to help children learn from home.”

And opposition councillors are set to grill the county’s children’s services department over the response to the pandemic at a meeting next week.

Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group, said the scrutiny committee would hold a “robust examination” into the council’s handling of the crisis “starting with children’s services because of the impact on children and families in the county”.

Four kids, no garden and two computers - one family’s life in lockdown

A mother of four has told of the “really tricky” impact of lockdown on her family.

Sandy Lysaght, 35, and her partner John Simmonds, 36, have a 12-year-old son, ten and eight-year-old daughters and a three-year-old daughter at nursery - and no garden.

“We couldn’t get a paddling pool or a slide out, something simple that other kids take for granted and my kids would have loved,” she said.

“It was really tricky”

She added: “The hardest thing was trying to do homeschool, as they’re all different ages and levels.

“I only have a work laptop and a family PC but the older three all needed computers.

“I had to reach out on Facebook to see if anyone had a spare - but there are people out there without anything.”

Ms Lysaght said her three-year-old daughter Ella was “asking a lot of questions” about the virus, while her 12-year-old son Kai was struggling with the loss of his newfound independence.

“He was just finding his feet,” she said.

Calls to improve attainment and support for Norfolk children

Existing issues with mental health services, digital inequalities and gaps in educational attainment have been worsened by the impact of the coronavirus crisis, campaigners and councillors have warned.

Children are “not getting” vital mental health support and face “awful” divides in access to technology and online learning during the pandemic, it has been claimed.

It comes after warnings that a generation of Norfolk’s children are at risk of being “failed” and “forgotten” as issues with already struggling support services are worsened by the impact of the coronavirus lockdown.

‘Let’s be ambitious for Norfolk’s children’ - calls to tackle failing mental health services:

The region’s mental health trust - dubbed England’s worst - remained in special measures despite showing improvements in care following it’s inspection in November last year.

The Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) has been rated “inadequate” three times by the CQC in recent years, with waiting lists in children and young people’s services remaining high.

And campaigners have stressed the importance of access to mental health services during the pandemic, with mental health issues “endemic” across the country.

A former MP and mental health advocate Sir Norman Lamb has urged the trust to raise its game, and warned: “The longer this goes on for the greater the impact will be.”

It comes after the trust apologised last month for sending a letter to more than 300 young people telling them they were taking them off the waiting list because of coronavirus.

Sir Norman said mental health issues were “endemic” across the UK.

He said: “Now I think the challenge in Norfolk is saying we had unacceptable failings in the past. Let’s commit now to being amongst the best in class in five years time.

“Let’s be ambitious for Norfolk children and not accept that failure is inevitable. There’s no reason we can’t achieve that.”

A spokesperson for the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk said: “Children and young people’s services have been failing for years and years. Where are the success stories for children and young people in Norfolk?

“It’s been going on for far too long.”

They added: “These failings are now happening while we’re dealing with a pandemic.

“Young people should be getting support. It’s not even the issue of long waiting lists - it’s people just not getting support.

“NSFT’s first response was to use it as an excuse to discharge 326 people who had been on waiting lists to discharge them from services.

“A generation of young people are being failed. It needs improvement. It needs competent management, it needs external expertise. It needs people who know what they’re doing.”

An NSFT spokeswoman said: “We have made specific improvements in the last four months in the central youth service to provide better more responsive services to children and young people.

“The service has continued to run during COVID-19. Our therapeutic schools have been operating and our duty service (including out of hours) is available for those children and young people who find themselves experiencing a mental health crisis.”

She said children’s and young people’s services in Norwich have increased, with a pilot project to support young people who have self-harmed and presented at A&E, with other services in Norfolk and Waveney being delivered digitally, including online counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy services and a 24/7 helpline.

She added: “Work continues to be underway to deliver the ambition of transformation across children and young people’s services in Norfolk and Waveney.

“Children, young people and families have worked closely with mental health commissioners and providers within Norfolk and Waveney to shape this vision.

