Agenda item

Brent Council's Management of the Impact of COVID-19 on Education and Children's Services

To provide the Committee with an udpate on Brent Council’s management of the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services.


*This was published as a supplementary item on 17 November 2020.


The Chair welcomed the Children and Young People Department to the meeting, as well as 2 Primary School Head teachers and representatives from Brent Youth Parliament. He invited Councillor Mili Patel (Lead Member for Children's Safeguarding, Early Help and Social Care) to introduce the report.


Councillor M Patel informed the Committee that the report updated members on the work the Children and Young People’s department had been doing to manage the impact of COVID-19 on children’s services. The paper provided an update from the report received in March 2020. It updated the committee on the following areas; early years settings and schools, early help, children with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP), Looked After Children and Care Leavers, the Youth Justice services and the mental health and wellbeing of young people.


The Chair thanked the Lead Member for the introduction and invited comments and questions from the Committee, with the following issues raised:


The Committee expressed concern for young people’s mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic and asked what assurances had been sought around the support offered to children and young people for their mental health and wellbeing. Councillor Patel drew the Committee’s attention to section 10 of the report which detailed the Council-wide work led by Children’s Services supporting young people’s mental wellbeing. The Committee heard that counselling for Looked After Children and care leavers had been expanded with hours of support extended, and the Lead Member had heard further details of the support care leavers and looked after children had received at the Corporate Parenting Committee on 21 October 2020. The lead member also highlighted partnership work with Brent CCG to develop Mental Health Support Teams as part of an expanded CAMHS offer supporting young people’s mental health working closely with schools.


The Chair invited Georgina Nutton (Head of Preston Park Primary School) to share what Preston Park Primary School had been doing to support their pupils during the pandemic. Georgina Nutton informed the Committee that they had been focussing on ensuring children had staff members to talk to as part of the ongoing support to children as they accessed education either remotely or as vulnerable children on site in school. She  described the effort to deliver an effective remote curriculum which had strong engagement from children, meaning come June when the school opened more widely to  children they were able to progress well and “bounce back” when returning to a school environment. The Committee were informed that prior to all children returning to school in September, staff had planned a recovery curriculum and mapped any learning children had lost regarding their routine, to ensure a sense of normality around learning in the school environment. The full curriculum had now resumed whilst dipping in to the bespoke recovery curriculum where needed. To support pupil’s mental health the school used Place2Be through which children could access counselling, and offered online parenting support classes and sent out a wellbeing newsletter. The school had been focusing holistically on mental health through the PSHE curriculum and had adapted the timetable to focus time specifically on PSHE. The Committee heard that the school had a behaviour charter with emotion coaching focused language that staff used, and trained families to use at home, which enabled individuals to acknowledge feelings and helped to equip children with the skills to be able to self-regulate, know that the feelings they had were OK, have their feelings validated and work through them to set behaviour limits where needed.


Enid Lewis (Head of Park Lane Primary School) was also invited to share what Park Lane Primary School had been doing to support pupils during the pandemic, including vulnerable children and children with Special Education Needs (SEN). She highlighted that vulnerable children and children with SEN had been in school during the initial lockdown as well as later phases of the pandemic and had the support of school staff and their social worker. Park Lane Primary School also used Place2Be to support children with their mental health. The Committee heard that since the full return to school in September the school had focused on ensuring children were given the opportunities to talk about the lived experiences they had during lockdown, and all staff had training in how to help and support children deal with loss and grief prior to their return to school, as the school had a large number of children who were impacted by the virus. Enid Lewis informed the Committee that the school had focussed on mental health and linked that to physical health, as during lockdown many children did not have access to the quality meals they would have had at school so the school were focusing on both. She expressed that the school staff had gone above and beyond to ensure they had been available to support children with their mental health and talk to them about the worries they had, and children were now back into a routine. She highlighted that some children had genuine concerns around COVID-19 and their experience during lockdown.


The Committee drew attention to section 7.4 of the report which detailed the increase in referrals received by the Family Front Door in October 2020. The Committee asked for assurances that the impact of the pandemic on children in need and children subject to a child protection plan had been managed effectively. Councillor Patel highlighted that the rise in referrals had been anticipated, as Children’s Services were aware the majority of referrals came from schools and settings which were not accessible to the majority of young people during the lockdown. The department had prepared for the number of referrals to increase when schools reopened. Nigel Chapman (Operational Director Integration and Improved Outcomes, Brent Council), who is the Council’s statutory social work practice leader, advised that the rise had been primarily led by the return of children to schools and had led to increased pressure on child protection work and referral work and was increasing the number of looked after children. He explained that to mitigate the increased demand as a result of increased referrals he had implemented a new Family Front Door team to manage referrals more effectively and screen off some work that may not necessarily require a long term intervention by Children and Young People’s services, and to provide a very quick and effective response, which had taken around 10% of unnecessary work away from the service. Another mitigation was to ensure staff leave was taken during the summer so that social workers were back in place in time for the anticipated rise in demand.


