by Douglas Silas, specialist SEN solicitor
Here is my update for this week.
Again, I am setting out the full text of this week’s update for those of you reading this update by email to try to make it a bit easier for people to read things without having to click on any links (again, anyone receiving this update through Social Media will be reading this as normal after clicking on the link).
I hope that this helps people again.
1. What has happened this week?
Again the issue about schools returning dominated the media this week in SEN news with the BBC’ website publishing an article at the beginning of the week entitled: “Coronavirus: Primary schools back but mixed picture on turn-out”, which said:
“Head teachers are reporting "highly variable" levels of attendance, ranging from 40% to 70%, as primary schools in England bring back more pupils.
Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL heads' union, says the return has been "very mixed" - with some schools not yet open and some children staying away.
Children in Reception, Years 1 and 6 are the first groups able to return.
It comes as lockdown measures are eased in England, including groups of six people being allowed to meet outside.
Schools have remained open throughout the coronavirus restrictions for the children of key workers and vulnerable children - but from Monday more than two million more pupils have been invited back.
Latest government figures show 39,045 people with the virus have died in the UK, across all settings. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there had been a day-on-day increase of 111 deaths and 1,570 new positive tests.
An additional 445 deaths have been added to the overall death toll in the past day. The increase is explained by the retrospective inclusion of some patients whose tests were carried out by commercial partners, rather than the NHS or Public Health England.
The head teachers' leader says the "first impression" has been of a very varied local picture - with not all schools either open or bringing back pupils as outlined in the government's plans.
Some local authorities have not yet started to bring back more pupils, some schools have limited space, some are still training and not all staff are available, he said.
"Caution is the watchword, and everybody is approaching this task with the safety of pupils and staff as their absolute priority," said Mr Barton.
A survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research suggested almost 50% of children would be kept at home by parents.
Mr Barton's early feedback suggests ranges of between 30% and 60% of pupils not attending school.
But he said more key workers' children seemed to be coming in and he expected the overall numbers to increase as "more parents become confident".
The biggest teachers' union, the National Education Union, has warned it was not yet safe to open schools - and the union's co-leader, Kevin Courtney, said delaying the wider opening of schools would "make our communities safer".
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said children needed to catch up with missed lessons and at school they "will be with their teachers and friends again".
"I'm excited to see my friends and see everyone but not excited for the work," says 11-year-old Sean, returning to school in Mortlake, West London.
BBC News education reporter Judith Burns describes the return to school:
"You look like you've grown," says teacher Catherine Hughes to a reception pupil who hasn't been in school since March.
"Are you excited to be back?" Helen Frostick head of St Mary Magdalen's Catholic primary school in Mortlake, West London asks another.
About half of those who could have returned have taken up their places, alongside 15 children of key workers who have continued to come into school throughout the lockdown.
The classrooms have been completely reorganised, with desks in rows, facing forwards, instead of pushed together into big tables.
The school has split each class into two separate bubbles with one half in on Monday and Tuesday and the other on Thursday and Friday, which allows for a deep clean on Wednesdays.
In the Reception class each table is separate, with its own tray of equipment so that the children don't need to get out of their seats so much, says teaching assistant, Clare Gordon.
"It really is best for the family," says mum Sophia as she brings her two sons to school.
She has managed to do some home schooling with the boys over the past few weeks but it hasn't always been easy.
"I was 10% worried but 90% thinking it was the right thing to do," says Julia, who has just dropped off her son.
"The main thing is for normality and for his mental health. He needs the interaction with his friends. He's been begging to come back," she says.
A survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research suggested approaching half of families would keep their children at home. It expected that:
46% of parents will keep children at home
50% of parents in schools in disadvantaged areas will keep children at home
25% of teachers are likely to be absent because of health issues for themselves or their families.
Jane Reid, a parent from York, said it was still not safe for her son to go back to school, saying: "It's a definite no from me.
"Plus, the contradictory information is infuriating. I can take him to school, but can't get his hair cut."
