The curious decision to keep disabled children at school despite the Coronavirus crisis

As you will have heard, yesterday the Government finally announced it was closing all schools as the Coronavirus crisis spreads. However, schools will remain open for children of key workers and “vulnerable children”.

By "vulnerable children", it was explained that it means all children with social workers and those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). Key workers include NHS staff, police, some delivery drivers, teachers and social workers. A full list is to be made available by the Cabinet Office later today.

While the main announcement was made by Boris Johnson, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, made a statement shortly afterwards in the House of Commons with more details and answered questions from MPs

 “After schools close on Friday they will remain closed until further notice for all children, except keyworkers and children who are most vulnerable.”

Gavin Williamson MP, Education Secretary

As well as closing state schools, Mr Williamson asked Early Years providers and Sixth forms, independent schools and boarding schools to “follow the same approach”

So, I can see the principle of providing a place to care for children of key workers and Looked After children, or those with precarious home lives who may well be safer at school, despite the risk of exposure to the virus.

But all children with EHCPs? Really? In some cases, we’re talking kids who can’t easily fight off infections, who are likely to suffer far more than the average healthy child is believed to do with COVID-19.

I'm not sure any parent of such a child would take the risk. Especially if the parent themselves is also in a risk category. But that's for each individual parent to decide, according to their own situation and their own child’s needs. They may decide some need the structure while they can get it. Though it’s more likely to be a case of care than education as neither classes nor lessons will be the same. It’s unlikely, in this time of crisis, that the all provisions in every child’s EHCP could be fulfilled, legal document or not.

Personally speaking, I insisted we collected my 20-year-old with ASD and Ehlers Danlos syndrome from her busy university halls last Monday.

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Main points of the Coronavirus school closure

  • Schools will close from Friday “until further notice” except for children of key workers and vulnerable children. Schools will have ‘flexibility’ to decide who will be included if they don’t fit criteria
  • For children who depend on school meals, schools will be providing food or some sort of vouchers, as part of what the Education Secretary said would be a national scheme. Every child eligible for FSM will be able to get one. They intend to move to a more conventional system to get money to families “in the best possible way”
  • UPDATE: Free school meals guidance, 19/3/20
  • All assessments and exams, including GCSEs and A-Levels, will be cancelled but grades still awarded.
  • The Government is working with Ofqual to work out a system based on mock exam results and other “mechanisms” to ensure the exam results subsequently awarded will be “reflective” of their work. Young people will be able to appeal if they do not feel the grade awarded is accurate.
Ofqual We welcome the certainty that the Secretary of State’s decision not to hold exams this summer provides in these challenging circumstances. We will now work urgently with the Department for Education to work through the detail of this decision and to provide more information as soon as possible.

SNJ Coronavirus crisis and EHCPs legal questions

If you have legal questions about provision for children with EHCPs during the coronavirus outbreak, don’t forget you can put them to our legal columnist, Hayley Mason until 5pm tomorrow. 

And then there's this, which isn't changed at all by today's announcement. The plans are in no way clear and the testing policy is, in my view, insufficient.

More detail is urgently needed

It is much easier to say schools will stay open for vulnerable children than it will be to carry out. It would have been clear to the DfE that, crisis or not, it would not be easy to cancel education for children with hard-fought-for, legally-backed plans. So, if schools are being kept open for children of key workers, then why not for a small number of others?

Only there’s a big difference to lessons for “regular” children and those who have additional needs, may have complex health conditions and require a high staff-pupil support ratio. 

Added to this, disabled children often have compromised immune systems and shouldn’t be anywhere near other people who are potentially infected though asymptomatic. Nurses, police, doctors etc, are on the frontline of potential infection. While children do not as yet seem to be as affected, it is far from clear that they aren’t spreaders. And who would they spread it to? The disabled children they’re sharing their school with. 

