by Douglas Silas, specialist SEN solicitor
Here is my update for this week.
In the past few weeks, I have been trying to signpost people to as many resources as possible to help them get through the current Coronavirus lockdown.
But in this update, I want to talk to you about some of the things that people are talking about more now than they used to, as well as give you some more links to useful resources/information.
I hope that this helps people.
1. What has happened this week?
Firstly, I want to talk about the subject which most people involved with children and young people (with or without SEN) are talking about – when will schools reopen...
In an article entitled: ‘Coronavirus: Heads say 1 June earliest realistic school opening’, the BBC said:
‘The earliest "realistic" point at which schools in England could start re-opening would be 1 June, head teachers' leader Geoff Barton has said.
"We cannot see any realistic way that schools could be re-opened to more pupils before the second half of the summer term," said the ASCL leader.
And "planning would need to begin very soon" in order to meet a 1 June target.
Schools closed their doors to all except vulnerable children and those of key workers over a month ago.
At the weekend, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said no date was set for returning to school, quashing speculation about an imminent return.
The education secretary said if and when five thresholds in the fight against coronavirus were reached, a date could be set for schools to reopen:
- the NHS's ability to cope is fully protected
- the daily death rate is dropping
- infection rates are falling to manageable levels
- there are sufficient supplies of testing and protective equipment
- there is no risk of a "second peak" of infections
It's a safety-first approach, with school leaders backing the reliance on medical advice.
Once those requirements have been met, a date could be set for schools to re-open.
But it would not be immediate, with schools expecting a further "lead in" time, possibly of weeks, to prepare for a complicated, staged return that allows them to maintain social distancing.
Parents would also have to be persuaded it was safe.
With such a time frame, starting this half term becomes very unlikely. If opening after half term, it would mean somewhere in the seven weeks between 1 June and the term ending in mid-July.
But doubt has been cast on whether social distancing can really be feasible in schools.
Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School, in Brent, north London, criticised the "pretence" social distancing might work in schools, with narrow corridors, small classrooms and lots of interactions, particularly between younger children.
"Social distancing in schools is simply impossible," she said.
"We're considered to be the strictest school in Britain and even we would find it impossible."
And there are other questions around safety:
- Would children with family members vulnerable because of health conditions return to school?
- How many vulnerable staff would need to be shielded?
- What protective equipment might be needed for teachers?
Earlier this week, a petition from NHS nurse Iain Wilson warned against any early push to re-open schools.
"Do not make us the global guinea pigs," he said. "It is self-evidently unwise to force hundreds of people into small rooms in small buildings during a pandemic."
If schools are to maintain social distancing, they could not run at full capacity, meaning a phased return, such as starting with a few year groups or pupils rotating between studying at home and school.
Mr Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it could mean staggering break times and putting a limit on class sizes.
Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee, said primary schools should be the first back. This would help parents and stop disadvantaged youngsters falling behind at an early stage, the MP said.
But Mr Barton said the priority should be Years 10 and 12, who are part-way through GCSEs and A-levels, and Year 6, where children are about to move to secondary school.
And Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School, in West Sussex, asked what plans there would be for next summer's exams when so much study time has been lost.
Star academy trust chief executive Hamid Patel, meanwhile, said it should be up to each school to decide the order in which its pupils return.
There is also a possibility that some pupils will not go back at all this term - or at least for anything like a regular timetable.
"We want to be back as soon as it's safe," said National Education Union joint head Kevin Courtney.
"But there's a chance that there will be no full re-opening before the end of term.
"There's a responsibility to think about what that will mean for children's education."
But school leaders have repeatedly talked about the importance of getting pupils back before the school year finishes.
And in the meantime, other countries might provide evidence of how a return might work.
In France, primary-school pupils will start to go back, in classes of no more than 15, from 11 May.
And in the Netherlands, they will go back, on a part-time basis, on the same date, with secondary pupils returning from 1 June.
"What is crucial is that schools are able to re-open in a manner which inspires confidence among staff, pupils and parents - and that it is as safe as possible," said Mr Barton.’
In a similar article on the Guardian’s website entitled: ‘Older pupils ‘should be first’ when England’s schools reopen’, it said:
‘Headteachers say priority should go to students preparing to sit exams
A headteachers’ union is calling for older pupils to return to school first as part of a phased approach to reopening schools in England, amid warnings that students preparing for exams may need to repeat the whole year because of the impact of lost learning.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the pupils who have most to gain from getting back to school are those in years 10 and 12 who are in the middle of GCSE and A-level courses, and those in the final year of primary, preparing to move to secondary.