“We know there is lots more to do and we continue to work with our teams to ensure that improvements continue to be made. We are working closely with commissioners to reduce waiting lists and are transforming the way we tackle mental ill health in young people.

“We remain committed to improving the services we provide for all our patients.”

‘I was actively suicidal’ - filmmaker left awaiting mental health support

A mental health filmmaker has said she was left “actively suicidal” while waiting for treatment.

Alyssa Girvan, digital coordinator for the Citizens Advice Bureau, has produced a film about the experience of young people waiting for mental health support.

She said: “Young people’s mental health really is quite dire, particularly in lockdown when gate keepers for mental health are often in schools.

“It’s difficult to access help.”

Miss Girvan said she first tried to get mental health help in 2018 but faced long waits to access the early help team, and six months later was “actively suicidal”.

She added: “It’s not a condition where you’re motivated to go and get a second opinion. Things got worse, and I went to A&E.”

She later received 16 weeks of therapy but added: “Mental health isn’t something which can necessarily be fixed in 16 weeks.”

• For full details, visit Whilewewaitfilm.co.uk

‘Low aspiration levels’ - fears for children’s education in Norfolk:

Children are facing worsening attainment gaps sparked by lockdown inequalities, it has also been warned.

It comes as education chiefs pledged to investigate the gap between how well boys perform compared to girls in Norfolk’s schools, with a probe set be to relaunched in the autumn despite having “stalled” due to coronavirus.

Independent councillor Sandra Squire said the move was “critical” and added: “We have very low aspiration levels in Norfolk for children.

While fellow independent Mick Castle said Ofsted analysis of last summer’s GCSE results also showed an overall eight per cent gap between boys and girls and urged the council to ‘ringfence’ sufficient funds to fund pilot schemes to address the issue.

“If we really want to move forward together it has to start with the children,” Ms Squire added.

And she said: “If that gap occurs it never really narrows again. The whole system needs to be looked at.

“This is a whole society thing.”

Mr Castle said: “The performance of boys on the 2019 GCSE results showed some of the schools had staggering gaps in results with girls. That cannot be right and it is failing a whole generation of boys.”

Lack of access to laptops to complete schoolwork and issues with home broadband speeds, or reliance on mobile data, mean poorer children risk being left behind their peers, councillors have warned.

Natasha Harpley, Labour councillor at Broadland district council, said: “Schools were promised 4G routers and that hasn’t happened. Those who did not have enough devices were promised laptops. That hasn’t happened either.

“Obviously poorer children are going to be affected - parents can’t just find the money to buy these things. If you’re poor you just can’t purchase things quickly.”

She added: “There are assumptions about people’s lifestyles and what they have. Some people don’t have printers. Ink is expensive. It’s just really unequal.

“There’s a belief that because they have fast broadband everyone does. It’s not there in rural areas and some people can’t afford it.”

And Sir Norman said: “As we watch, children are falling further behind in terms of attainment. That is desperately worrying.”

But headteacher Binks Neate-Evans said she was optimistic schools could “effectively minimise differences”.

She said: “Our trust is working exceptionally hard to make sure our schools are more future proofed and reducing digital poverty.

“This inequality must be addressed robustly as a national priority as we know the future short term closure of schools remains a real possibility.”

John Fisher, county council cabinet member for children’s services, said: “As a council we have high aspirations for every single child in Norfolk and we’ve invested in services that hold schools to account and challenge low outcomes for children.

“At most key stages, children achieve better or in line with national averages and that includes children with special educational needs and disabilities.

“The gender gap and the gap between the most vulnerable children in Norfolk is also better or in line with the gap nationally and we’ve created virtual schools around our most vulnerable groups so that we can track the performance of these children and continue to support schools to further reduce any gaps.”

It was announced last week that 1,800 students in Norfolk are set to receive laptops as part of the Government’s scheme to support young people to learn remotely during the pandemic and help tackle digital exclusion.

And the Department for Education said the project was on track, with deliveries set to continue throughout June, with the most vulnerable children prioritised first.