Opinion with County Councillor Karen Constantine: Recovering a generation. Speaking up for Thanet’s children and young people

Cllr Karen Constantine

There are a few news items this week that prompted me to write this column. The first was the analysis of the ‘Millennium’ cohort study, that found around 7% of children in the UK have attempted suicide by the age of 17. I’ll let that sink in second. I was utterly shocked by that figure.

The second piece of news is the proposed roadmap to end lockdown which includes the return to school of 10 million pupils and teachers. Schools, colleges and universities will return from March 8th.

A safe return and fair future?

Prior to the current lockdown more than 100 families contacted me with their deeply held concerns and fears about continuing to send their children to school during the pandemic. There are still major concerns about restarting education, and potentially triggering a repeat of the damaging cycle of stop-start schooling, as many head teachers and all the teaching unions have warned.

From the feedback I have received in the last few days it would seem the will of the people is to ensure teachers do have the Covid vaccine. I hope I’m correct in my assumption that any teacher and class room assistants with underlying health conditions are already vaccinated or very soon will be. We really need the vaccination programme to address the full spectrum of needs of our most valuable front line staff.

I can see the sense in reopening universities, especially for students who need access to labs, studios and equipment. Not all degrees and university courses lend themselves to distance or even blended learning. Not all students have had the best or even an adequate university experience. And they have the dubious ‘privilege’ of paying handsomely for a sub-optimal experience. Surely a rebate is in order?

Likewise, many of our FE college students need to be ‘hands on’. From catering and hairdressing to car maintenance courses, these students benefit little from on-line teaching. They need to develop their practical skills, building confidence in their chosen vocations through physical attendance.,

A-level and GCSE students need support and clarity about exams. How will they be fairly tested? How are students going to catch up? Will those A-level students who are seeking to head off to universities be free from any potential ‘stigma’ due to not being able to take exams and being assessed instead?

Mental well-being is paramount

Our primary school children will desperately need the key social and all the other skills that the school environment and a dedicated army of teachers and support staff provides. Not least of all, friendship with their peers which is so vital to their health and well-being.

There is simply no doubt that all of our children need company, support and friendship.

Psychiatrists say the record figure on suicides demonstrates the challenges faced by young people. They are warning that coronavirus and its continuing uncertainty and fallout will most likely make matters worse, and they are urging immediate investment in services for young people experiencing mental health problems. In reality this means ensuring all children and young people have access to such services.

Don’t over-burden the teachers

Who can really tell when a young person is approaching a crisis? We actually need a dedicated, professional and paid army of people to support, nurture and to skilfully signpost our youngsters to the services they need.

Bear in mind, teachers and auxiliary staff, are going to be bringing students up to date, ensuring social distancing, supervising and administering Covid tests. We can’t off load yet another set of core responsibilities onto teaching staff and educational institutions. Their tasks are already mammoth in scale.

Where such additional support for better mental health works, it’s easily accessible. You either know or can well remember how easily put off you were as a teenager from doing anything new. We need to create support services that are free from any off-putting barriers.

Research by ADCS, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, cites a 19% increase in the referrals of children to social services. Most of this increase is due to the adults in their lives experiencing domestic abuse, mental health difficulties or substance misuse – all of which have risen in the last year.

The ADCS report that most local authorities have seen a decrease in funding for children’s services of between 15% to 30%. In a climate of growing, complex needs and declining budgets the ADCS say the Government needs to pump in £824m into children services just to stand still.

Invest in our Youth Services

The National Youth Agency are calling for an expansion of youth services to deal with the Pandemic fallout. Locally, our youth services, where they exist are excellent, but are under-resourced and too under-staffed to be able to offer a broader range of services to meet burgeoning demand across Thanet.

At the last Kent County Council we, Labour, tabled a motion on increasing youth services, focusing on areas like Thanet, with high levels of child poverty and the highest youth unemployment in the South East. We would doubtlessly benefit from increased youth provision.

We requested an amendment to the County wide annual budget. We identified that some £750,000 of central government funded Covid support money could be utilised specifically to support our young people. Subject to the final turn out (the actual spend of the Council) we proposed that KCC should: “allocate £750k of unspent 2020-21 Covid emergency grant to one-off enhanced youth provision. To include fun activities to facilitate discussions around mental health and wellbeing, preventing medical intentions where possible. This will seek to address the negative impacts of sustained lockdown and home-schooling on young people and their families.”

Our motion was voted down by the Conservative majority.

We urgently need both a Government and a County Council that wholeheartedly understands the urgent needs of our Covid generation and funds recovery. This isn’t a cost. It’s an investment. It’s a great shame the Conservative County Councillors can’t act to support our young people. Prevention is better (and cheaper) than cure.