The number of vulnerable children attending school in Northern Ireland has risen to around 3,000, a Stormont committee has heard.
The Department of Health’s director of family and children’s policy, Eilis McDaniel, said data has been collected since the beginning of the pandemic following a fall in the number of referrals to children’s social services.
Ms McDaniel said in the week beginning April 6 2020, a weekly average of 646 referrals fell to 542, sparking fears of potential of harm to some children who were no longer ‘visible’ as a result of the lockdown.
She said there were 755 referrals during the week beginning February 8.
‘It was one of the key reasons why we sought to get vulnerable children into schools,’ she told MLAs on Stormont’s Health Committee.
Up to 3,000 vulnerable children are attending schools in Northern Ireland, figures show. (Stock image)
‘However the trend reversed rapidly – by May 11 the three-week rolling average for numbers of referrals was consistently in excess of the average number of referrals received weekly before the pandemic, and this is a trend that was repeated during the circuit-breaker, falling numbers followed by a spike, and is now being repeated during the current period of lockdown making access to school as important as it was back in March or April last year,’ she added.
Ms McDaniel said the department worked with the Department of Education to get children known to social services into school.
She said the definition of vulnerable children included those who received support before the pandemic, and those ‘experiencing increased pressure as a direct result of the pandemic’.
It includes youngsters known to children’s social services, those with a statement of special educational needs as well as children not known to statutory or voluntary community support service and asylum seeking and refugee children.
She said officials heard concerns that the loss of routines had led to an increase in challenging behaviour, children being disadvantaged educationally through home learning, financial hardship, isolation, and potential harm caused by increased time online in terms of gaming addiction and risk of sexual exploitation.
Ricky Irwin, from the Department of Education, told MLAs the number of vulnerable children attending school was ‘quite low early on, in the hundreds’, but now there are ‘2,000 to 3,000’.
‘That would be separate to children who attend special schools. Special schools have been open since the beginning of term, all the children who attend special schools would be vulnerable according to the definition because they have statement of special educational need,’ he said.
First Minister Arlene Foster (pictured during media briefing at The Hill of O’Neill centre in Dungannon, County Tyrone) said the route out of restrictions had to be slow and cautious
‘Attendance at special schools since the beginning of term has been in and around 50 per cent, that’s around 3,000 children there as well. The figures are a lot healthier.’
It comes as the Stormont Executive decided on Thursday to keep the majority of the current restrictions in Northern Ireland in place until April 1.
First Minister Arlene Foster said the route out of restrictions had to be slow and cautious to ensure there would be no return to lockdown.
‘We’re now at a time for patience and persistence, we believe the best way to win this stage of our battle against Covid-19 is to dig in, to secure the position we hold, and then to slowly move forward,’ she told a post-executive press conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.
Primary school pupils in year groups P1 to P3 will return to face-to-face learning on March 8.
Pre-school and nursery children will also return on that date.
Only vulnerable children and those of key workers have been in classrooms since January.
On March 22, secondary pupils in key exam years, year groups 12 to 14, will return to school.
The P1-P3 pupils will revert to remote learning for a week on that date, for the week prior to the Easter holidays, to minimise the impact on infection rates of years 12-14 returning.
No decisions have been taken on whether other year groups will return to class after the Easter holidays.