The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced major plans for school closures from Friday. There is however some significant small print – and it seems it will certainly not be the case as reported by many news outlets last night that ‘all schools will close’. The majority of articles and discussions since the announcements have focused on who ‘key workers’ are, and what is going to happen to those students who would have been sitting exams this summer. There has been very little mention in mainstream media about the huge concerns that are circulating in the world of special needs and how schools can continue to educate and care for our most vulnerable children.
This week has been hugely challenging for school leaders, regardless of sector. The significant portion of challenge lies with nurseries and school’s capability to staff their settings appropriately. This issue is magnified when it comes to specialist settings. Even when we are not in the midst of a global pandemic, organising staffing can be a real headache. Obviously children with EHCPs need a higher level of supervision and support than their typically developing peers. This may be down to a significant learning delay, behavioural challenges or complex medical needs. All three areas require staff that are knowledgeable and sufficiently trained (particularly for any medical issues). In a standard week, gaps can be plugged by bringing in additional support staff from an agency or moving trained practitioners from a different class to cover. As soon as absence levels among staff become more serious, it can feel as though a tightrope is being walked with the health and safety of the children potentially at risk. This is the scenario that special schools are finding themselves in this week. It is my impression that most in the specialist sector presumed they just needed to make it to the weekend before changes would be made.
The surprise announcement that all children with a social worker or an EHCP would continue to attend school, even after closures, has understandably caused panic. It is essential that some additional clarity is provided ASAP. It is the opinion of the Head teachers I have spoken to or read comments from on social media that it would be impossible to carry on as normal. One school sent all ‘vulnerable’ staff home for 12 weeks yesterday (often those staff who are older and more likely to have underlying health needs are the ones who have a wealth of medical knowledge and training). Generally, every child who attends specialist provision has an EHCP, so the expectation after the announcement would be that these settings would function as usual. Here are some burning questions that need addressing:
· What about teachers and support who have their own children attending mainstream provision? How can they remain at school if their children are at home?
· How are the children with profound medical needs going to be shielded from the virus?
· What additional measures need to be in place to ensure the adults in the school remain safe and well?
· Who is going to provide medical assistance for children whose key workers are self-isolating or ill?
· Home to school transport can be vital for children with additional needs – how can this continue given that many of the trained escorts are themselves in vulnerable groups?
The coming weeks and months are going to be immensely challenging for everyone. Consider the fact that parents with children with significant needs often rely on our amazing specialist provisions to provide them with support and a level of respite. The thought of staying at home for three months in a small flat with an incredibly active, non-verbal autistic child is a reality that many parents may have to come to terms with. For reasons like this, I think it is vital that a level of support and schooling is still available, but there needs to be a considered strategy in order to make this achievable. Schools are potentially going to need to make difficult and unpopular decisions about which children can actually attend, and how often. It is my view that the Education Secretary needs to address these concerns, and the questions posed above, as a matter of urgency.
Edited by Jules