Coronavirus: Disabled children’s education rights must be restored now, before any formal return to school

This week Boris Johnston announced that schools may start reopening to certain year groups again from June 1st. Around 80% of schools have remained open to “vulnerable” groups (disabled children with EHCPs, and children with a social worker), and children of key workers since the lockdown began. However, only around 2% of children eligible to attend have done so. The message has been that even though schools are available for this cohort, if they can stay safe at home, then they should do so and most have remained at home. 

However, we also know of some children with EHCPs whose parents wanted them to attend, but were told by their school they couldn’t support their needs, so they shouldn’t go. If schools can’t meet needs when there are hardly any children there, how are they going to cope when there are whole year groups attending? And without the duties on LAs to deliver EHCPs there will be no accountability for these children.  

The advice about “vulnerable” children staying home if they can has now been removed and these pupils are expected to go to school. However, parents will not be penalised if they do not send their child in. 

“Now that we have made progress in reducing the transmission of coronavirus we are encouraging all eligible children to attend – it is no longer necessary for parents of eligible children to keep them at home if they can. In particular, as per the existing guidance on vulnerable children and young people, vulnerable children of all year groups continue to be expected and encouraged to attend educational provision where it is appropriate for them to do so.”

Actions for education and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from 1 June 2020

The majority of parents with disabled children we have heard from say despite this, they will still not be sending their child back until it is safe for everyone. Many have found that since their child has been at home, the anxiety that was an overwhelming problem while they were at school has lessened or vanished completely. Now, the prospect of being forced back to the place that caused the anxiety to start with fills them with dread. 

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Risk Assessments and reintegration plans

Our legal columnist Hayley Mason explains the guidance states every child must be risk assessed before any return. “The guidance I have read still states children should have a risk assessment and their parents should feed into that, so all children should be risk assessed before returning to school rather than just a blanket 'return to school'”

And of course, those who are “extremely vulnerable” medically speaking, or who live with someone who is, will still have to stay at home. This raises the possibility of a two-level system where there are insufficient staff to provide any home online input. 

And, as it turns out, The Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser Osama Rahman has admitted he has not assessed whether guidance on reopening schools is effective, adding the current advice is “draft” and “will be developed”. Oh, well that's okay then. (No, you're right, it's not) There is no excuse for this. Planning for re-opening should have started immediately schools were closed and a well-thought-out, consulted-upon document written- going back is not the emergency action that the closure was.

Same storm, but some boats are leaking

With an astonishing lack of self-awareness, the detail for the return to school, released earlier this week, reads as if the whole mission has been carried out with military precision and in an orderly fashion.

Instead, disabled children's hard-won rights have been summarily, and unnecessarily, snatched away. Disabled children have been set adrift with no support, leaving some families desperate for help. Transitions to new settings have been stalled, with many children and young people with no placement lined up for next year - something that should have been long settled.

Parents of disabled children who rely on Carers' Allowance and/or free school meals have not benefitted from Rishi Sunak's financial largesse, despite now having to care 24/7 without respite.

Children from disadvantaged homes, lacking any, or enough, online devices or wifi, have been left to hope someone can drop paper copies round, and unable to make use of the many online resources that have sprung up. Promised tech has been patchy and insufficient to supply the children who need them.

The Government seem to think that just a few children here and there are without easy access to computers and internet access. Wrong. Millions of families only have access via a parent's mobile phone which is often pay-as-you-go and which they won't be able to use for education purposes anyway. They don't have printers. They often don't have landlines. They definitely don't have tablets. Austerity has trapped them in poverty and the punitive benefits system has kept them there.

This is not to forget the amazing job so many schools and staff have been doing, churning out lessons on Google Classroom, keeping in regular touch with their pupils and keeping those who do go into school safe. Lots of schools have also been providing free meals for collection by families who would otherwise go hungry. Likewise, staff in LAs have been doing their best in difficult circumstances, often redeployed to areas outside their normal work or covering for colleagues who are sheltering or ill.

