We all know that Covid-19 has been challenging, but my visits to Special Schools during the pandemic have time and time again reinvigorated my faith that we will overcome this virus as a country.
Real highlights for me have been getting the chance to speak with children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, and to experience their huge enjoyment of being in school, as well as watching a wonderful Christmas production complete with The 12 days of Christmas. This was filmed by the school to allow parents the joy of seeing children perform in a traditional Christmas show in a COVID-19 safe way. Just one of many examples of how schools have adapted and innovated at this time.
I loved seeing and hearing about all the fantastic work staff and leaders have been doing throughout the pandemic. They have not only supported the pupils and students but, in so many cases, been a lifeline of support to the whole family.
Schools have worked really hard. I have enjoyed learning about the different ways technology has been used to support pupils and students such as using Zoom for their online groups and using visual and interactive games, challenges/teasers to allow those who are non-verbal to interact. Even making food and drink together via zoom. When schools reopened to all students in March, I was able to visit one of the special schools in my own constituency and I hope that soon I can make some more visits in person.
These visits are an important way to understand first-hand the impact of the pandemic on children and families. Key themes raised with me which I want to reflect on in this blog were.
- Face-to-face attendance
- Importance of a broad education recovery
- Mental health wellbeing and resilience as key to recovery
- Access to Therapies
I’ve been pleased to see that there have been high levels of attendance following wider reopening on 8 March, and attendance at special schools was 88% on 22 April. Teachers and school staff are excited to start a new chapter on the road to recovery.
However, I also heard during my visits that some children, parents and staff continue to be anxious about attendance. I completely understand how specific local situations and personal circumstances may contribute to this, but regular attendance is so important for overall wellbeing. I want to encourage families and schools to continue to work closely together to agree a plan which reassures families about the ways schools have been made safer to reduce risks and enables schools to respond to a family’s concerns. There may be specific adjustments that can be put in place to ensure that children and young people can regularly attend, so co-production with parents must continue to play an important part of the pandemic response and recovery at every level.
You can find out more about how the ‘system of controls’ measures in schools work in our guidance (Safe working in education, childcare and children’s social care - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). The Council for Disabled children also have some detailed resources to support families on this issue which you can find here: https://councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk/help-resources/resources/education-support-children-and-young-people
During the pandemic, I am aware that there has been an increased interest from parents in Elective Home Education (EHE) or choosing to home school. To support parents and carers who are considering EHE, we have published information and advice through the Education in the media blog. This includes more detail on EHE and the importance of careful consideration by families and those who support them about any decision to take a child out of the education system.
I understand that some parents may change their mind about home educating their child, perhaps as the pandemic eases. I want to reassure parents and carers that re-enrolment in school-based education remains an option. Where a parent decides that they wish their child to return to school, they will need to apply for a school place. Parents can make an application at any school, at any time, but they cannot be guaranteed that a place will still be available at the school their child left.
Importance of a broad education recovery
We need to ensure that children and young people with SEND are supported during the pandemic and that they are prioritised in the wider recovery. It is also important that the recovery includes physical, mental and educational wellbeing. I am clear that focusing on the specific needs of children and young people with SEND must be a central part of the department’s recovery planning. Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed Education Recovery Commissioner and will be advising the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister on a longer-term plan.
Early recovery support such as the National Tutoring Programme is already available to children and young people with SEND. Of the 33 providers of our National Tutoring Programme, 26 have experience in supporting children and young people with SEND, with 17 of these are also able to support children in special schools.
We have provided more funding to schools for next academic year, with additional weighting for specialist settings in recognition that those children and young people may have more complex needs. Schools will have flexibility in how they chose to use this funding.
We are also making £200 million available to all secondary schools, including specialist settings, to deliver face-to-face summer schools to target provision based on pupils’ needs. School leaders are best placed to know what this should look like, what’s most effective for their pupils and how to tailor support for pupils with SEND.
I am also really pleased that the Holiday Activities and Food programme (HAF) (https://councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk/news-opinion/news/holiday-activities-and-food-programme-2021) will be available to children in every local authority in England. There is a clear expectation HAF co-ordinators will make their provision accessible to eligible children with SEND.
Mental health wellbeing and resilience as key to recovery
I am dedicated to making sure mental health and wellbeing is at the heart of recovery.
I am really proud of the £8m Wellbeing for Education Return scheme that has funded expert advisers and training in every local authority area to support wellbeing recovery as children and young people returned to school and further education. Children and young people need to be well, physically and mentally, to truly reap the benefits of quality education.
To boost NHS support, the government has already agreed £79m for children and young people to increase access to mental health support, including through the mental health support teams linked to schools and colleges.
The Whole School SEND consortium provides targeted support to schools to deliver webinars on themes of wellbeing for pupils and staff. We also provided funding to the Autism Education Trust to develop guidance and tools on anxiety and wellbeing.
It is encouraging to hear school leaders tell me children and young people have been incredibly resilient and have continued to engage with school positively. I heard some fantastic examples of embedding cultural changes to help ease concerns such as normalising staff in PPE.
I won’t go over the ground covered in my recent open letter An Open Letter from the Children and Families Minister on the Return to Education - 8 March | Council For Disabled Children but if you would like more information about vaccinations and testing please see Coronavirus (COVID-19) asymptomatic testing in schools and colleges - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) and COVID-19 vaccination: guide for adults - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). However, I would like to address the concerns raised to me about children and young people not being able to access therapies during the pandemic. These are often so important to their wider learning and development.
NHS England have been clear that services for children and young people with SEND and an Education, Health and Care plan, should be fully restored. This is set out in a letter published on 31 July 2020: COVID-19 restoration of community health services for children and young people: second phase of NHS response. Specialists, therapists, clinicians, and other support staff for pupils and students with SEND can provide interventions as usual where this is reasonably necessary, including where this requires them to move between settings. I will continue to strongly encourage education settings to work collaboratively with local health services to ensure support can continue, even if this means some differences in delivery.
I want to thank all the schools up and down the country that hosted me for a virtual visit. Our special schools continued to play such an important part in children and young people’s lives.
If you have enjoyed this blog you may also enjoy A blog from Dame Christine Lenehan | Council For Disabled Children. You may also be interested in information on the wider return to schools in my open letter - An Open Letter from the Children and Families Minister on the Return to Education - 8 March | Council For Disabled Children