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Podcast: what have we learnt during COVID-19?

Last updated: 14 Dec 2020 Topics: Podcast

We look back on how COVID has impacted the NSPCC’s priorities and how we’ve adapted to support children, and adults working with young people

The past nine months has been difficult for everyone. Lockdowns, social distancing measures and local restrictions meant that adults working with children had to change the way they operate to continue to keep young people safe.

But how we have we adapted? We reflect on this challenging time with our CEO, Peter Wanless. This episode covers:

  • the issues and challenges children and young people are facing
  • what child protection and safeguarding themes have emerged
  • experiences of delivering services for children and families remotely
  • how we’ve worked with partners to ensure their employees are confident in recognising possible signs of abuse
  • our work to increase awareness of the NSPCC helpline for adults and ensuring Childline is still there for children during this time.

About the speaker

Peter Wanless joined as Chief Executive of the NSPCC in 2013, after running the Big Lottery Fund for five years. Before this, he worked as a Director at the Department for Education. As Chief Executive, Peter is advancing the NSPCC's vision to end child cruelty in the UK.

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Related resources

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> Access our 'It's your call' safeguarding awareness course


Podcast transcript

Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.

Hi, and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This is the last episode of 2020, a year which has undoubtedly been difficult and challenging for everyone. With that in mind, we thought it fitting that we reflect on it by hearing from our CEO, Peter Wanless, about the NSPCC’s experience over the past nine months.

Peter talks about the priorities for us as an organisation during the early stages of lockdown, what child protection and safeguarding themes emerged as time went on, what we’ve learnt during this time and finally, how the pandemic has impacted the NSPCC’s new strategy, which begins in 2021.

I began by asking Peter what the NSPCC has been doing to adapt and adjust in light of COVID, the lockdown and all the restrictions that the pandemic has presented.

So once lockdown hit, from my point of view as leader of the NSPCC, there were three principles which we had to work to and apply quickly and consistently. The first was to be the very best we could for children and young people. The second was to be as good and effective and supportive as we could to one another and to ourselves, so we had a really effective workforce that was doing the best we could for children. And the third was to secure the finances of the organization, because, as a charity, we're 90 percent funded from voluntary donations of one kind or another. And we had a whole schedule of mechanisms for raising money which were out of the window. So all those three things were important, and in that order of priority.

So immediately, the helplines were crucial. We wanted to be absolutely sure that Childline could be there for as many children and young people that had a worry or concern and wanted or needed to reach out to it. And the other issue, which was immediately urgent and important, was the NSPCC helpline that's here for any adult who's worried about a child because quite quickly demand to that line dropped. And that's because it's mostly promoted to and known about amongst professionals and less so amongst the wider population. But with so many children out of sight, out of mind, and out of reach, strategically as a nation it was all the more important that we found a way of letting people know that if you have a worry or concern about a child, there's somewhere that you can go to talk that through. And if you're not quite sure here's a sort of one stop shop at a moment when statutory service are absolutely up to their eyes in working through all their obligations and responsibilities. So there is a particular role – I think, a strategic role – that we could play for services and the nation to support children, at moment, as I say, when demand was falling.

We had a rapid conversation with the Government about getting some emergency short term support, both to draw attention to the existence of the helpline and to build the capacity of the helpline to be able to respond to the extra demand.

So that was an early and important adjustment to the way in which we were working. And then in our service centres, of course, we couldn't work face-to-face immediately with children and families, but we had a duty and a responsibility to work through with every single one of the people we were engaged with what would work for them and what would work for us. There was a sort of accelerated period of adjustment where we stepped back, had conversations and connections with children and families, and reinvented as best we could our services to be remote for a period. And then, over time, we have gradually opened up our premises and sought to support young people and families through a mix of face-to-face and remote working.

I don't know whether people are surprised to hear how we're funded, but as you said, we're 90 percent funded by the public and a lot of things we would have planned – big events like the London Marathon, the Childline Ball – we couldn't run. So, there was the 'Still here for children' campaign, wasn't there, that was created. Can we talk a little bit about that?

Yes. So, we didn't immediately launch a kind of emergency campaign to save the charity. We thought it was important to be as clear as we could be about the essential services and support that we, and only we, could give to children at this period of time, and then seek to raise funds to secure those services so that we could still be here for children. There were particular changes which we needed to make to the way in which Childline was run. There was this extra capacity and awareness of the helpline which the government helped us with a bit. There was the adjustment to our service centre work. All of this had to be funded somehow. We sought to engage people in imaginative ways of giving money. The British public are amazingly generous and we got considerable support short term, especially in the early days of the of the of the lockdown, because I think people could see that there were serious risks that children were going to be the hidden victims of this situation.

We were developing, through Childline and the helpline, insights and understanding as to the sorts of issues and challenges that children were facing in their lives. And sadly, and perhaps not surprisingly, we're seeing increases in reports of domestic abuse and physical maltreatment of children, and then the longer the lockdown has gone on, rising levels of anxiety, worry, concern. So, there were immediate needs which we could both respond to ourselves, but also draw attention to in a in a wider sense, to seek government attention and extra support for.