The approach contrasts with Denmark, which became the first country in Europe to reopen its schools last week, when under-12s were the first to return. Younger children are less able to study on their own and having them back in school allows parents to return to work.
Speculation surrounding when and how schools in England will safely reopen has become increasingly fraught as the lockdown has persisted, with sharp disagreement among ministers and divergent views among teaching unions.
Pressure to reopen is mounting amid growing concern, particularly for disadvantaged students who will be hardest hit. The former head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, warned that some pupils preparing for exams might have lost out so much that they would have to repeat the whole year.
Other teaching unions, which are worried about schools having to reopen prematurely because of fears over the economic impact of parents having children at home, have denounced speculation about return dates and focused purely on the public health risks to pupils, school workers and the wider community.
The NASUWT wrote to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, this week setting out five conditions for reopening, including access to personal protective equipment where required, ranging from soap to gloves, aprons and in some cases face masks, as well as guarantees on adequate staffing and physical distancing advice.
The NASUWT general secretary, Patrick Roach, also warned that teachers should not be expected to clean. “The NASUWT would not expect teachers to be asked to undertake cleaning tasks or to be expected to undertake them to the necessary standards to protect the health of pupils and the workforce.”
The National Education Union, which is the biggest with 450,000 members, has insisted the science should decide when schools reopen. Its petition to delay reopening until safe to do so has gained more than 160,000 signatures.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Schools should only reopen when the scientific evidence is clear that it is safe to do so. Safe for pupils, safe for staff, safe for parents.”’
Focusing more on SEN, the BBC website also published an article entitled: ‘Tiny fraction of 'at risk' children attending schools’, which said:
‘Only a tiny fraction of vulnerable children in England are taking up the emergency school places kept open for them, official figures show.
This has prompted concerns "at risk" children are facing increased danger in the lockdown, while schools and teachers struggle to get hold of them.
New data shows only a maximum of 5% of the most needy children have been at school during the Coronavirus crisis.
The Children's Commissioner says social workers should be "knocking on doors".
The Department for Education data shows just 29,000 so-called vulnerable children attended school in the week before the Easter holidays.
This includes a group of children with greater levels of special educational needs - but many of this larger group may be staying at home with their families for a range of legitimate reasons.
However, more than 723,000 children were known to children's social care services in 2019.
The figures were described as "utterly shocking" by the Liberal Democrats.
But children's minister Vicky Ford said children who were not in school were being monitored by social workers and supported in other ways.
Anne Longfield England's Children's Commissioner told the BBC: "What we now know is, what we've been hearing over the last few weeks, that the vast majority of vulnerable children in this country are not attending, despite the fact that schools are open.
"What that means is that they are at home, potentially with a cocktail of risks.
"They may be in homes with quite fragile environments, potentially domestic violence in the home - which we know is increasing, parents with drug and alcohol addictions or indeed severe mental health conditions.
"So often these children are quite invisible at home and not in the place which is best at keeping them safe - school."
Ms Longfield said referrals to social services had dropped by half, and she expressed concerns that bored, vulnerable teenagers could be leaving their homes and getting into situations where they would be exploited and groomed by criminals.
She called for a clearer message from government, adding that "social workers need to be knocking on doors and everyone needs to be working tirelessly to get these vulnerable children into schools".'
There was also an article on the BBC’s website entitled: 'Digital poverty' in schools where few have laptops’, which said:
"In our schools, 60% to 70% of children wouldn't have laptops," says Wayne Norrie, head of an academy trust with schools in disadvantaged areas.
With schools closed and pupils studying online at home, he says, it is important to recognise the social gap in access to technology.
"Coronavirus has revealed the scale of the digital divide," he says.
The Department for Education in England has promised laptops will be lent to some poorer teenagers.
These will be available to disadvantaged Year 10 pupils without access to a computer, and those with social workers.
The scheme, announced last Sunday, for an unspecified number of laptops, is expected to soon start taking bids from local authorities and academy trusts.
Mr Norrie, chief executive of Greenwood Academies Trust, with 37 schools in the Midlands and east of England, says many families rely on a single mobile phone for an internet connection, which is "not realistic" for online learning and streaming video lessons.
"Many don't have broadband contracts," he says.
For instance, he describes a family in Skegness who have a mobile phone shared between parents and three children.
The schools have been providing laptops and some families have their own tablet computers - but there are still barriers in terms of parents' IT skills and children having space to study.
"Digital poverty" is a significant problem, says Matt Morden, co-head teacher of Surrey Square primary school, in south London.
In his school, 24% of pupils are effectively offline, in terms of being able to study from home.
Their families might have mobile phones with internet connections - but for those in low-paid, insecure jobs, data is expensive.
