Date updated:

Between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, there was a 31% fall in referrals to social services from schools compared to the previous year; and yet over this time, in a recent study, 90% of Designated Safeguarding Leads and Headteacher survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that schools had taken on more responsibility for safeguarding during the pandemic.  

During lockdowns when vulnerable children and young people were not attending school, many schools played a role in continuing to provide regular contact with them, including in-person visits. Despite this, as foreseen by many professionals, some children and young people fell through the cracks, resulting in appalling repercussions for them. We only need mention the name ‘Arthur’ to understand the extent to which children and young people become more vulnerable behind closed doors when not attending school regularly.

While the crucial role schools have in safeguarding children and young people cannot be underestimated, we are seeing increasing numbers of schools coming under pressure to close their doors to children and young people more frequently.  

Schools have not had to go through extended periods of lockdown since March 2021, but they have been expected to provide spaces for testing and vaccinations, which has sometimes resulted in whole school shut downs on days during which children and young people would otherwise have received teaching. This has often been carried out on the first day of new school terms. And, anecdotally, we hear of more schools having two-week half terms.

Such shut downs are becoming more common, for teacher training, for parent/teacher consultations, and indeed for COVID-testing. However, while maintained schools are statutorily obliged to “meet for at least 380 sessions – sessions being one day, split into two sessions by a break – i.e. 190 days - during any school year to educate their pupils”, there is no such statutory obligation on academies or independent schools.

We previously wrote an article as to whether schools, including maintained schools may shorten their school days. Our advice was that they could, provided they acted ‘reasonably’ and consulted and gave notice ‘reasonably’. There is no such need for academies, nor indeed independent schools, to do the same if they are proposing to shorten the school year. Nor is there a legal definition of ‘full time’ education which may act as a break upon demands resulting in school shut downs. The only guidance we have in relation to lengths of the school year/terms is government guidance on the registration of independent schools, which clarifies that “the number of weeks in the academic term/year the education is provided” will be relevant when determining whether a proposed institution is wishing to register as an independent school.

We would nonetheless advise all trustees and governors to keep in mind their obligations set out in the statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children.  When making decisions about whether or not to reduce the number of days children attend school, for whatever reason, they should make this decision in the context of their role as important partners in safeguarding children and young people. This is likely to be undermined if the school year or school terms are shortened ‘too much’. How much is too much, unfortunately, will most likely be considered in a future serious case review of another child or young person whose vulnerability has been exacerbated while not attending school.

Why this is particularly important in relation to safeguarding children and young people has been thrown into stark relief by the lockdowns of schools during the pandemic. Schools were not able to have the daily oversight of children in their care. And since then, more and more children have been missing education, and more have been removed from the rolls of the schools they used to attend for the purposes of elective home education – in November 2021, it was reported that there was a 34% rise of children being electively home educated than in November 2020.

With many schools also reducing the number of educational sessions they provide to children and young people who are on their roll, whether they are carrying out testing on-site or for other reasons, the crucial safeguarding oversight carried out by our schools will be reduced.