Ministers appear to either not understand or not care about the plight of clinically vulnerable parents and guidance only add to their woes, writes Margaret Greenwood
For many of the children who live in homes where someone is clinically extremely vulnerable, this year has been especially challenging. It can be hard enough to cope when a mum has cancer, a dad has a severe lung condition or a brother has had an organ transplant. Families dealing with the anxiety and uncertainty of such conditions can be under immense pressure, and very often children feel that pressure too.
For parents, the stress can be overwhelming. One mother told me about her sleepless nights and her anxiety-ridden days as she desperately tried to decide whether to keep her child at home and receive a fine or send her to school and risk the health of her partner. A father told me of the tears in his eyes as his 16 year old daughter said goodbye to her parents, suitcase in hand, as she left the family home to go and live with a relative for an indefinite period so that their home could be as Covid-safe as possible.
People are making real sacrifices, yet these are sacrifices that could be avoided if the government took action.
This is a scenario that families up and down the country are contemplating every single day
I wrote to the schools minister Nick Gibb about this back in September; his response was woefully inadequate. I subsequently asked the Prime Minister in the Chamber; his response told me he had no grasp of what I was talking about. I’ve tabled written questions to try and ascertain how many families are facing this desperate dilemma – but the government does not collect the figures centrally and so has no idea of the scale of the problem. Yet it is clear from my caseload that such families are considering off-rolling their children, despite the fact that their children love their school and really do want to go back there when we have got through the pandemic.
Across the country parents are taking this drastic step. The number of children withdrawn from school for elective home education has soared by 38 per cent in the past year, with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services finding that the most common reason cited by parents for taking this step was due to health reasons directly related to Covid-19.
In October, the government placed a legal duty on schools to provide remote education for state-funded, school-age children unable to attend school due to Covid-19. However, this was not matched by the resources needed to deliver, and the government’s provision of laptops and internet access lags way behind, making this far from straightforward.
Government guidance says that: “Children who live with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable, but who are not clinically extremely vulnerable themselves, should still attend school,” and that, “More evidence has emerged that shows there is a very low risk of children becoming very unwell from coronavirus (COVID-19), even for children with existing health conditions.”
But this is to miss the point. For families dealing with serious illness, the stress of having to worry about the risk, even if that risk is low, can be very difficult to cope with.
Further, we cannot underestimate the profound psychological impact that it would have on a child to go to school, come home with Covid-19 and infect a family member and for that family member to then die. Loss in childhood is devastating; for a child to feel that it was their fault would be traumatic in the extreme. Yet this is a scenario that families up and down the country are contemplating every single day.
So while we look with hope to the roll out of vaccines, the government must nevertheless provide urgent help to those families with more immediate concerns on their minds.
Ministers must bring forward new guidance to ensure that children who live in a household where someone is clinically extremely vulnerable are able to learn from home during the pandemic if that is what their parents think is best. They should also provide the necessary financial support to schools so that headteachers can facilitate this without having to worry about resource implications. To do any less is to fail to understand what these families are going through.