I’ve had to tell 17 SEND pupils they can’t come to school – and I’m furious

11 Sep 2020, 5:00

An Ofsted report found gaps in SEND support in mainstream schools.

Reading a recent report by ASK Research with the NFER about children at special education schools and colleges, I was grabbed by how many of my unknown colleagues are worried their pupils will not be returning.

Whether 20,000 children with special educational needs (one in six children attending special schools) really don’t return to school, we will only discover over the next fortnight. At my school at least, I’m delighted three-quarters returned on the first day, and we’re working with parents to try to increase that further.

But the fact that 84 per cent of the 200+ school leaders who responded believe so, tells us that Covid has exacerbated real fault lines in the relationships between families, schools, local authorities, Public Health England and the Department for Education, which are nowhere near being resolved.

All of my colleagues in special education leadership have the same key challenges in mind: safe home-to-school bus transport, accessing PPE and suitable space for clinical care tasks and preventing highly anxious adult responses to SEND children returning to school.

But my sector’s ability to build up our families’ faith is not the problem.

Earlier this year, I viewed the emerging global pandemic of a new respiratory infection through the lens of my experience during the Swine flu epidemic of 2009-10.

Tragically we lost four students in 12 months, and were later advised these deaths were “probably” flu-linked.

So when we were told that a similar killer virus was headed our way, we closed our schools – a week before the DfE eventually gave the instruction.

I’m also the convener of the Medicines in Specialist Schools steering group, so in recent weeks I’ve had the benefit of listening to Dr Jenny Harries and Dr Russell Viner present the new C19 data.

Their findings clearly demonstrate an astonishing characteristic of Covid 19 – that the virus discriminates in favour of children (in that they are much less likely to come to harm than adults) and that this protective factor appears to extend even to children with complex needs and comorbidities.

So I have briefed staff in our trust’s two special schools that we should definitely re-open.

I know from national and regional headteacher forums that most share this positive outlook. So why do so many heads expect thousands of pupils with SEND not to return?

The answer lies in the confusing guidance issued by Public Health England, the Department for Education or the Cabinet Office. From March to May they mostly neglected to give detailed consideration to the special educational needs sector.

One group of pupils in particular has badly lost out – let me explain how.

The government flipped from stating in June that staff working in special schools do not need to wear any additional PPE, to in July introducing clinical PPE guidance for school staff who usually deliver “aerosol-generating procedures” (which is a special procedure for students with respiratory conditions).

Inevitably, none of the PPE we needed could be delivered on time

This means they need the same surgical gowns and respirators as NHS staff on red wards, and is because the procedure could spread the virus by sending saliva into the air as a fine mist.

The new acronym, “AGPs”, is now at the centre of chaos within local authorities and NHS bodies as they scramble to understand which agencies should ensure that special educational needs schools can remain safe where this procedure is being carried out.

Inevitably, none of the PPE we needed could be delivered on time.

So now we’ve had to write to some families with just days to go before they expected to send their children back to school, saying they cannot come back, yet.

There are 102 families in Bradford with children who need AGP. I have had to write to parents of 17 of those children in my school – and I am furious about it.

This was predictable and avoidable had an effective dialogue between policymakers and providers taken place in April, May, June and July. Instead, we saw central government pass the buck back to enfeebled local authorities for implementation of hot-off-the-press C19 policies.

And the 20,000 children? They now urgently need clear reassurance that schools, authorities and the government will be focused on sorting this issue out – so every child can get back to school.

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  1. Claire Dorer

    You’ve captured the frustration of so many special schools Dominic. As you say, these problems are avoidable – especially given the vast amount of effort you and colleagues have made to raise issues with Government at an early stage. We keep being promised that problems will be addressed but progress is frustratingly slow!

  2. Agreed Dominic, all special settings want our children back safely. However, we must make sure other children and staff in classes will also be safe. We have duty of care for other children, the children coming in and of course the staff also that look after them, many of whom will be very vulnerable to serious consequences. Staff must be protected by wearing the right clinical mask for aerosol generating activities under Health and Safety Law. This is a statutory requirement for all school leaders and is not negotiable.
    It is not yet clear to everyone, that a thorough and clinically assessed and approved risk assessment should be in place. Some Clinical Commissioning groups have supported schools and settings much better than others. This is a post code lottery and unfair on all those families and children waiting to come back into school being delayed by confusion about responsibilities held by whom.
    We would like the department of health and education to issue a useful standard template to use for all settings who have clinically vulnerable pupils who are waiting to come back to school. This will help collate the national requirements and standardise procurement and resolve rapidly.
    People do not realise that ‘Face mask testing’ must be completed for all the staff needing clinical grade FFP3 masks. This cannot be done until testing equipment is available. There is a 2 month waiting list for such equipment for settings and we are not a priority clinically. This week, after we escalated the requirements to the director of the local health trust, they then approved the use of this equipment by qualified nursing staff trained to test staff face masks. This equipment has been shared with 3 other schools locally this week, who are also waiting to test their staff for the right face masks. We now have to source 4 different types of FFP3 face masks to fit the staff teams faces and we are sourcing from all over Europe, competing with industry (paint sprayers and clinical settings all needing the same PPE FFP3 masks and another 300 plus schools for this equipment to source for our pupils.
    When it is in our school, we will be able to have the children back in school, providing we have separate rooms for these children to come back into school, and thereby not be a risk to others.
    Specialists like Dominic, (who is a very highly skilled professional), in our sector have been asking for over 4 months for a joined up ‘wrap around’ procurement and service for these highly vulnerable (previously shielding) young people. The separate departments of health and education and clinical commissioning groups are all fully aware of these difficulties. We want action now, to help us resolve the blockages and have the necessary specialist advice issued to all of us now, and not wait any longer. We also expect a development of a clear easy procurement approach, so that all these young people can be safely back in school with their friends and learning which is where they have the right to be today, not waiting at home for ‘Services’ to resolve. These parents and families need these children to be back in school as many have been stuck at home since lockdown. It is affecting the health and wellbeing of children and families.
    Providers and settings all want the same thing, and it is frustrating how many obstacles have to be surmounted to help get the clinically vulnerable children back into school with the equipment to keep them, other children and staff all safer. Please ask your Clinical Commissioning Board to help us overcome this bottleneck.

  3. Simon Knight

    This really does capture the way in which the shambles that is the Government’s response to the pandemic is impacting on Special Schools, those who attend them and their families. Clarity of thought and clarity of action is desperately needed from Government, not false promises that repeatedly fail to materialise.

  4. Jo Stoaling

    Thank you Dominic for raising the issue that hundreds of Special School Headteachers have strived to change and deal with throughout July and August. Whilst the guidance issued may in principle look straightforward to many, sourcing FFP3s when company’s are sold out, being on waiting lists for Fit Testing and already not having huge amounts of available space when separate rooms/hygiene rooms are required, makes the application of guidance extremely challenging. Every single Headteacher I have spoken to, like yourself, wants every child back to school. We are all working every hour sent at the moment to achieve this safely for our pupils with complex needs. Covid-19 has put huge pressure on schools and some may argue even more on generic special schools who support pupils with extremely complex medical needs on a daily basis. I was saddened to read the article said you had “failed” to achieve the required PPE. As a Headteacher who has worked with you throughout this crisis, you have led the way to make change, get everyone back to school efficiently and have supported your colleagues locally and nationally throughout. I personally see you as a superb advocate for our Special School Communities. Thank you for everything you have done. We will all keep working together and supporting each other and as a collective work together to ensure everyone’s return, respecting as we always do the importance of safety for all pupils and staff.