The government’s school attendance proposals are bad news for kids – and parents

Instead of addressing the SEND support famine desperate parents are faced with, the Department of Education’s answer is to coerce and bully them

James Moore
Tuesday 12 July 2022 13:46 BST
Tory leadership contender Nadhim Zahawi claims tax investigation 'a smear campaign'

The House of Lords is an affront to democracy. An appalling anachronism filled with failed former politicians, the current administration’s drinking buddies, bishops and (incredibly, still) a surprisingly large number of people who owe their seats to an accident of birth.

But even some proponents of constitutional reform such as myself have a guilty secret: it’s sometimes possible to be glad it’s there.

Take the Schools Bill, a blot on the record of would-be prime minister Nadhim Zahawi, which would be attracting just as much attention as his financial affairs, as revealed by The Independent, there was more focus on policy.

The Schools Bill, which I’ve covered before, is an aggressive and nasty piece of legislation that threatens to criminalise parents whose children struggle to attend. Kids who suffer from what’s known these days as “school refusal” frequently have special needs and/or disabilities (SEND). It is often also the case that their needs aren’t being addressed, which plays into their problems with attendance.

Needless to say, the pandemic landed on them and their families like a meteorite, exacerbating existing problems and serving as the catalyst for new ones. Getting any help with these, and I speak from personal experience here, requires one to engage in a vicious bare knuckle bureaucratic brawl.

This country’s child mental health “services” – the inverted commas are deliberate because it’s a misnomer to call them that – are a bad, bad joke. Local authorities routinely resist applications for Education Health and Care Plans, which serve as a passport for the limited support that is sometimes available from other agencies. Try getting, say, occupational therapy without one. You won’t.

These problems are the bitter fruit of a decade of Tory austerity, which looks set to continue as the party’s leadership contenders fall over each other to offer ever more fantastical tax cuts, while ignoring the question of how they will be financed.

Instead of addressing the SEND support famine desperate parents are faced with, the government’s answer is to coerce and bully them. In its current form, the bill will force schools to don jackboots. They will be required to formulate and enact punitive attendance policies and plans which will ultimately see struggling parents hauled before magistrates, conscripted to serve as financial firing squads.

Your child suffering an autism-related meltdown? Sorry. Your job is to physically manhandle them into the car and get them through the school gates, come what may. Can’t do that because they’re too big, you’re too small, or you’re disabled yourself? Pay up.

This is twisted. If Zahawi were paying attention when he was education secretary, if he had that currently unfashionable virtue known as “a conscience”, he would have called a halt. He would have said to his officials: “Do we really want to be doing this? You know what, I don’t think we do. There’s some long grass over there. I’m going to kick this into it while we have a think.”

I suppose we shouldn’t expect any better from a department that now boasts a junior minister – Andrea Jenkyns – who behaved like a drunken football hooligan when confronted with protesters. Just imagine what would happen to a teacher if they were to follow her example by raising their middle finger in the direction of, say, an obstreperous parent with an iPhone handy to film the exchange.

This brings us back to the Lords, where, despite its many contradictions and failings, there still exists a modicum of decorum. Not Fine in School and Square Peg, a pair of organisations that represent and help parents and children set to be caught on the rusty nails of this awful piece of legislation, are hopeful peers will step up and amend it.

Their proposals are simple. Start with an end to truancy laws. This sounds like the sort of thing that would have certain sections of the media and the small number of Tory party members who will pick the next prime minister coughing, spluttering and spilling hot tea all over themselves. The trouble is, coercion doesn’t work and it doesn’t help. Replacing it with something better might. That’s radicalism for you. Some might prefer to call it common sense.

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Dovetailing with that would be the creation of a new, more sensitive attendance policy in conjunction with these organisations, which actually know what they are talking about. This would include a mental health absence code, which would help prevent families from getting caught up in what they describe as the “unauthorised absence black hole”.

Combined, these are sensible, moderate proposals. They would not, on their own, solve all the problems SEND children face. But they would surely help.

I confess I don’t have much faith in James Cleverly, the incumbent education secretary who was installed after his predecessor managed barely a day in what ought to be seen as one of the more important government posts, but hey, perhaps he’ll surprise us.

“We can do better,” say the two organisations. We can. And, Mr Cleverly, we should. Our children deserve better than the dreadful dog’s dinner of a bill before peers.

I’m told there is support for something different (better) among peers of all parties. Here’s hoping those peers once again choose to discomfort fans of constitutional reform such as myself.

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