"If families are struggling, the priority is going to be food, not data," he says.
As well as missing out on learning, those without online connections miss "the sense of belonging" from staying in touch with their friends and teachers, Mr Morden says.
The lockdown and the closure of schools has "brought the digital divide to the forefront", he says.
There has been a new virtual academy launched and the BBC has provided educational resources - but those without internet access or usable computer devices are being left behind.
Mr Morden's school has been lending laptops - but for families with several school-age children, one might not be enough.
Seb Chapleau, director of the Big Education Conversation charity, says it is "important to understand that this is a deep problem across many schools".
Chris Tomlinson, who chairs the trust, says online lessons are "no good if the children don't have the necessary hardware to access the internet".
The AET academy trust is providing 9,000 laptops for its 58 schools, one for all pupils on free school meals.
The current lockdown has turned technology into an educational necessity rather than a luxury, said the trust's chief executive, Julian Drinkall.
Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, says too often there are assumptions about access to broadband and up-to-date computers.
As an MP, he says he deals with constituents who have to weigh up the cost of data before sending emails or getting information online.
He suggests educational programmes could be put on free-to-air television to reach those not online.’
But it was not all bad news, as The Guardian also ran a piece entitled: ‘Covid lockdown opening up world for people with disabilities’, which said:
‘While the coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented restrictions for billions of people, for many with disabilities, the lockdown has paradoxically opened up the world. As society embraces “virtual” living, disabled people – who for years have missed out due to poor access – are suddenly finding themselves able to take part in work, culture, or socialising from their own home.
Nicola Welsh, 43, has always loved going to museums but a painful nerve condition means she’s been housebound for 17 years. As cultural institutions including the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House go online, she’s been able to tour the world visiting museums.
“I ‘went’ to the Watts Gallery [in Surrey] and then the Louvre. The Rijks [museum in Amsterdam] had a walkthrough on their Instagram account,” she said. The experience has been profoundly moving. “Having the opportunity to visit virtually has given me back something that I’d resigned myself to not being able to do within my limitations. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it.”
Even healthcare has opened up; disabled people who have long campaigned to see their doctors virtually, report they are now being offered Skype time with consultants.
As well as joy at being offered new opportunities, many feel frustrated that it took the non-disabled world to become house-bound before access was granted. Emma Duke, 21, who has Pots syndrome – which results in an abnormally increased heart rate after sitting up or standing – and neurological problems, has been trying to get remote access to film classes for her degree for the last three years in Los Angeles.
She was frequently refused – “I was told it wasn’t ‘feasible’” – but the coronavirus pandemic means her entire university is now online.
“I am so torn between being so grateful that I can get my education and […] feeling a bit betrayed that it was possible the whole time,” she said.
Rather than “more” opportunities opening up, 30-year-old Tom Staniford in Exeter describes the phenomenon as a levelling of the playing field. “I find it infuriating to see people moaning about reduced mobility, challenges of remote working, fear of illness risk, long periods of isolation – all things many disabled people already endure on a daily basis,” said Staniford, who has the rare MDP syndrome, which leaves him with physical and auditory disabilities. He thinks the lockdown could open up the chance for permanent accessibility. “But my overriding suspicion is it will be a massive missed opportunity.”
Turner is more hopeful. “I feel like people are finally understanding the physical barriers disabled people face,” she said. “I’m actually really optimistic good will come out of this.”’
But I also need to turn your attention here back to children and young people with SEN, who are considered more ‘vulnerable’ at this time and refer here to an article on the NCB’s (National Children's Bureau’s) website entitled: ‘Coronavirus spotlight: vulnerable children’, which said:
‘For some children, circumstances at home or in their community mean they face greater risks than others. Some, but not all, of these children will be supported by a social worker. The coronavirus crisis is likely to elevate the risks to these children, and services may be less able to respond to their needs.
School closures and vulnerable children
The closure of schools for most children, while necessary to halt rates of infection, is one reason why some children will be at greater risk. Schools act as crucial sources of safety and support, and act as warning systems for all children, especially those at risk.
At a basic level, schools often provide some children with their only hot meals of the day, but they also provide counselling, or just a place where they can feel safe and settled. Schools also act to alert other professionals when things go wrong.
The emergency measures put in place by the Government mean many children are not in school, and they no longer benefit from this scaffolding. But even for those children who are able to remain in school, it is not clear that the structures that help them will remain – with significant staffing shortages, and classes of different ages and levels grouped together, the environment will be significantly different.'
Another article on the BBC’s website entitled: ‘The parents in lockdown with violent children’ said:
‘For some parents, being at home with their children means facing threats, abuse and violent outbursts. How can they cope in the isolation of lockdown?
