A united public sector supporting young people

Leaders from across the public sector came together for the final event in NLC’s COVID-19 leadership webinar series, on 7 July. They brought a range of perspectives: from school, university, and college leaders who work with young people every day; to leaders from fire services, police, and local government, where serving young people is one part of their overall work.

In group discussions facilitated by the Education and Training Foundation, leaders identified challenges young people have faced in the pandemic and some actions the public sector can take. The event was hosted by Sir Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, who started the session with some thought-provoking poll results, showing:

  • The number of Childline counselling sessions about physical abuse increased by 22% per month during the first lockdown (NSPCC)
  • 81% of young people expressed concern on the impact of COVID-19 on their education, exams and qualifications (British Science Association poll (2020))

Peter emphasised it was both timely and positive that young people were the focus for this event. It was encouraging that the challenges they have been facing were being recognised by a wide range of public services. Cross-sector discussions are important to share best practice and actions which join up to reflect the realities of young lives.

Putting young people at the heart of COVID-19 recovery

Firstly, many leaders in attendance talked about putting a particular focus on young people and children in their organisations’ COVID-19 recovery plans. They felt that working together with young people and other key partners in strategic collaboration was crucial when creating comprehensive recovery plans. This way, young people are given a voice and their needs can be understood.

Collaboration to increase mental health support

Secondly, the group talked about the significant impact COVID-19 is having on young people’s mental health. Problems include exacerbated body issues, young people facing challenges socialising again, and the downsides of experiencing a mostly virtual working world. The full impact of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health is yet to be seen and participants feared we won’t completely understand this for years to come. In discussions, leaders considered how their organisations could collectively provide more support around mental health for young people.

Taking account of inequalities

Thirdly, leaders discussed how COVID-19 has increased a range of inequalities among young people. Leaders saw widening gaps between students with special educational needs (and disabilities) (SEN(D)) and those without such needs. Digital poverty was also identified as a major concern during the pandemic, often with a big technology gap in deprived areas. This included households with only one device and a lack of privacy making it difficult for some to access online learning.

Post-COVID-19 recovery across the public sector needs to recognise that some groups have been disproportionately affected, for example, ethnic minority groups, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and children with SEN(D). Public sector leaders would need to think about how local communities could also be taken into account as well as regional and national needs.

Bringing together leaders to focus on skills gaps and work with families

Next, leaders observed that maintaining online learning has sometimes been at a cost to emotional and social support, soft skills development, and learning how to be part of a team. Leaders also noted that many young people are facing anxiety about the jobs market and leaders are noticing gaps in experience on the CVs of 16 year olds. Hospitality and retail jobs that were once available to them were not during the peak of the pandemic, and many have missed out on elements of their Key Stage 4 and 5 careers education.

One leader mentioned an example of how they had brought sector leaders together to address this and focus on employment opportunities, after they recognised the impact COVID-19 has had on young people’s work experiences. This allowed leaders to share their knowledge and initiatives that exist to help.

In addition to the above, many early years children who may not have had many interactions with individuals other than their parents or main carers, are falling behind on their formative learning. Leaders expressed a real need here to work with families in a joined-up way so that these children achieve the major milestones in their learning.

More strategic joint working with local authorities

There was strong emphasis on the importance of securing support and safeguarding across the system for the most vulnerable young people, living in difficult home environments. Some school leaders, for example, had in person contact with children during the pandemic when social workers in particular areas were doing more work remotely. Communications between different parts of the system were therefore vital.

Breaking stereotypes and building for the future

Lastly, leaders were pleased that there are a number of stereotypes around young people that have been broken under the pandemic. They have shown resilience and the ability to adapt. We often approach the issue of COVID-19 recovery from a deficit model, however, we shouldn’t forget about what young people have learned and developed over the pandemic. Our focus should be to build on this and to support them.

The NLC is grateful to leaders who participated in the session for their willingness to share their insights and their commitments to work ever more closely as a team. We will soon be updating our autumn calendar of events, as well as upcoming opportunities to get involved in similar discussions on a wide variety of topics.

For more information about the NLC, head to our website: NationalLeadership.gov.uk or get in touch at NLC@CabinetOffice.gov.uk.

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