"How can I send them to school now, knowing it will be impossible for teachers to implement social distancing rules properly?" asked Valerie Brooker from Haslemere in Surrey.
A couple of days later, the BBC’s website published another article entitled: “Summer catch-up plan for England's schools pledged”, which said: “An extended catch-up plan for England's schools is to be launched for the summer and beyond, to help pupils get back on track amid school shutdowns. The PM's spokesman said the plans would involve all pupils, not just those from poor backgrounds who are expected to fare worse during closures. It comes after the education secretary ditched plans for all primary pupils to return to school before the break. PM Boris Johnson has been accused of "flailing around" over schools. On Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a national recovery plan for schools, saying the current plan to get pupils back to classrooms were "lying in tatters". Mr Johnson said at Wednesday's daily briefing that the government would be doing "a huge amount of catch up for pupils over the summer". Concerns have been raised about the potential for a lost generation of learners, whose education will have been interrupted for at least six months even if schools return as now planned in September. The PM's spokesman said the aim remained to have all pupils back in school for the start of the academic year, but gave no details about how ministers intended to achieve this. School capacity is severely restricted by guidelines on social distancing and separating out existing classes into smaller groups of up to 15 pupils from much larger class sizes. When the spokesman was asked about increasing this capacity, by creating extra classrooms or using village halls for example, he said the government was "looking at exactly what might be required to get all children back". The Scottish Government, which is bringing pupils back in staggered fashion from August, has said it will be working with local councils to seek out extra community spaces and empty offices to accommodate pupils, where necessary. Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran has called for a register to be drawn up in local areas to map out where spaces could be brought into school use. There are few details of how the summer catch-up plans will work. A further announcement is expected next week. It is not clear whether this catch-up work would be offered in school buildings or elsewhere, or whether teachers would be asked to staff the programme. The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Paul Whiteman, said the plan was the latest in a long line of eye-catching announcements that would suffer from a lack of input from the teaching profession. He said it was not credible to think academic catch up could be achieved over the summer, and warned that the impact of enforced isolation on young people was little understood but likely to be significant. But he said support was clearly needed for pupils over the summer, and urged the government to fund a locally co-ordinated offer involving youth groups and charities. The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warned last week that there were just two weeks left to set such summer learning projects up. And the House of Commons Education Committee chairman, Robert Halfon, has called for a Nightingale Hospital style plan to get schools back to capacity. Meanwhile, the Welsh government has published new guidance on the measures schools should consider when reopening, including outside learning, teaching in small groups, and pupils eating at their desks. Schools in Wales will reopen to all age groups from 29 June, but only a third of pupils will be in classes at any one time. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says Scottish schools will reopen from 11 August, but with some continued home learning. In Northern Ireland, ministers have set a target date for some pupils to go back on 17 August, with a phased return for the rest in September.”
Later in the week, I saw some more practical guidance came in an article entitled: “Lego used to explain social distancing to children”, which said:
“A mother is using Lego to teach her children about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cat Cook said her seven-year-old son - who has severe respiratory problems, and her daughter, four, had been in a "safe little bubble" during lockdown.
"They've been living a very sheltered life... without a care in the world."
Among the images created are a child and a dog inside a glass jar looking out at an elderly person, and two people sat on separate benches.
Ms Cook said the scene inside the jar was inspired after the children's grandparents came over to collect some groceries she had ordered for them.
"We left the groceries out on the doorstep for them and were then able to talk and wave at them through the closed windows.
"It was the first example they thought of when we started talking about social distancing."
Ms Cook, 42, and her family have been in strict lockdown in Surrey since a week before the official order was given by the government in March, with her husband also working remotely from home.
She said: "If and when we start going out again, it's important that they understand the importance of social distancing as my son is high risk.
"Each picture we created was inspired by my discussions with the children about social distancing and things they'd experienced or seen on the TV, like the spaced-out queues outside supermarkets."
She added that talking it through in "a gentle way" had helped give her children a better understanding of what the "new norm" looks like outside their home."