It seems that this is a get-out card; fulfilling a legal duty, but not having any idea how, or real need, to do it. Gavin Williamson even said that children at school may not be able to stay in the schools they are normally in. I find it hard to believe any child with an EHCP will be able to settle easily in a school with unfamiliar teachers, other children they don’t know, and in a strange setting. The staff won’t know the children or their needs and there may not be enough staff there to manage them. In fact, Gavin Williamson mentioned that staffing rations would be relaxed in the forthcoming bill. You just can’t do that with children with high needs without putting them at risk.

And what else might be in the emergency bill? It did mention relaxing rules around EHCPs, so we will await that later today to see exactly what is means. One can only hope it won't be testing out some more permanent kind of loosening of disabled children's rights.

What about SEND transport?

The other issue is transport. A large number of children with EHCPs rely on taxis or minibuses to get to school. A smaller number also need an escort to travel with them. If this transport and support isn’t available, then the child will not be able to go. 

The Education Secretary said they were “hoping” the school transport system will be there although there were “other strains within the transport network”.

This hasn’t really been thought through has it? They’ve had weeks to make a plan and consult with relevant sectors. Did they?

What about special schools?

There are a number of schools, special schools among them, that have already been closed because of a lack of staff who have to self-isolate because of their own health conditions. Children with EHCPs will have staffing ratios included in their plans. If their education cannot be properly or safely provided, responsible schools and parents will not allow it.

And what about residential special schools?

“We recognise that many special schools and residential settings will need to continue to look after their pupils.”

Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary

In his answer to an MP’s question, Gavin Williamson said special schools with residential placements would hopefully remain open and the government would be looking at them individually to see how they can stay open and have the right type of staffing. 

It may be very difficult for some families of these young people in residential provision to safely go home with little warning if their placements closed. Some have a high level of care needs and a waking-day curriculum that families would find hugely difficult to replicate without extra social care support – and that may not be available immediately, or at all. Plus, what if someone in that family became ill with the virus?

However, some schools just cannot take the risk of becoming overwhelmed with staff falling prey to COVID-19 and their schools becoming a safeguarding risk. There are no easy answers, but it's to be hoped that residential schools will have urgent dialogues with families and the relevant local authorities to ensure young people are as safe as possible.

It’s clear from what he said that Gavin Williamson is expecting schools to rely on supply teachers and for schools to stay open to support the children of key workers over the Easter holidays. He pledged to pay support staff who are only paid in term-time, if they show up during the Easter break. 

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How will our children be educated during the Coronavirus crisis?

Many schools are already well on the way with plans for remote learning. The DfE said it’s looking at putting more resources online and working with BBC who already provide educational resources online. 

Of course, local authorities already have virtual schools and online provision, so, while we’ve not heard much about what individual LAs are planning, it’s hoped they are busily working with their schools to roll out remote learning programs. 

MP Layla Moran made a stab at getting Mr Williamson to grant an EHCP for every child currently going through the process but Gavin Williamson side-stepped it. To be fair, Ms Moran’s question wasn’t particularly well-phrased, and she didn’t seem to quite understand how the process worked, which made it easier for him to ignore. And in any case, there’s no way that would fly, legally or practically.

And of course, the big question is – how are you going to convince your child with an EHCP to go to school while your non-disabled child lounges around at home? 

Our team at SNJ are working on collating some resources for you and we should be bringing them to you very soon.

How are you going to balance having your children learning from home? Tell us in the comments. 

You can read the Education Secretary’s statement here and below, I've isolated the statement from proceedings in the commons so you can watch it and the MPs questions below.

PS, we’ve not forgotten it’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Tomorrow we will have a post from its founder, our columnist, Siena Castellon, that was planned for earlier in the week but overtaken by events. 

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Tania Tirraoro
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Helen Disberry

I thought it was a bizarre thing to do. My son has Down Syndrome and underlying heart and respiratory issues. Croup has seen him intubated and held in a coma for two weeks before now, so we self isolated ahead of the announcement, a week ago. The cynic in me wondered whether the EHCP being a legally binding document to provide an education, has something to do with it. Whether closing the schools and withdrawing education from those with an EHCP could be interpreted as a breach of contract and leave the government vulnerable for legal action? This unprecedented situation… Read more »