With regards to early years settings, early help and children aged 0-5 years old, the Committee queried what the impact of the pandemic had been and how the wellbeing of those groups had been supported. Gail Tolley (Strategic Director Children and Young People, Brent Council) drew the Committee’s attention to section 4 of the report which detailed the work done in early years settings and schools. She highlighted that a number of early years settings did remain open during the lockdown, particularly for vulnerable children, and the early years team based in the Civic Centre continued to support settings including visiting provision. Whilst children’s centres had not remained fully open they had remained open for the more intensive and specialist work for those vulnerable children aged under 5 and ensuring access to health visiting support. Sue Gates (Head of Early Help, Brent Council) added that the communication from Children’s Centres and liaison with the early years team had been very good throughout the pandemic and they knew on a twice weekly basis which vulnerable children had attended settings and which had not, with any attendance issues or concerns followed up by CYP early years staff. Children’s Centres provided significant support to families throughout the pandemic period, including the delivery of early learning packages, doorstep drops, online sessions both 1 to 1 and in small groups, and speech and language therapy. Councillor Patel informed the Committee that many of the private voluntary and independent sector providers of early years settings had been required to close during the pandemic due to their home based settings, and the Children and Young People department had brokered access to alternative settings for vulnerable children and children of key workers where needed. She advised that there remains significant financial pressure for those organisations with a risk that some may not reopen due to budget impacts on particularly smaller private sector providers of early years. Whilst the government had provided funding through to the end of December the Council had concerns regarding the sustainability of those settings for the following year. Councillor Patel was working with leads across London in a cross-party manner to lobby the government for extra funding to mitigate the impact of the pandemic period and to confirm continued funding for early years settings, and advised she would continue to raise the issue wherever she could.


In relation to Family Wellbeing Centres, Gail Tolley confirmed that the decision was taken the previous year to move from 17 Children’s Centres and to set up 8 Family Wellbeing Centres and the work to implement that was underway.


Concern was raised with regard to safeguarding demand pressures and extra staffing costs. Gail Tolley acknowledged that there were demand pressures and that Brent, as with all other Councils, was in a resource challenge situation that would be more challenging going forward. The report set out how the Family Front Door team noted in discussions earlier were managing this demand and Gail noted that social workers were carrying larger caseloads than the department would like. This was being monitored carefully. The Committee were advised that the complexity of cases had increased since September and the easing of restrictions. Gail Tolley informed the committee that CYP are monitoring the resource impact implications of Covid related pressures and these were being reported in year, in the budget reports presented to Cabinet.


The Committee questioned section 6.8 of the report, regarding the assurances presented by the North West London (NWL) Integrated Care System (ICS) to the NHS that phase 3 expectations would be met, noting that ICS were not legal bodies. Brian Grady (Operational Director Safeguarding Performance and Strategy, Brent Council) confirmed that the ICS was not a legal entity but a partnership arrangement by which the NHS was planning and delivering services across NWL. The partnership included the 10 NHS provider trusts and the 8 NWL CCGs, and was the planning footprint on which the NHS was reporting regularly to NHS England. Section 6.8 of the report referenced the assurances Brent Children’s Trust (BCT), chaired by Gail Tolley, had been seeking and had received from the NHS system locally to ensure that every element of NHS delivery of services for vulnerable children had gone through appropriate rapid recovery and that the right services were in place for children and young people. Gail Tolley highlighted that she had chaired a BCT meeting the morning of this meeting where she received reassurance again from a CCG representative. At the meeting she received assurance that going forward or in the event of a second lockdown qualified nurses working in children’s services would not be drawn into other acute services in Brent.


With regard to how well schools were supported to respond to incidents of Covid-19, Councillor Tom Stephens (Lead Member for Schools, Employment and Skills) advised that paragraph 4.11 set out the arrangements to support early years settings and schools in the case of positive tests for Covid-19 of either children attending a setting, pupils or members of staff. School attendance in Brent was higher than both the national and London averages. He advised that the Children and Young People’s department had supported all Brent schools during the pandemic including support with reviewing school COVID-19 risk assessments.


The Chair drew the item to a close by inviting 2 representatives from Brent Youth Parliament to address the Committee. Their questions focused on the mental health of children and young people, in particular focusing on section 10.5 of the report regarding the NHS linking mental health support teams with schools. The representatives queried whether those teams were aimed to be preventative or aimed at supporting those already in, or heading towards, crisis. Brian Grady advised that the teams would focus on emerging need and there would be a focus on prevention, aiming to identify, respond to and prevent emotional health needs growing in the population. He added that there were other interventions supporting the wellbeing of children returning to education that would be worked on during the year so children should see enhanced mental health support for current mental health conditions, on a preventative basis.


The Committee expressed gratitude to the Children and Young People department, noting the fantastic work undertaken. Gail Tolley thanked the Committee and expressed that collaboratively the frontline staff in all children’s services settings had been outstanding throughout the pandemic.


As there were no further questions, the Chair thanked Committee members their contributions and drew the item to a close.



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