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13 May, 2020 07:12

Disabled school children, like my teenage daughter, are being badly failed by the UK government & its lockdown strategy

Disabled school children, like my teenage daughter, are being badly failed by the UK government & its lockdown strategy

The plan to reopen schools across the UK covers a scant three paragraphs in the government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, but nowhere does it offer any hope for parents of children who require special needs education.

Going to school for a teenager with profound or multiple learning difficulties is not a matter of a daily cheerful farewell to mum and dad, a bus trip with their mates and a last minute dash to their first class.

For many, particularly those like my 18-year-old daughter Elvi, who spend some of their weeknights at school as part of the residential 24-hour curriculum, their education is the centre of their entire existence.

For pupils at the 1,044 special schools across England, pursuing their education gives them a chance to mix with their peers, do hobbies like scouts, music, swimming and getting out and about. These are things they cannot easily do while isolated at home.

Lockdown has put a cruel end to all this and we have no idea when, or even if, these simple pleasures will ever be a part of Elvi’s life again.

According to the ‘Our Plan To Rebuild’ document, only two percent of children are attending school, primary or secondary, but more are encouraged to go to school if they can.

Well, that’s all fine if the pupil is at a school where you’re simply looking for one teacher to cover 15 pupils, which is what the suggested class size will be.

But in the setting of England’s special schools and the 220,000 pupils with an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) there and in mainstream school, that is fantasy stuff. For instance, at my daughter’s school, most of the children have a one-to-one helper with them throughout the day, and when a pupil needs to be physically lifted onto a couch to change for swimming or for continence reasons, then that ratio increases to two to one. If there are behavioural problems, then that ratio could increase even further when things go awry.

Then you have the nurses, the teachers and assistants themselves, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, cleaners, admin staff, bus and taxi drivers and transport escorts, all on call to help these children get through what is a regular school day.

They all work in close unavoidable proximity to our teenagers.

It is complete pie in the sky thinking to believe that the people who fill those roles will themselves be a) prepared and b) available to resume work during the coronavirus pandemic even if they are free to do so.

It’s not as if there’s an oversupply of PPE that can be directed towards our schools and those that work there.

Having spoken to other parents, it’s clear that even if the special schools were open, due to the increased vulnerability of the pupils, many mums and dads would choose to keep their kids at home rather than expose them to staff and other pupils coming from far and wide. It’s not a great choice, but some feel it’s their only one.

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A special needs school by its very nature is just not the place to practise social distancing. It’s all about close personal contact and supervision. In the current climate, that makes these schools inoperable, no matter how much encouragement the PM gives us to get the kids back in class.

While the 2019-20 secondary school year for most looks like it’s hit the buffers, alongside those making the huge step out of primary upwards, and the secondary pupils desperate to finish GCSE and A-Levels, the plans put in place for Elvi also face an uncertain future.

The mandatory annual review of her EHCP was scrapped at the last moment just as the lockdown began, and the long, often torturous process of negotiating a further education place for Elvi as she turns 19, of which this is a key step, is now on hold as the institutions we were looking at have pulled down the shutters.

Bearing in mind that most parents in the same boat give themselves two years to research, visit and find a further education institute before seeking local authority approval and funding, all the hard work put into this process may now amount to nothing as the clock runs down.

Unless schools are given the confidence and the protocols for getting back to the business of teaching and caring for our children, then the future of many, Elvi included, is trashed.

Primary school parents across the UK breathed a collective sigh of relief as Boris Johnson announced plans to give some of their children at least a month back at school before facing the annual endurance test that is the summer break.

That will be a minimum of six weeks off, on top of the seven passed so far, that would normally be filled with day trips, holidays abroad and messing about with friends that will now be overshadowed by uncertainty, anxiety and a nagging fear that things will never return to “normal.” 

Okay, most kids will bounce back and parents can work through their summer disappointment, using bribes and imagination.

But when your teenager doesn’t have the cognitive ability to understand why they can’t go to school, enjoy swimming or play the African drums with their friends like they were doing before, then it’s soul-destroying not being able to help them understand what has gone wrong.

And no snappily titled government document or comms team-approved slogan is going to help there. 

With the money we earmarked for holiday care support already spent during the lockdown and a funding hole widening by the day, what is desperately needed is a clear acknowledgement of the problem, followed rapidly by a solution to fix it so at least we can look forward without waking at night with cold sweats.

I don’t care that there’ll be no holiday abroad this summer. I’m not too fussed that the pubs and restaurants are shut. These are minor irritations and I’m a grown-up.

But seeing that the educational gains my daughter’s mum and I, and other parents, have fought for over the last 15 years amount to nothing at this stage, just when they really matter, makes for a very bitter pill to swallow.

A bit of hope would be welcome right now. For Elvi’s sake. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.