Julie found out you could buy large knives on the internet when she witnessed her son brandishing one and slashing the furniture at home.
In the past couple of months, she says she has had to call the police twice to their home, most recently as she was barricaded in the bathroom while her son - a young adult - tried to break down the door with a knife. Now the family are living in lockdown together, struggling with isolation, a loss of their support network and a claustrophobic atmosphere that Julie describes as a "tinderbox".
She says she believes her son when he told police that he never meant to hurt her, that he just wanted her to know how angry he was. But incidents of intimidation happen two or three times a week, she says.
Liam suffered trauma as a child and has learning difficulties which affect memory, emotional regulation and social skills. The family manage his aggressive outbursts with the help of a list of friends and supporters who come round at a moment's notice to help defuse tensions. But these coping techniques are threatened by the social distancing rules.
Her husband has to work outside the home, so Julie says if she cannot call on these supporters, "I am very much on my own".
It's not known precisely how many parents live with violence from their children.
Figures compiled by the BBC last year suggest the number of incidents recorded by police doubled to 14,133 between 2015 and 2018 - but many may go unreported.
'Like living with nitroglycerine'
Helen Bonnick, a former social worker and campaigner on the issue, says that international evidence suggests about one in 10 parents may experience some violence from their children, although severe incidents are more rare. Some aggressive children have problems dealing with their emotions, she says, but others are "much more manipulative and controlling, in a way that feels more like adult violence".
Lockdown raises the stakes for these families, reinforcing their isolation and underlining the message to parents from violent children "that they can't go out, that they're stuck in here with them, that they can do what they want and no one will know," says Ms Bonnick.
"Parents who have experienced intimate partner violence and then child-to-parent violence will often say this feels worse - because it's your own flesh and blood," she says.
Neil, who lives in the east of England, says the aggression from his son, Ben, was just "cute" aged four and became worrying when he was eight. Now he is living with a teenager and "suddenly it's quite dangerous" - with Ben increasingly reaching for knives or bottles. Ben is autistic and has moderate learning difficulties as well as ADHD. The disruption to his routine caused by the coronavirus outbreak has sent his stress levels soaring and made angry outbursts more likely, his father says.
"He's that much closer to boiling over constantly. It really doesn't take much for him to turn around and explode. It's like living with a bucket of nitroglycerine sometimes," says Neil.
A key coping strategy before the lockdown was taking Ben for long drives, which he found calming. Now even that has become loaded with anxiety, as they fear being stopped by the police for making an unnecessary journey.
"Life was hard already and Covid is making it harder," Neil says.
Peter Jakob, a clinical psychologist who helps people facing this issue, says the isolation and shame that parents already feel is a major challenge in tackling violence from their children. But he says it can still be addressed, even in lockdown.
Dr Jakob encourages parents to have a network of supporters who can launch what he calls a "campaign of concern" - where after an incident, a number of people contact the child using messaging or video-chatting apps like WhatsApp or FaceTime.
"Most children don't want others in the community to know that they act in violent, aggressive or otherwise destructive ways," he says.
If they can no longer "silence their parents" from telling others about their behaviour, they often feel forced to change, he says.'
2. What does this all mean?
It is now very clear that the Coronavirus lockdown is affecting different sections of people in society in different ways.
But it is also important for everyone to remember that we're all in this together and that we need to do as much as we can to support others, particularly parents of and children and young people with SEN, as well as those schools catering for them.
3. Where can I find further information?
As I always like to do at the end of my updates, I would again remind you of the very useful resources and information provided on the following websites:
- Council for Disabled Children
- Special Needs Jungle
This week, I also came across other useful information which you can find here:
- The BBC’s Parents' Toolkit: SEND
- Contact’s guide for families with disabled children and their helpful podcast for families with disabled children
- The CDC (Council for Disabled Children) Guidance and Advice on Coronavirus: Learning Disability and Autism Focus
- Scope’s Navigate: emotional support for parents
I would also highlight again the fact that you can now get digital copies of the magazines: SEN Magazine and Autism Eye which are both very helpful to any parents or professionals involved with children/young people with SEN.
Remember also, that there are other videos on this website, especially the one at the top of this page which explains the coronavirus and its effect clearly to children.
Keep safe until next week.
With best wishes
P.S I understand that there are a number of educational or other useful resources now on the web - I would be very grateful if you could let me know of any that people are finding useful, so that I can direct others to them.
P.P.S. I also want to highlight again the fact that there are currently a lot of scams out there, both online and through texts/WhatsApps. Please be extremely careful and help yourself and others not to become victims. You can learn more at: www.FriendsAgainstScams.org.uk.