Referrals about vulnerable children made by schools fell by almost a third as coronavirus swept through England and disrupted education, figures show.
Referrals from schools to social services fell 31% in the year ending March 31 2021, a fall of just under 36,000 referrals, according to data from the Department for Education (Dfe).
It said this reflects the restrictions on school attendance in place for parts of the year, with the majority of pupils being home-schooled during national lockdowns.
By March 31, there were 388,490 children in need – the lowest number since 2013.
This a slight fall compared with the previous year, which the Dfe said was driven by the drop in school referrals.
A child begins an episode of need when they are referred to children’s social care services.
More than half of those in need on March 31 were male, seven in 10 were white, and children aged 10 and over accounted for the majority.
There were 597,760 referrals in the year to March 31, down 7% from the previous year.
The police remained the most common source of referrals, accounting for 195,270, while there were 81,180 from schools.
More than half of the children in need on March 31 had abuse or neglect identified as their primary need when assessed by a social worker.
The most common additional factors identified in assessments during the year included concerns about a parent or carer being a victim of domestic violence (168,960 assessments) and the mental health of a parent or carer (157,600).
The number of assessments involving concerns about a parent’s drug or alcohol use rose compared with the previous year.
Gangs were a factor in 12,720 assessments.
Data published for the first time this year also shows there were 7,390 assessments where child-on-child sexual abuse was a concern, and 10,070 assessments where child-on-child physical abuse was a concern.
Anne Longfield, chairwoman of the Commission on Young Lives and former children’s commissioner for England, said the number of referrals linked to gang exploitation is “extremely troubling and likely only the tip of the iceberg”.
She continued: “I am particularly worried about the very sharp drop in referrals during the two school lockdowns.
“Even though schools were open for vulnerable children, many did not attend, and it is very concerning that many have dropped off the radar since.
“We need to ask why we are still losing thousands of marginalised teenagers to the ruthless criminals who are so adept at spotting and exploiting vulnerable children and how we can find better solutions to stop it from happening.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “Every child should feel safe and protected, which is why we are investing in the frontline charities directly supporting vulnerable children and providing billions more to councils to help them respond to changing pressures, including for children’s services.
“We’re also making £24 million available for a regional recovery fund for children’s social care, to tackle the most pressing issues vulnerable children face in those areas, as well as providing more investment in mental health support and championing family hubs so parents can access important support services for themselves and their children.
“The Independent Care Review will also address the sector’s major challenges as part of its wholesale review of children’s social care.”