So, yeah, we've had people fundraising in all sorts of extraordinary ways. On the first day of the lockdown, I wore a ridiculous shirt at home just to sort of show that when you work from home, you can wear some of the more unlikely things in your wardrobe. And you never quite know with these things if people are going to think they're frivolous or a fun distraction. And, that rather took off. Every day, I wore a different shirt for, oh, it became in the end 50 or 60 days, and got people to sponsor me to wear the different shirts. And we raised some thousands of pounds. You’ve got to be imaginative, try and keep people's spirits up, try and emphasise the importance of raising money where we can and supporting these services which are so vital for children. But it's really hard and it's relentless. The challenge doesn't go away.

So this might seem like a really big question, Peter, but as an organisation, what have we learnt, what are we still learning, from the past eight months that we've been through?

I think that some aspects of change have accelerated. So, if we take Childline for an example, it's been really important to us that volunteers are the front line of Childline – that's kind of deep in the culture – and Childline has never closed. People have come in to the 12 bases. They've been workers/key volunteers and that kind of magic of being together on your shift, being supported, and counselling young children who need you, but with supervision and support around you, rather than being at home at your kitchen table, taking pretty traumatic calls and contacts and then not having anyone immediately to support you; for volunteers, that's a massive ask. So we have learnt to reconfigure our services to try and enable the immediate service, support and counselling that needs one-to-one engagement to take place in the counselling room, and take out of the counselling room some of the still important but medium to lower risk calls and contacts. Some of the emails that young people send to us, these can be done remotely and they can be done supervised remotely. So that has concentrated expertise where it needs to be in the counselling room, and it's also offered new volunteering opportunities to supplement the service beyond the 12 Childline bases themselves. You can now volunteer for Childline without living near one of the bases, which is a huge step forward. We always knew that that was something we wanted to do, but the pandemic has accelerated that way of organising ourselves.

It's also been very important because we have the best part of a thousand volunteers who support our Speak out Stay safe service, which in normal times goes into primary schools and plays this hugely important role in having conversations with young children about what's appropriate behaviour, what's inappropriate behaviour, how to speak up if you have a worry or a concern, and if you haven't got a trusted adult close to you, Childline is always there. All of a sudden we couldn't do that anymore. It's a flagship service and people are desperate to continue to deliver it. Some of those Speak out Stay safe volunteers, and some of the staff, retrained and are doing email support to Childline or are helping out with the NSPCC helpline. And some of them are waiting desperately, patiently, very keen to get back into the schools. And I hope that we will be able to do that at some point. In the meantime, we've had to reinvent the service and there is a virtual version of the Speak out Stay safe assembly starring Ant and Dec, among others, which has had tens of thousands of views. So that's a very vivid example, I suppose, of how we've looked to digitise some things which used to be delivered face to face.

So that's the kind of positives. On the more challenging side, for every volunteer who's come into the base and had that supervision, we've had social workers and practitioners needing to deliver really sensitive services to children and young people from their kitchen tables and had to find ways of supporting both them and the young people that they're working with safely. Some of that has worked well, and we've had young people saying they really enjoy some of these more intensive therapy services being delivered remotely. But it's limited. I think we've broken that general kind of assumption that you can only do therapeutic work face-to-face, but it would be a big mistake to suggest that you achieve everything remotely. It would be very dangerous to miss out on the importance of some of the face-to-face aspects of all of this. I guess we're thinking more carefully about where and how to add value and many more services will be a kind of mixed model of delivery as a consequence of the pandemic, faster than might otherwise have been the case.

We've thought a lot about partnerships while people have been remote working, and how we can get safeguarding and child protection messages out. And we know that Deliveroo, through the company, got in touch with us to partner with us about 'It's your call’, which is virtual online learning. Can we talk a bit about that? It's quite an interesting thing that has cropped up since the pandemic began.

Yes. So, a Deliveroo driver saw something which they were worried and concerned about affecting a child and got in touch with the helpline. As a consequence of that call, we worked with statutory services to safeguard a child, and that then became a really interesting discussion between Deliveroo and ourselves about how can we increase the numbers of eyes and ears looking out for children at a time when more and more young people are out of sight, out of mind and out of reach. Thousands of delivery drivers have now taken the 'It's your call' training. Thousands of them have got stickers on their motorbikes promoting the NSPCC helpline. We're not trying to turn Deliveroo drivers into expert social workers, but we are making the point that all of us can play a part in looking out for children. If we have a worry or concern there's somewhere we can go to talk about that, and the NSPCC can act as that kind of pivot or mechanism between personal anxieties and worries that can be talked through and resolved locally or can be packaged up into really effective referrals which can get to the right people fast and the right action can be taken, so that's been great with Deliveroo.

It's being replicated in a number of other places too. I was just reading yesterday about the great progress that's being made similarly with an electricity company who have been training some of their staff in the same way. This is the short kind of bite-sized bit of training. I've done it and it is fascinating. And from there, of course, there are there are all sorts of other courses and bits of content which the NSPCC develops. But 'It's your call' is a great way into mobilising large numbers of people to be aware and just have a kind of understanding of what they might do to look out for children.