But still concerns were expressed, as another article appeared on the BBC’s website during the week entitled: “Disruption to schools could continue to November, MPs told”, which said:
“The partial closure of schools in England could continue into the autumn and into November, the Commons education committee has been told.
Primary schools opened more widely to several year groups in some areas this week, 10 weeks after they were closed as part of Covid-19 lockdown measures.
Secondaries remain shut and around eight million pupils are out of school.
David Laws, chair of education charity EPI, said assumptions all pupils will return in September may be wrong.
The committee was hearing evidence on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education and children's services.
Mr Laws, also a former education minister, said: "There's a temptation to think we are in a kind of home learning now and hopefully all back in September. Sadly we may end up with considerable disruption to school in September, October and November."
He urged ministers to make plans and give guidance to schools for "a situation where there may be some home learning for a lot of pupils for a very long time".
Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, highlighted that eight million pupils were currently out of school, despite limited opening of primary schools this week.
She said the sheer scale of children not reaching their potential because of this lockdown would be immense.
"That could be eight million children all of whom could well be out of school for six months."
And she warned as more of society and many parents go back to work, there would be a fall-off in the numbers of those engaging in learning from home.
"As things become more interesting, the shops will be open soon and many kids could spend two and half months browsing in Primark and not going to school."
She added that head teachers had told her they were kept awake at night by fears about some children never returning to school.
The leap that children who had had a negative experience of school would have to make, in order to return to school, would be "vast", she said.
The committee was told the Department for Education needed to publish its guidance on how schools would look in September very soon.
And plans for catch-up summer schools, which were backed by witnesses, needed to be set out by ministers soon, if they were to happen.
The hearing comes as a report suggested school closures could wipe out 10 years of progress in closing the achievement gap between poor and rich pupils.
Modest estimates in the government-commissioned report suggest the shutdowns could cause the gap to widen by around a third of what it is now.
This could mean poorest primary pupils, who are already nine months behind, slipping back a further three months.
The Education Endowment Foundation study said catch-up tuition would help.
The charity's research also warned of a risk of high levels of absence after schools formally reopen and that this posed a particular risk for disadvantaged pupils.
The rapid evidence assessment drew together evidence on 11 studies from a number of countries on the impact of school closures, focussing on those which looked at learning loss over the summer holiday period.
It found the estimated impact on the gap between the poorest group of pupils, and their wealthier peers ranged widely from 75% to 11%.
The median estimate was 36%, although the researchers said there was high level uncertainty about this average.
The report is published days after a small proportion of the school population returned to lessons.
Although effective remote learning would limit the extent to which the gap widens, the report said there would still need to be sustained support for disadvantaged pupils to catch up.
Over the past decade, the Department for Education has focused attention and resources on closing the disadvantage gap.
It has narrowed from 11.5 months in 2009, at the end of primary school to 9.2 months in 2019.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the EEF, said: "School closures are likely to have a devastating impact on the poorest children and young people. The attainment gap widens when children are not in school.
"There is strong evidence that high quality tuition is a cost-effective way to enable pupils to catch up."
His organisation has teamed up with a number of other organisations to run a trial in which 1,600 disadvantaged pupils around England are offered one-to-one and small group tuition.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said being in school was vital for children's wellbeing.
He added: "This innovative online tuition pilot is an important part of our plans to put support in place to ensure young people don't fall behind as a result of coronavirus, particularly those facing disadvantages."
Russell Hobby, head of teacher training charity Teach First, described the potential loss as "tragic".
This should start with intensive catch-up provision when possible, he said, adding more resources need to be targeted towards those pupils who have suffered the most.”
There was some other helpful guidance though which I saw on the website of ‘The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health’ entitled: “Helping parents and teachers deal with apprehension and anxiety when returning to school”, which highlights a video resource produced by a charity called ‘Nip In The Bud’, which said:
“The charity Nip in the Bud has produced a short film and fact sheet to help parents and teachers deal with any potential feelings of apprehension and anxiety that children may experience on returning to school.
