Pandemic / home education

As an education lawyer, my position prior to COVID starting would nearly always have been that it’s better for a child to be within the ‘education system’ rather than electively home educated. This is because there’s no way to force an LA to help you with elective home education, so you cannot expect to mix and match LA funded provision with your own. [This is the case notwithstanding that there are times when LAs can be forced to fund education otherwise than at a school]. Generally, LAs should be held to the statutory duty to make suitable educational provision for children with SEN. Opting for elective home education lets the LA get away with doing nothing.

Secondly, for most children with EHCPs, there is a need for specific expert input into their education – they need a SALT, an OT, a Teacher of the Deaf, a QTVI and so on. Elective home education is likely to reduce a household’s income considerably to accommodate an adult being available to supervise / teach the child meaning there will be less money around to buy in these services privately. Obviously NHS based services will be available, whether a child is electively home educated or not, but may be very patchy and with very long waiting lists.

Thirdly, for quite a lot of children with EHCPs, learning how to interact with and communicate with other children is part of the special educational provision they require. In specialist schools this is facilitated by teaching staff working under the guidance of SALTs and there are opportunities integrated into the day for the children to be taught and to practice these skills. With elective home education, there are often family run groups covering particular activities that are hard to do at home that happen at set intervals, which allows some opportunities for social interaction. These are unlikely to happen each day of the week. It is also possible for home educated children to join out of school sports clubs and other organisations like Scouting and Girlguiding. For some children, it may be better for them to work on interaction with other children more slowly and in the ways possible for electively home educated children, but it is something to be considered carefully.

Where elective home education becomes an option that should be seriously considered on at least a temporary basis is when there is a public health situation that is not being properly managed. We are overdue an influenza pandemic, on the basis of the historical timing of recent ones. That doesn’t change just because we’re in a COVID pandemic. At this point, in May 2024, there are concerning reports of avian flu H5N1 being found in the udders of American cows with at least one farmworker infected with it. There are also reports of H5N1 being found in American wastewater. H5N1 has been jumping around between birds and some other mammals (cats, mink) for maybe just over a year. The more it jumps around between birds, mammals and back to birds and so on, the greater the potential it will make the jump to being easily transmissible between people. [At the moment, as far as I can tell, you are at little risk of catching H5N1 unless you are handling dead birds or are around infected herds of dairy cows and exposed to aersolised milk during the milking process].

If H5N1 makes the jump to people, it won’t be immediately obvious because it takes time for people to become ill and more time for them to become ill enough to seek medical care and further time again for those who are going to be seriously affected by it to be hospitalised and for some of them to die. It will take time to work out that H5N1 is what people have (rather than COVID/MERS/some other condition). It is likely that H5N1 will have a substantially higher case fatality rate than COVID – I see estimates of up to about 30%.

Schools will close if there’s an H5N1 pandemic. There won’t be enough well staff to keep them open safely, even if there is political desire to avoid closures. This is a time when you want to be ahead of the curve, to keep your whole household at home as much as possible.

If things proceed as COVID did, it is likely to be safe enough to keep your child at home on the basis of the virus and allow the school to record it as ‘unauthorised absence’, with your child remaining on the school roll for so long as there is no pressure on them to return to school whilst there’s a lot of virus about. If the Government is very slow to respond, you may find yourself with a school trying to manage your child’s absence as if it’s truancy. At which point removing them from the school roll may be the best course of action, unless they have an EHCP (you wouldn’t want to have to fight to ‘recreate’ your EHCP the otherside of the worst bit of pandemic, after you’ve already gone to all the effort of getting it right)

If you have a child with an EHCP attending a special school, removing them from the roll is not as simple as it is for all other children, but you are unlikely to experience much opposition, in these circumstances, to keeping your child at home without removing them from the roll, as many of the children attending special schools will be particularly vulnerable to flu viruses and the school will be tactitly content to have fewer children around to reduce the numbers of people who can pass germs around.

If you already have social services involvement, it will be best to try to get some advice before removing children from a school roll, as unfortunately removing children from school rolls and moving house is a known tactic of abusive parents, because it ‘hides’ children from appropriate interaction with public services. You will want to be clear why it’s unsafe for them to be at school, to indicate whether you are planning to move house (and at this point you might be, if your ‘lockdown’ plan is to join relatives in a big house more rurally etc) and probably to invite the social worker to come and meet you and the children outdoors.