Believe it or not, the government’s Partygate paralysis is not total. There is still some policymaking getting done and some of it is unpleasant enough to wish that it were otherwise.
This brings us neatly to Nadhim Zahawi, who replaced the cabinet’s former class clown Gavin Williamson at the Department for Education. The tone of his ministry’s latest “consultation” suggests that he is minded to become its school bully.
The title, “School attendance: improving consistency of support”, is innocuous enough.
We know absence has increased through the pandemic, partly because of, you know, Covid.
But sometimes it has also been because of the anxieties created by the pandemic, particularly among vulnerable pupils, who have had their lives upended as a result of it.
In the wake of that, who could possibly object to improving the support to children and their families with getting back into school? Education is important.
Trouble is, that’s not what this is really about. The consultation outlines plans for the creation of a national framework for tackling school absence. All schools, whether academies or those still within the local authority system, will have to publish attendance polices, and improvement plans.
Councils will, meanwhile, be required to use their full range of legal powers – including fines and other sanctions – to force the issue.
Again there is the language of support: “The secretary of state intends to underline the importance of supportive approaches.” But “reiterating that a full range of legal interventions are available where that support does not work or is not engaged with” shows that there is a chainmail-covered fist behind it.
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The glaring problem with all this was immediately pointed out by SEND Action, a campaigning group for children with special needs. There are complex reasons why these kids may have difficulties with school attendance “including a lack of appropriate support”.
Especially from local authorities. The same organisations the government wants to use to bring the hammer down. The same organisations that regularly fight tooth and nail to deny the help necessary for special needs children to be able to succeed at school, up to and including hiring expensive lawyers to help them strike down applications for education health and care plans (EHCP).
My wife and I, as the parents of a special needs child, can speak from painful personal experience about the way they behave with respect to these, which set out the support these children should receive.
But don’t take my word for it. It’s all there in the figures. Those lawyers I mentioned are being asked by local councils to fight cases they can’t win and shouldn’t even be involved in in the first place. The most recently published stats are for July to September 2021. They show that tribunals found in favour of the appellants – so the parents – in a staggering 96 per cent of cases. Just think about that a minute. That’s a staggering number. When local authorities win just 4 per cent of the cases they are involved with, something is going badly wrong.
Then think about the government’s cynical use of the word “support”.
What this consultation does not do, not even remotely, is address the grotesque failures of local authorities to provide it. Nor does it bother to discuss one of the principal causes: the lack of central government funding that informs the perverse behaviour of local authorities, which burn money fighting EHCPs in preference to spending it on support. This helps to explain – but does not by any means excuse – local councils’ disgraceful behaviour.
Back to SEND Action, which says: “We have already seen examples of families with clinically vulnerable members being threatened with prosecution. We need to understand the reasons for increased non-attendance, and ensure the needs of these children and their families are properly assessed and supported. Sanctioning and criminalising parents (disproportionately mothers) is not the answer.”
No it is not. The answer should be to ensure that SEND (special needs and disabled) children are receiving the support they need to cope with the daunting challenges being in school presents them with. They, and their parents, desperately need help and they are simply not getting it.
I also spoke to Ellie Costello, the director of Square Peg, a social enterprise set up to effect change for children who struggle to attend school and their families. She describes the guidance as “prescriptive” and worries that this isn’t an open consultation.
Having read it, I would agree. It very much feels as if the government has made its mind up.
“The whole system is based on clampdown, coercion and control. They’re just getting tougher while more people are struggling. It’s not working and it won’t solve the problem. We’ve had 12 years of this and nothing’s changing,” Costello told me.
She’s right, and this is a problem that goes beyond special needs. Families whose children have spotty attendance records are often struggling for other reasons. Strained finances obviously play a role, especially with a cost-of-living crisis in full swing. So do strained relationships, which the former is often a contributory factor in. Then there’s good old-fashioned bullying, the government’s answer to which appears to be yet more bullying.
If this is an example of the sort of policymaking we can expect from the government once the Partygate hangover subsides, perhaps we should club together to send a truckload of booze to No 10’s doorstep so it can replenish its coffers and organise another rave or two. Maybe some cake, while we’re at it?
A bunch of ministers and civil servants too pissed to indulge in policymaking of this regressive, cynical, and destructive type could actually be said to be of benefit to the country. Rock on, Boris Johnson’s next birthday.
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