I mean, all these are going to be big questions, I think, Peter. But another big one is what kind of themes have been emerging that we've seen as an organisation since the pandemic began?

Lots of people have been under pressure and particularly in health services, a whole lot of resource and attention has been understandably skewed towards directly COVID-related issues and problems, and that's had some consequences for babies.

We are worried about the risks in the very early years, and it was good to see recently a letter going out to health services asking them not to divert resources away from health visiting, for example, because – back to the kind of eyes and ears thing – they are another group of people who in normal circumstances are out and about and seeing and hearing what's happening to potentially very vulnerable babies. We had worries about the scale and level of health visiting before the pandemic, and that's only accelerated. So that's one theme that is of great concern to us at the moment.

Another one is online safety. So, again, prior to the pandemic, the NSPCC was making a lot of noise about how child protection is not properly designed into online services in the way is in the offline world. We've campaigned loudly for social media regulation, which the Government promises us. But again, no surprise, as people went into lockdown, more young people were spending longer online than they were previously and predators were taking advantage of that opportunity to find vulnerable people online and exploit them. We’ve recently published figures which show a step change in the number of grooming offences against children and young people online, and this is alarming. It's a pattern that we could see coming because working with National Crime Agency, we know during long summer holidays this is what happens.

And increasingly, the longer the lockdown goes on: emotional anxiety, worry, concern. You know, I've been disappointed that it took a very long time, certainly in England, for politicians to engage with young people, in young people's language, on the issues, worries and concerns that matter to young people. Too often, what young people have heard are adults increasingly, hysterically, worrying with one another about what needs to be done next, what's failed and all the rest of it. And that doesn't give any of us – especially if you're a young person – a sense that there are people there that are looking up, looking out and understanding what matters to me. So all that happened with the exams, all that happened with university placements, all that happened when young people kind of got there and then found themselves shut away in their halls of residence, it would be a conversation which felt more involving of young people, I think, would have and still could have great, great value. We often talk as the NSPCC: listen to children, involve the voice and perspective of young people. And that has felt to be missing to a considerable degree. So, I think that's a theme we'll continue to bang the drum on as well.

No, I agree. Absolutely. And we've just had two new trustees, haven't we, come on to the board, which I think is going to be really great for us as an organisation.

That has been brilliant. And if you want to look for upsides, we advertised for a trustee, 18 to 25 – you've got to be 18 legally to be a charity trustee – and we had 166 applicants and the quality was unbelievable. And, not only the two which we eventually appointed, but beyond that, there are another 10 to 15 that I've been directly in touch with subsequently. There are incredible young people out there with views and perspectives who want to help us be better as a nation at supporting and protecting young people. So that has been hugely energizing, and it will change the NSPCC forever, because the recruitment process has exposed our broader range of trustees to that fact. It's reminded me of that fact. And I think you're right, the dynamic of the conversations and the perspectives that we'll have around the table will be another step change beyond what were already really important and effective conversations.

So my final question, Peter, we are approaching to begin our new strategy in 2021. How has this year changed that? Are we doing things differently because of it? How has it been informed by COVID?

The key insight behind the strategy, which we'll be growing into from next year, is that I think the NSPCC has a particular opportunity and responsibility to stop more abuse and neglect before it starts. And that whilst it's incredibly important to pick up the pieces after abuse has taken place, and we will continue to play a role in that, statutory services and obligations and budgets are increasingly required to focus at that remediation end. But too many of the statistics are going in in the wrong direction, and we need to try and get ahead of that and work with many more people to make keeping children safe the responsibility of many more people, so that we can intervene earlier and as adults know what we can do ourselves with one another in our communities to keep children safe.

So, that's the kind of journey that we're on. And I think that has just been accelerated by the pandemic. It's made our operational context all the more challenging. It's challenging our finances all the time. We're constantly going to have to be making really difficult, sharp decisions about what is it that the NSPCC is best placed to do? What is it we're best placed to enable? What is it we're best placed to influence? And we probably need to do a little bit less and enable and influence a little bit more. If you're clear about your strategic principles, that's a better way of approaching challenging decisions; looking ahead rather than suddenly realising that your budget is X, Y or Z and having to cut everything in an indiscriminate fashion and just try and keep doing everything that you're doing previously, but X percent less than you were doing before.

So, I think the conversations we've had about the NSPCC strategic position puts us in a better place to have some of those conversations, which all organisations are going to need to be having as we look ahead, about where and how can we maximise our own distinct impact.

Peter, that's my last question. Thanks so much for giving us the time to talk about how it's been for the NSPCC.

Thank you and thanks to everyone involved with and associated with the NSPCC. These have been really challenging times for people. I think we probably have thought consciously and carefully about our people and how we can be the best we can for one another – but also for ourselves – during this period. More than perhaps we might have done if we'd just been in the kind of hurly-burly of racing on and doing all this important work as fast as we possibly could. So, yeah, challenging times, but important times, and I'm hugely grateful to everyone who's played a part.


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