Andy Hickinbottom is a man on a mission.
The child welfare officer sets out after a round of phone calls to parents at Skegness Academy. Sometimes the phone has rung out.
Where there are vulnerable children who can’t be contacted, his aim is to get “eyes on” to see how they are doing. The task will take him all day. This was a tough job in normal times, but the pandemic has made it harder still.
Like many seaside towns, Skegness, on the Lincolnshire coast, has struggled economically during the pandemic. Andy’s drive along the seafront, for instance, passes shuttered shops and attractions that have been switched off for too long. Lockdowns and tier restrictions have hit this hospitality-dependent town harder than most. The families of the children he is out looking for have paid the price.
As a result, the school has seen a 6% uptake in free school meals. And of the 22% of children who live in caravans, some have gone “missing from education”.
Once a police officer, Andy is now on the case as one of Greenwood Academies Trust’s eight education welfare officers tasked with checking in on children in the area.
Andy says: “I’m looking out signs of domestic abuse, I’m looking out for signs of safeguarding concerns, which normally sort of relates to neglect or drug misuse or things like that. We’ve got about six county lines gangs currently operating in this area.”
The drug gangs have continued to operate during the pandemic and Andy admits children at the school have been lured into the business – one of them being arrested during the Christmas period.
His job is to entice kids, whatever their circumstances, back into education. First up we meet Bonnie, Year 7, age 12. The school hadn’t been able to reach her mum that morning and she had not logged on to attend her lessons. Andy discovers she’s at home but is stressed about not being added to the online classroom. Andy patiently explains how she can do it.
Bonnie tells me lockdown is a challenge for her: “I just get really, really stressed and stuff. In one of my drawers, I’ve got like loads of stress balls and stuff. So obviously I play with them.”
Andy gets Bonnie up and running for an 11am science class and she seems pleased that he’s come by. Then it’s off to the next address on his list of 20. The local primary school haven’t been able to get hold of parent-of-two Charlotte Danskin. Andy is sent to investigate.
The home address looks empty. Andy knocks on the door, no one comes. Two pink bikes are on the floor outside and fluffy toys are in the window. He speaks to neighbours and then has one more go on the door. He’s about to leave when Charlotte comes out. She agrees to get daughters Rihanna, five, and Adele, four, so Andy can see them.
“I’ve come round to make sure you’re okay. Number one, and number two, Mum – I don’t think school’s been able to contact you,” says Andy.
“No, I’ve only just got my phone back working,” Charlotte replies.
“Brilliant, is it still the same number?”
“It is, yeah. I’ve seen all the emails and that but obviously I haven’t got the wifi at the minute.”
“Ok, right we’ll see if we can do something about that.”
Charlotte then explains she has been in hospital and that much of her family has contracted COVID, resulting in losses to the disease.
“My nan died,” she says. “My grandad’s in hospital today. And then my other niece, her mama, she passed away with it, so it’s not going very well for us at the minute.”
She nods to the children: “I’d rather be keeping them at home at the minute. They’ve learnt a lot, to be fair, from staying at home.”
Rihanna interjects: “Mummy’s been helping me.”
“I am trying my best,” says Charlotte, adding: “But obviously it’s hard with no wifi. I had it, but I didn’t pay it. So it got cut off.”
Charlotte looks like she’s taking the best care she can of the children in the circumstances, and the school is helping her with food.
Later, I chat with Wayne Norrie, the chief executive of Greenwood Academies Trust, to ask whether he can be sure kids at the school are not going hungry.
“I can’t guarantee that,” he says. “And I would love to sit here and say to you not. We’re doing our very best at the moment. I think the community of Skegness have been fantastic, but I think they’ve been severely hit.
“Tourism is a huge employer here, and the summer was a very difficult time for many of our families.”
As a seasonal employer, Skegness has a transient community. After Florida, it has the highest density of caravans in the world. Around a quarter of the children who attend Skegness Academy live in caravans and at this time of year when the caravan parks close, they sometimes move out. That’s when they go missing from education.
While doing the rounds, we visit a campsite where two children from a primary school in Skegness have gone off radar.
“They’ve disappeared,” says Andy. “After a couple of days of no contact, I did the home visit and found out that the caravan was actually rented out to holidaymakers and they’d disappeared without a forwarding address.
“We have to report it to the county council – they can make follow up inquiries. Obviously, if the parents are claiming benefits, they’ll have to claim them to a new address. If they go enrol to another school, then we’re notified straight away as well.
“But in the meantime, I check with the caravan site owners to see if they’ve left a forwarding address for them. And with neighbours, see if they know where they’ve gone to as well.”
Andy later finds out the family has moved a hundred miles away to Barnsley, and just haven’t informed the school.
On our next stop we visit Jaydon, who needs a laptop. The Year 9 pupil recently moved from a caravan to temporary accommodation in a bed and breakfast. Until Andy brought round the laptop, he had been streaming lessons and writing essays on his phone.
Jaydon sits in the reception of the seafront B&B, and tells me: “I’ve been on my phone for a few weeks, trying to do it through Word and Teams. It’s difficult because I’m writing loads on a small keyboard. I’m trying to swap between the chat and the presentation.”
He says its claustrophobic living in temporary accommodation, especially in lockdown. “When I’m at school, I get to see people face-to-face, talk to people, whereas in lockdown I’m just stuck in the same room, talking to the same person all the time.
“My desk is in the living room, so the distractions of my mum watching TV and my sister. It’s been very hard, trying to concentrate on the teacher and what they’re trying to say.”
Jaydon is concerned this will impact on his education. He says: “I’m worried about not reaching my expected grades at the end of GCSEs and not being able to get the job I dream of. I want to either become a teacher or go down the medical route, like become like a doctor or something.”
Staff at Skegness Academy want to ensure pupils like Jaydon fulfil their potential. Some teachers have even set up a salary reduction so some of their wages go to helping the children.
Headmaster Todd Johnson says: “Our ambition for every single child that comes to this academy has not changed. The reason that my teaching staff and my classroom support staff are signing onto five lessons as a minimum a day, and delivering the same content, is because we can’t let what’s happened now define these young people in the future.”
Back out on the road, Andy continues his rounds. He says; “We are providing the same number of lessons per day now in lockdown as we were when the children were in school. But it’s whether that child really wants to engage with it and whether parents can be bothered to do it as well.
“It’s not just about education – you’ve seen over the past couple of days that it’s about their welfare. It’s about whether they’re accessing their free school meal vouchers, making sure that their home conditions are good.
“You’ve seen my list of home visits yesterday and today. That’s about 20 per day, so that’s an awful lot of children that aren’t accessing their education or aren’t accessing school when they’ve got that place.”
A study by Southampton University put Skegness in the top five places in England likely to suffer from the pandemic, based on the proportion of its industry that has shut down due to lockdown.
The seaside town, already in slow decline, is now in a fight for economic survival. But beneath that is another battle being fought for its children’s futures.
It’s still hard to assess the damage being done to the hopes and dreams of the younger generation. Many living on the outer coastal edges, already felt forgotten. The mission for Andy and others at the academy is to hold out a lifeline and try to pull them in.
— to news.sky.com