Thank you to everyone in schools, LA SEND and social care departments, voluntary services (and of course, NHS staff), who are working incredibly hard to support disabled children, young people and their families. I know that every parent appreciates all you are doing. When we express anger or criticism, please understand it is not at you as individuals; it is at the system and those running it, who must think harder about the kind of world they want to live in.

“The stresses and challenges that Covid-19 has placed on teachers, learners with SEND and all their family members has been profound and unprecedented. Despite the best efforts of schools, some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people in our schools have been re-traumatised by the loss of regular schooling (acknowledged as one of the major protective factors in guaranteeing positive life outcomes) and contact with their teachers and learning assistants, significant and sustained emotional and social pressures due to family circumstances, and through exposure to harm in the ungoverned spaces of the street, the park or social interactions on the internet."

Catherine Knowles, Achievment For All

Restore disabled children's rights now!

Relaxing the duties on local authorities to provide for children with EHCPs, was unnecessary to start with. But LAs clearly didn’t want to face the prospect of wholesale legal action from parents over missed deadlines and lack of provision. These things don’t normally seem to bother [many] LA leaders, but it’s clear that supporting disabled children was not at the heart of this – protecting themselves was. 

It is quite astounding that, given the considerable number of reports already telling the Government what a poor job [many] councils are doing, they would agree to “relax” the rules. But it’s clear they’d rather have powerless parents cross at them than the LGA.

The word “relaxation” does make the wholesale removal of legal rights from an entire protected group of people seem like no big deal. Well, it is a big deal and it’s led to [some] LAs and schools not having to worry, or even think about, things like therapies, differentiation or ensuring disabled children are supported. 

There has been no impact assessment on the effect of the lockdown or the legal changes on disabled children. Families have lost all the support they relied on, including vitally-needed physical and mental health therapies (with exceptions). New Life charity says despite receiving no government funding, it’s dealing with a 120% increase in contacts from parents of children in crisis who have lost access to support delivered by education settings including equipment, seating and hoisting, that their schools have not released them to use at home. 

Deaf children are finding accessing online support impossible including lack of signing and captions. For them, widespread wearing of face masks will be a disaster as it will prevent them from lip-reading

If it's okay for disabled children to be back at school, then local authorities must ensure their needs are met. Without this absolute legal duty being reinstated, this is unlikely to happen. Even with the duty it often doesn't, so it is foolhardy and dangerous to expect it to happen without the legal requirement. Otherwise, you are setting up children with additional needs to fail.

Gavin Williamson - pay attention. Whose needs are more important, those of local authorities or those of disabled children? A 'reasonable adjustment' is the same as saying 'don't bother'. Is that the message you want to send? You can use all the well-intentioned words that you want about what you "expect" LAs to do, but if you don't MAKE IT A LEGAL REQUIREMENT, it won't happen.

The problems with going back to school...

As mentioned above, schools are expected to undertake risk assessments to ensure they are safe for children to attend. Classes of 30 children are suggested to be split into two with a teacher in one and a TA in another. Any parent of a disabled child can see the potential difficulties with this and so many other pertinent issues.

