Written evidence submitted by Family Action
Family Action’s Response to the Education Committee’s call for evidence re the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
Family Action is a charity committed to building stronger families and brighter lives. We help individuals and communities address the challenges they face through practical, emotional and financial support. We support over 60,000 families and hundreds of thousands of children across the country each year through a wide range of national programmes and local services.
During this time, we have worked hard to keep virtually all of our services open, adapting and extending delivery to meet current needs and innovating at pace. It is through our previous and current delivery of support that we have seen first-hand the effect of Covid-19 on education and children’s services, and know what has worked to address some of these issues in the past. We believe that:
Covid-19 has caused hardship in a variety of ways for people across the country, but what we are seeing through our work is that existing inequalities have been widened by the pandemic. Families that were already struggling have been tipped over the edge and families that were ‘just about managing’ are now struggling to cope. We set up a Covid-19 Emergency Grants programme for our most vulnerable service users to alleviate hardship caused – from 1st April to 22nd May we have given out 274 grants primarily to buy food and other essentials to a value of £45,180. To put that level of demand into context, a previous grants programme that we ran with similar application criteria, but open to partners as well as Family Action, gave out 1092 grants over two and a half years – 36 a month. Our FOOD Clubs (our version of Food Banks) have increased during the crisis from 8 Clubs to 36 and we will open another 18 in June. In our FamilyLine Service, which supports family members over the age of 18 through telephone calls, email, web chat and text message, 59% of calls received since February 2020 have been about financial issues, compared to 8% in 2019. We have seen a sharp spike in demand in terms of contacts to FamilyLine as a result of Covid-19, with contacts to the service increasing by over 50% in comparison with pre-Covid levels by May 2020.
With the number of vulnerable families increasing as a result of Covid-19, this will place further strain on education and Children’s Services, two systems that were already under pressure - with the voluntary sector, usually a supporter of these systems, facing increasing pressures of its own. Despite remaining open, it is very noticeable that many of our services have needed to shift from delivery of their usual outcomes focused work to meeting basic needs and keeping families feeling safe and supported. More of our time is also needing to be spent on regularly assessing and reassessing the risk levels of families that we work with as there has been an increase in families that would be considered vulnerable and some families are clearly becoming less able to cope as the crisis continues.
Unless we can ensure that sufficient levels of early help and preventative support are available to families as we emerge from this crisis and for the foreseeable future, we will not be able to address reduced family resilience and we will end up in a situation where an increased number of vulnerable families need more significant intervention. Those who have recently become vulnerable as a result of the pandemic will need appropriate support to ensure that the stresses and strains brought on by the crisis are not perpetuated for years to come. For example, our Perinatal Support Services provide befrienders to families where there is a low level of risk of mental health issues, and works with them for the first year of their baby’s life. An evaluation of this service in Medway showed a statistically significant reduction in anxiety and depression for mothers as a result of our support. Whilst this service has remained open, without future funding being available for these types of services it will not, and it could be expected therefore, that anxiety and depression levels in new mothers could increase, having its own negative impact on their children in the long term and the resilience of the whole family.
It is right, and we are seeing this in our own services, that there should be a focus on risk factors that have increased as a result of the pandemic and lockdown, such as domestic abuse and mental health issues. However, at the same time, we must not lose sight of the effect on family resilience and how we plan to reduce some of the effects of vulnerability in the future. Much has been said already about the effect of children not attending school, and the negative effect this is likely to have on the attainment gap. We have seen in our own SEND services the issues caused by remote learning that is not meeting specific educational needs. Whilst we cannot give back this learning time lost, we can ensure that children have what they need to promote their future learning and reduce pressure on the family as a whole. Our National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP), in partnership with Magic Breakfast and funded by the Department for Education, was delivering breakfasts to over 280,000 children before lockdown through over 1800 breakfast clubs. Throughout the crisis the NSBP has remained open and we have continued to provide breakfasts through over 1000 NSBP schools during lockdown. Alongside free school meals, and our FOOD Clubs for families, this work ensures that children are ready to learn – in an evaluation of the model, where schools provided a free, nutritious breakfast, this boosted pupils’ progress in reading, writing and maths by an average of two months’ across a year. The NSBP is due to end in March 2021, yet the effects of Covid-19 are likely to be felt far beyond this point and services like these will be vital to societal recovery. The increased demand for our Food Clubs alone has led us to begin opening them in new areas such as Rochdale, Oldham, Southend, Cardiff and Birmingham, and it is unlikely that this demand will disappear – without the NSBP it will increase even further. However, there currently does not seem to be a strategy from Government for societal, not just economic, recovery beyond the support offered in the immediate term. This is why we are calling for a national societal recovery strategy following the pandemic and why we believe successful initiatives like the NSBP could be core planks of that recovery strategy.
This strategy must include the voluntary sector and public sector working together to combine their strengths. We have been able to be innovative during this period in order to continue to deliver our services safely, and meet emerging needs quickly, developing new services and trying new ways of delivering services quickly and successfully. This flexibility is needed in exploring how services can be delivered in the ‘new normal’. We work with a holistic, whole family approach, recognising that all issues need to be considered in order for support to succeed and progress to be maintained. As Covid-19 has affected every aspect of everyone’s lives, this holistic approach is needed now more than ever in relation to the delivery of education and children’s services. The strategy from Government needs to consider them as part of a whole, mutually reinforcing, system of support as well as recognising that vulnerability at various levels will remain for a significant period. Above all, there needs to be long term investment in early help and preventative support and a clear national recovery strategy otherwise the impact of this crisis will be even greater than it already is, and it will continue to impact lives for far longer. Covid-19 has been described as an unseen enemy, but the steps that need to be taken to recover from it are much clearer – it is within our capabilities to plan for recovery and collectively we must do that.
 Nilsen, W., Gustavson, K., Kjeldsen, A., Røysamb, E., & Karevold, E. Pathways from maternal distress and child problem behavior to adolescent depressive symptoms – A prospective examination from 18 months to 17 years of age. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, October 2013
 Education Endowment Foundation 2016. Magic Breakfast evaluation report and executive summary.