In this film 8 minute film Dr. Jess Richardson, Principal Clinical Psychologist, National & Specialist CAMHS and Maudsley provides important and straightforward advice.
There is also an accompanying comprehensive Fact Sheet.
Nip in the Bud provides free resources about mental health awareness for primary school teachers and parents. Their short films and fact sheets can be accessed freely on their website.
The content for their ‘Information Films’ has been provided by experts from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and from Great Ormond Street Hospital. In addition their ‘Real Life Experience’ films show interviews with young people and parents who have been affected and who speak frankly and movingly about their experiences.
The conditions covered so far are ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Conduct Disorder, Depression, OCD and PTSD."
The Government also issued a press release over the weekend entitled: “Extra mental health support for pupils and teachers”, which said:
“New online resources designed by health and education experts will be provided to schools and colleges to boost mental health support for staff and pupils, encouraging them to talk more confidently about the anxieties and concerns they feel as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Videos, webinars and teaching materials, produced in partnership with charities, will be made available to schools and colleges, helping to foster conversations about mental health and reassure many young people who are worried about the impact of the virus on their lives.
As more pupils return to the classroom as part of the Government’s phased approach to the wider opening of schools, the Department for Education has announced grants worth more than £750,000 for the Diana Award, the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the Anne Frank Trust - to help hundreds of schools and colleges build relationships between pupils, boost their resilience, and continue to tackle bullying both in person and online.
A new £95,000 pilot project in partnership with the Education Support Partnership will focus on teachers’ and leaders’ mental health, providing online peer-support and telephone supervision from experts to around 250 school leaders.
It adds to the support the Government has already put in place to help families and children during the pandemic, with more than £9 million already being invested in mental health charities to help them expand and reach those most in need, and priority given to it within planning guides for a phased return to education.
Children and Families Minister Vicky Ford said:
There has never been a more important time to speak about mental health and wellbeing – especially for thousands of children, young people and teachers who are adapting to education and different ways of living and learning in these unprecedented times.
Schools and colleges are often a safe haven for children and young people, but the challenges we face at this time mean we are all more likely to feel anxious or sad – no matter our age or circumstances.
These new resources, created with charities and health experts, will encourage confident conversations between friends, colleagues, pupils and their teachers, and improve our understanding of how to make ourselves and others feel better.
Minister for Mental Health Nadine Dories said:
The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the importance of looking after our mental health. It is very normal during these uncertain and unusual times to be experiencing distress or anxiety, or be feeling low. What’s important is that you get help.
We know the impact on our children and young people has been especially tough, which is why as schools return we’re determined to equip teachers and pupils with the tools they need to look after their wellbeing.
Mental health must be a priority as we get start to get back to normality and I hope these brilliant new measures alongside our NHS services will help start new conversations and reassure children that it’s ok not to be ok, and that support is available.
A new training module for teachers will also be published next week to support them in giving lessons on the Government’s new Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum, which will make mental health and wellbeing a compulsory part of pupils’ education in primary and secondary school.
Developed with clinical experts, the training module will help subject leads and teachers deliver the new curriculum effectively when it becomes compulsory from September, as well as improving their confidence in talking and teaching about mental wellbeing in class, especially as many measures to stop the spread of coronavirus remain in place and many people continue to experience restrictions in their daily lives.
While schools have some flexibility over how they introduce the new curriculum within the first year of compulsory teaching, the new module will help schools prepare ahead of time.
The Government’s announcement today (Sunday 7 June) builds on the excellent partnership working already seen between schools, colleges and health services in local areas in response to the pandemic.
Professor Prathiba Chitsabesan, NHS England Associate National Clinical Director for Children and Young People’s Mental Health, said:
The coronavirus outbreak has had an impact on everybody’s lives, so it is understandable that children and young people may be experiencing anxiety, distress or low mood which is a normal response to a significant disruption to their lives.