  1. Lack of space – while it may be ok with one or two classes only, a school will soon run out of viable space. What are they going to do, put them in tents?
  2. Lack of staff: Staff may be unwell, shielding or caring for family members who are. They may also have children who have not yet returned to school and cannot be left by themselves. Even if you have a full complement of staff and TAs (if you have any TAs left) who gets the TA and who gets the teacher? Guess which one the children with SEND will get? Meanwhile, the poor teacher will be dashing between classes (as they still have responsibility for the whole class) and getting even more exhausted.
  3. If EHCPs only have a “reasonable endeavours" duty on them, this effectively means it’s about as much use as second-hand PPE. If a child with an EHCP is expected to be at school, then they have a right to expect their EHCP is enacted. Or not, as the case currently stands.
  4. A risk assessment may show that a school is not safe for your disabled child and the head may advise you to keep your child at home, so the TA that previously did 1-1 with your child can stand guard over 15 other children. An unlawful exclusion? Who cares! (we do)
  5. If the teacher is teaching a class of their own, and so is the TA, who is going to be supporting the children still learning at home? Schools will need to consider this (I hope they already are). It may be that these “missing” children can attend virtually, if the lesson takes is simulcasted on zoom or similar. However, teachers have been advised against live-streaming lessons by unions and security needs to be enabled. 
  6. Returning to school is likely to be very difficult for some students, it won’t be as simple as just giving them a start date and saying off you go. Pupils are likely to be very anxious about going back to school, and those who are already suffering from anxiety are likely to need a lot of support in order to return. Schools need to assess their capacity and plan accordingly for these students. We don’t want to see a rise in pupils being excluded because of a lack of support
  7. Safety is paramount. Many pupils with SEND require hands-on care from staff. Clear guidance is needed for schools about how to risk assess, and what the school can do if they cannot meet their pupils' needs… what reporting structure will there be? What extra support will be provided, and by whom?

“The government’s determination is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month. This is not currently a feasible scenario and, like much of the recent advice and guidance, ignores the additional challenges for children with SEND, both within mainstream and specialist provision.

"The availability of school staff, the sheer number of pupils, and the sizes of school classrooms and corridors, combined with the need for social distancing measures and so many children unable to adhere to them, mean that the government’s calculations simply don’t add up. Based on the current trajectory it seems wildly optimistic, to the point of being irresponsible, to suggest that we will be in such a position within the next seven weeks. This will give false hope to families and parents that we are further along the road to recovery than we actually are."

Paul Whiteman, our General Secretary NASUWT

And how do they get there? The Government is also advising that children should get to school by walking or on bikes and avoid peak public transport. They have clearly never tried to get a disabled child to their school 45 minutes drive away, or walked along a busy road with an autistic or ADHD child, who refuses to hold your hand and is wont to bolt into the road without looking without warning. Yes, once again the guidance does not take into account the needs of disabled children. 

What about PPE?

The Government’s message for schools is that masks, nor any other PPE, is required. So, while cloth face coverings are advised for most people going to workplaces, apparently teachers and children have their own magical protection as soon as they cross the threshold of their school. 

Face coverings may be beneficial for short periods indoors where there is a risk of close social contact with people you do not usually meet and where social distancing and other measures cannot be maintained, for example on public transport or in some shops. This does not apply to schools or other education settings. Schools and other education or childcare settings should therefore not require staff, children and learners to wear face coverings.

Government Guidance, Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings

So, some "new science": apparently, you can only get COVID19 from people you don’t know, and social distancing is perfectly achievable in schools. Really? Tell that to the teaching unions, teachers, parents and everyone else except the government who know that’s utter rubbish. 

And evidence shows that children are not “protected” from the effects of coronavirus. In fact, reports are growing of more children affected by a “hyper-inflammatory disease” as a result of COVID-19. We don’t know how contagious this is, or how widespread it might or might not yet become. Shouldn’t we investigate this more before we throw the kids under the bus?

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Who will hold LAs and the government to account?

Yesterday we, both as Special Needs Jungle and representing SEND Community Alliance, participated in a SEND sector video call with Labour’s spokesman for SEND, Tulip Siddiq MP. We all voiced these concerns and more. What we need now is real leadership from the opposition to apply pressure too reinstate the duties on LAs to make provision in EHCPs. We were impressed by Ms Siddiq’s knowledge and resolve to tackle some of these issues with the Government.

It is also imperative that the SEND Review is restarted with upmost urgency so that it can report back. All the evidence is already there. It just needs the resolve to #fixSEND

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anne B

A brilliant and thought-provoking article as always. Can I just add that the current guidance for parents on the Government website makes it clear that if a child cannot understand the concept of personal distancing they should not return to school.