COVID-19, Education and Inclusion
The Coronavirus pandemic and spread of COVID-19 in the UK, particularly in England, the high level of fatalities (43,370 on 1st July) and ongoing impact on us all, is not accidental but the product of bad political decision making.
The UK Government, preoccupied with Brexit on 31st January, appears to have largely ignored the advice of the World Health Organisation and wasted precious weeks when effective planning and preparation would have eased the spread and devastating fatal effects of the virus.
Key issues were:
- the UK emergency planning was geared to a major Flu outbreak – hence the lack of PPE and late banning of public events
- the ending of general track and trace on 12th March
- the late introduction and low capability of testing
- the very late recognition that care homes and other institutions were very much more likely to be prone to the virus spread.
COVID-19 and Disabled people
Disabled people, especially those in care homes and other institutions, have been particularly badly hit. At the peak of the crisis eugenicist ideas, such as the survival of the fittest, raised their head through triage systems and rationing of scarce resources such as respirators. Those dependant on personal assistance in their homes, through direct payments or council services were often left with little or no support.
Coronavirus Law and Policy Impact on SEND Learners
The impact on Disabled children has been dramatic. The general closure of schools allowed for children of key workers with EHC Plans and those called ‘vulnerable’, with a social worker, to continue to attend school with social distancing and a skeleton rotation of staff. The Risk Assessment guidance and parental fears led to less than 10% of this group actually attending school. With the Government’s premature decision to reopen schools in England from 1st June the guidance has changed. Now every effort is to be made to get students who are vulnerable back into school even though many of the risks remain the same .
The Secretary of State for Education issued a notice under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to modify section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014 – the duty to secure special educational provision and health care provision in accordance with EHC plan. This Section 42 modification means that the duty on local authorities or health commissioning bodies to secure or arrange the provision is temporarily changed to a duty to use ‘reasonable endeavours’ to do so. Timescales are also varied in the new guidance, such as the 20-week deadline to complete assessment and produce an EHC Plan or the holding of annual reviews.
These measures came into force on 1st May and run to 25th September in the first instance. They should be revoked then or as soon as possible.
There is a tendency in UK recent history for emergency legislation to become long term, despite being subject to Parliamentary Review. For example:
- the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974, introduced as a temporary suspension of civil rights in the wake of the IRA Birmingham bombings, continued being annually reviewed until 1989.
- the licensing laws introduced by Lloyd George in 1915 during 1st World War were not revoked for over 100 years
SEND and School Closures: Learning in Lockdown
Evidence of the impact of the lockdown on Disabled children’s learning is currently anecdotal, but clearly all children from more deprived backgrounds are less likely to have access to IT, space and parental support. Also, those with SEND are not going to have access to specialist therapies and teaching. Valuable Government supported attempts to provide lessons, such as online Oak Academy, were not inclusive from the start and only later had access added e.g. BSL and differentiation. The assumption is still that there are children with learning difficulties who need a simplified separate curriculum, rather than developing a curriculum that is universally accessible with different extension pathways.
In a recent letter to the Government from the Special Education Consortium they raised the following issues which are not being addressed in discussions about reopening schools:
- How children with SEND can be expected to return to school/settings without the support outlined in their EHC plans which enables them to access learning?
- What children and young people with SEND will need to supplement provision in an EHC plan, or on SEN support, during and after lockdown?
- How preparations for transition into new educational settings and phases of education will be undertaken, with a focus on accessibility/reasonable adjustments, to restore a sense of belonging and welcome?
- How to restore wellbeing during reintegration, to support a positive return to current schools/settings, and avoid the issues that can lead to disruptive behaviour and exclusions?
These questions beg the question whether it is safe for staff and children to return to school from 1st of June 2020, when many countries with lower levels of infection, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, have decided to keep schools closed until later.
The teachers unions, particularly the NEU, have opposed the decision to open schools for Reception, Years 1 and 6 from 1st June, and Secondary Year 10 from 15th June, to opening until it is safe: “We want to begin to re-open schools and colleges as soon as we can. But this needs to be safe for society, for children and their families and the staff who work in them. We have these five tests which the Government should show will be met by reliable evidence, peer-reviewed science and transparent decision making.”
There are 5 tests they think the Government must meet before moving to the further opening of schools:
- Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases: The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend, with confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing to keep it that way.
- A national plan for social distancing: The Government must have a national plan including parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and levels of social mixing in schools, as well as for appropriate PPE, which will be locally negotiated at school-by-school and local authority level.
- Testing, testing, testing! Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff to ensure our schools and colleges don’t become hot spots for Covid-19.
- Whole school strategy : Protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed.
- Protection for the vulnerable: Vulnerable (disabled) staff and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must specifically address the protection of vulnerable parents, grandparents and carers”.
As this article was being written support for this approach was streaming in, from many, many parents and over 50% of UK Local Authorities, as well as the British Medical Association and the independent Sage group.
Given the gravity of events outlined at the beginning of this article it is right that the Government have been called out on their strategy.
What has occured is a staggered return, with social distancing and risk assessments leading to many schools not restarting until September. It was confirmed on June 10th that most school children will not be back fully until September at the earliest. What we need now are more laptop computers, morning TV lessons on BBC1 and fully funded summer camps with catchup tutoring.
The unfairness and negative impact of our current assessment system, especially for disabled students, has been thrown into contention by the lockdown. Teachers were asked to rank their students based on course work and internal tests. The Exam Boards will then adjust these marks by the historic scores of the school and fix pass rates and grades. Under Gove’s reforms we moved away from course work and understanding to a more fact-based curriculum disadvantaging many disabled learners.
Surely now is the time to move back to a fairer system of assessment, which gives all learners a chance to show what they can achieve!
Richard Rieser, Director of World of Inclusion