The NHS is here for anyone who needs it, and has adapted to the pandemic through offering flexible options including phone and video consultations. We will continue to work in partnerships with schools and other services to ensure children and their families access the support they need.
In addition to the RSHE module, the new resources will include examples of good practice already being used around the country, developed by mental health charity MindEd, to be provided to schools and colleges before the end of the summer term. These are in addition to high quality tools already made available by mental health charities, including the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and Place2Be.
Professor Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre said:
We welcome this important announcement. At this time of immense stress children have a right to expect that their teachers are well supported. This directly benefits children and young people not just in their education the quality they receive but also in their own wellbeing and the sense of support they experience.
Catherine Roche, CEO of children’s mental health charity Place2Be said:
As a charity providing expert mental health support within school communities, at Place2Be we’ve heard first-hand from teachers, parents and children of the huge mental health challenges they are facing as a result of this pandemic.
These resources and training courses will be a welcome addition to help support the emotional wellbeing of teachers and pupils in the short and long term.
In response to continuing social distancing measures, while many older pupils remain at home to allow for vital year groups to return in a phased way, existing school and college-based mental health programmes have also adapted their work to make sure their services are still accessible for those who need them the most. This includes:
The Link Programme, which connect schools and colleges to external specialist mental health services, which will begin offering online workshops nationally to facilitate joined-up working to plan for the recovery phase, and to ensure learning from successful areas already using this approach is shared; and Mental Health Support Teams around the country, which join up schools and colleges with additional trained staff supervised by their local NHS mental health services, will encourage teams to step up their support to more schools and colleges locally, accept referrals through new pathways, and help develop a recovery approach.
School Standards Minister Nick Gibb has also written to the members of the Department for Education’s Expert Advisory Group (EAG) on education staff wellbeing, accepting its recommendations including a commitment to develop a wellbeing charter for the teaching sector. The charter will help create an open culture around wellbeing and mental health, breaking down stigma, and will include commitments from the Government to regularly measure staff wellbeing, and to embed this into training, guidance and policy making.
The grant to the Education Support Partnership will respond specifically to the mental health needs of school leaders at this challenging time and additional funding of £45,000 to Timewise will provide practical support and resources on flexible working in light of new arrangements for schools responding to coronavirus.
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said:
Mind was pleased to contribute to the Expert Advisory Group on school staff wellbeing, but what is most important is that concrete action comes out of this when it comes to making sure mental health and wellbeing are prioritised within our education system. Today’s announcement is a welcome first step, and we hope it will be the start of a sincere commitment to address issues like stress, and other mental health problems among school pupils and staff, helping make sure we build a fairer and kinder working and learning environment for everyone.
Coronavirus has impacted all of our lives, but some more than others. We cannot underestimate the long-term effects that this pandemic will have, especially on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. Wellbeing and emotional support must be available to anyone who needs it, now so more than ever. As the UK Government asks schools to begin to open to more children, it is crucial that we all come together to support the mental health and physical health of teachers and pupils, not just now but for the years to come.
Stuart Rimmer, Principal of East Coast College and Expert Advisory Panel member said:
It is a hugely positive step that we are seeing thoughtful and considered announcements to support staff mental health and wellbeing in the school and college sector. Supporting leaders and front line staff is critical, amplified recently by significant additional pressures of COVID-19. Developing support programmes, peer to peer and coaching will help at these critical and complex times.
Sinead McBrearty, CEO of Education Support Partnership, said:
The mental health and wellbeing of teachers and senior leaders must sit at the heart of our education system. The Expert Advisory Group has brought new voices into the policy-making process, and the resulting recommendations set a direction for supporting and improving the wellbeing of those working in education.
Education Support is pleased to have the opportunity to pilot remote services for school leaders. Early testing has shown that online peer support and telephone supervision can help school leaders find ways to process the impact of work-related stress. We hope that the timing of this work will help school leaders in the short term, and inform best practice post-pandemic.”
2. Where can I find further information?
There isn't really much more that I can say again in this update now.
However, 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
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.