The One-Size-Fits-All Return to School, and its Victims

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At the start of lockdown, Boris Johnson was accused of aiming to achieve ‘herd immunity’. This garnered him much criticism for willingly endangering the lives of the elderly and the most vulnerable. Now, it seems that children are the herd and parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities are fighting back. 

A recent survey reported on by the Guardian, found that up to 20,000 children with special needs were unlikely to return to education this September because of concerns over their welfare. Parents gave a number of reasons for this decision such as their child’s own medical vulnerability and fear that their child could not properly adhere to safe social distancing practice. 

In his press release on the return of children to schools, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, explained that “‘current restrictions on group sizes will be lifted to allow schools, colleges and nurseries to fully reopen to all children and young people, as Covid-19 infection rates continue to fall”’. However, this advice published on 2nd July now feels outdated as cases rise. Yet closure of schools or a return to some online learning does not appear to be on the table.

For many, the government’s plans to let children adhere to less strict social distancing rules by being in a social bubble with their classmates, seems a suitable option. However, this is not the case for all and some feel that their needs are being overlooked by the government’s broad brushstroke approach. One mother, who is diabetic and has a husband who is asthmatic, explained that the government’s attitude to the inevitability of outbreaks in schools is too much for her family. “One of our daughters, who is autistic and has brain damage from birth, is high risk […] We don’t know enough about how she might be affected if she gets coronavirus and we don’t want to take that chance.” For this reason, she has made the decision to keep her other four children out of school as well.

School return: an anxious time for all, but teachers' professionalism will  shine through · Manchester Metropolitan University
credit: Manchester Metropolitan University

She is certainly not alone in this fear. Many parents were angered by Boris Johnson’s statement that it was their ‘moral duty’ to send their children to school. Amy Skipp, the director of ASK Research, who conducted the recent study into the number of SEND students (Special Educational Needs and Disabled) not returning to school this September, spoke out after the study saying, “parents should not be being asked to choose between their child’s health and their education’”. A Department for Education spokesperson has noted that “Throughout the pandemic we have worked with schools and councils to help support children with SEND, including by asking schools to stay open to those with education health and care plans.” There is a feeling that the correct bodies are not doing enough to demonstrate to parents that their children will be safe in school now that everyone has returned.

While funding was increased during the pandemic for SEND students with £780m this year going to local authorities and £730 expected next year, there is a sense that the pandemic has only shown the tip of the iceberg when it comes to underfunded provision for those with disabilities. These figures have come after last year’s protests following the National Audit Office’s findings: that mainstream schools are incentivised to avoid enrolling SEND children because of the onus being placed on the school to find the funds to support them, and the impact higher enrolment of children with SEND could have on the league tables. This recent report has demonstrated that the government still has a lack of understanding of how numerous the needs of SEND children are, and how many rely on multiple services such as transport, social care and charities. Some of these needs could be met through more flexible teaching options. Gavin Williamson had explained that “schools will be expected to have plans in place to offer remote education to pupils who are self-isolating”, and many parents are asking why they are being threatened with fines when these measures are in place. One parent, Ammar Noorwali said, “I think the only way is to move to e-learning until the virus disappears.” While many would say this is impractical on a large scale, it could certainly be implemented in special circumstances. 

At the moment, we are seeing disadvantages and inequalities that have been present in our education system for years, exposed in a clearer light due to the pandemic. What is left to be seen is the impact these issues will have on the lives of those 20,000 children not returning to education for the time being. While the government is not wrong in saying that harm is done to children’s education by not being in school, they need to stop bombarding parents with rhetoric about moral duty and the threat of fines as though parents wish to do harm to their children. Parents want a more nuanced approach, and until there is one, there are no winners – only 20,000 children not receiving adequate provision. 

In an article about mask wearing, one teacher, Lina Noor, stated “people close to me have died of the virus. I think people have different perceptions of the risk until it hits them personally.” The government’s current tact is seen as too one-size-fits-all. As parents fight to keep their children out of school, it remains to be seen what the lasting impact of this issue will be and how this may impact other educational institutions, such as universities when students return to them (or don’t return) in the coming weeks. 

Header image credit: centre of excellence