Supporting Wokingham Borough’s children

Cllr UllaKarin Clark is the Executive Member for Children's Services on Wokingham Borough Council. She writes:

The Covid-19 restrictions have presented an unprecedented challenge to delivery of services to children, young people and families in Wokingham.

 In the weeks running up to  March 23, with the situation developing rapidly, the Conservative-led Wokingham Borough Council was already gearing up to respond to the crisis, preparing for a “lockdown” scenario.

In Children’s Services, discussions with partners in health, the police, and the voluntary sector focused on urgent identification of risks to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. 

Behind the scenes in Children’s Services, a series of daily leadership problem-solving and decision-making meetings kicked in, concentrating on three areas:

  • Ensuring the safeguarding of vulnerable children and young people;
  • Protecting staff;
  • Supporting schools with their changing role.

Response measures were rapidly put in place.

Recovery from the restrictions arguably poses an even greater challenge.  The lockdown was swift and the instructions were clear. 

In Children’s Services, discussions with partners in health, the police, and the voluntary sector focused on urgent identification of risks to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. 

As we move forward there is less certainty about the immediate future, and the knowledge that tentative steps to lift controls may be withdrawn at any time.

During April, when the most stringent restrictions were in place, demand for children’s services in Wokingham declined by 60% compared to the same time last year.

As we recover, we don’t know how demand will change, but we have to assume that the results of the extra stress placed on families during the lockdown, and an impending economic downturn, will lead to a significant increase in referrals into our services.

We have based our recovery strategy on the five government Covid-19 alert levels. As we have now moved from Level 4 to 3, our approach is one of caution. 

Our strategy is to not change working practice until we are certain it is safe for workers, children and families.

Our first priority will be to extend face-to-face meetings to more children and young people to strengthen our direct work with all those in need of support.

Our schools have been opened all along for vulnerable children and children of key workers. They are now also open for reception, year 1 and year 6 and we are supporting them to operate safely. It should be noted that schools make their own decisions in respect of  every child’s school week: for example, some children may attend half-day only.

As the Test and Trace system beds in, we have developed processes to assist schools and foster carers in applying the required quarantine periods, minimising impact on the wider community. Presently children attending schools are in “bubbles” of 15 children. This is likely to increase to a maximum of 33 come September. We are awaiting further guidance from the Department of Education.

The dedication of the Children’s Services' workforce across the partnership to the crisis has been humbling.  Staff continue to go out of their way to ensure children and young people are protected and supported, carrying on face-to-face meetings with the most vulnerable, and keeping in touch with families to deliver services in these most exceptional circumstances.

There has been much opportunity for learning during this crisis, and we will ensure that this is captured and informs our continuous programme of improvement.