Voices: The government’s cruel new plans for schools almost make me pine for Gavin Williamson

·5-min read
The former education secretary was sacked  in the wake of the fiasco surrounding school exams and free school meals  (PA Archive)
The former education secretary was sacked in the wake of the fiasco surrounding school exams and free school meals (PA Archive)

I suppose you have to admire the Department for Education’s ambition. Rivalling the Home Office as the government’s most thuggish ministry would appear, on the face of it, to be a tough ask.

The DfE can’t, after all, threaten to send grandmothers in failing health back to South Africa, as its rival in this unlovely contest was at one point proposing to do. Myrtle Cothill, now 98, was eventually allowed to stay with her British daughter, just without any support (which has since mercifully been resolved).

Nadhim Zahawi and friends, however, seem up to the challenge. Exhibit A: The Schools Bill, one of the 38 (count ‘em) announced in the Queen’s Speech. It’s full of sort of stuff commonly found in the fields in which pop festivals are held after the Portaloos have exploded.

Measures include turning all schools into academies by 2030, plus a demand that every school publish an attendance policy, together with the establishment of “compulsory registers for children not in school, so that the system can identify those who are not receiving a suitable full-time education”.

Now, you may be thinking that doesn’t sound too terrible. Surely non-attendance is something that ought to be monitored, right? After all, it’s in the interests of children, for whom education is vitally important. And sure, put like that, it doesn’t seem like something to get all bent out of shape over.

But here’s how the Daily Mail described it: “Schoolchildren who persistently skip classes will be named on compulsory registers and their parents warned as part of new measures to raise attendance.” It described these as “truants’ registers”. Reports like that one don’t happen by accident.

Consider too, that the DfE’s language has notably hardened in recent months. Suddenly the plan looks much less about helping children and much more about bullying and coercing the parents of those who are avoiding schools because they’re being, well, bullied.

It looks worse still from the perspective of kids with special needs and disabilities (SEND), many of whom also suffer from poor attendance (and bullying). The government also seems bent upon leaning on local authorities to prosecute and fine, delivering a state-backed kicking to their parents – not behind the bike sheds, but in full public view.

The problem for many SEND children is that local authorities are the very reason they are not in school in the first place. Local authorities, partly as a result of inadequate central government funding, are the cause of the inadequate provision they receive.

Councils’ cynical approach to SEND children typically involves them fighting tooth and nail against supporting them. This support should be set out in what’s known as an Education Health and Social Care Plan (EHCP). Large numbers are routinely denied and then fought bitterly by local councils. As a result, between 2013/2014 and 2020/2021 the number of parents appealing to the SEND tribunal increased by 111 per cent, per the Local Government Association (LGA). Ministry of Justice figures show that local authorities lose nearly 96 per cent of these cases.

Councils have responded by attacking the tribunal system for exposing their own law breaking. You can see this in an “independent” report (the inverted commas are because it was commissioned and paid for by the LGA) into the SEND system which I recently discussed in this column.

It grumbled about the “growth in unregulated organisations encouraging and advising families to appeal” and complained that “tribunal appeals are more likely to come from more affluent families” without citing evidence. Remember, the tribunal’s job is simply to apply the law to decisions taken on EHCPs by councils.

Avoiding the obvious conclusion (that local authority decision making is deeply flawed) took some impressive mental gymnastics. The problems with the SEND system are currently the subject of a separate review by the DfE, which was recently extended to July.

But groups representing parents such as Special Needs Jungle and SEND Action are concerned. They are right to be. It’s woolly. One of the few concrete proposals – to force parents into compulsory mediation with councils – has been widely criticised because of the way mediation is used as a delaying tactic. Can you now see the problem with the Schools Bill?

On the one hand you have an aggressive and coercive approach with a “truant register” and more fines for parents, who may very well lack the means to pay them in the midst of a cost of living crisis. On the other, you have a failing special needs system which is often the cause of non attendance and leaves parents in despair.

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Sure, the DfE isn’t trying to deport grandmothers or pack asylum seekers off to Rwanda as the Home Office is proposing. But for a despairing parent, caught between the local government rock and the central government hard place, with a vulnerable, suffering child to deal with, it’s not so far off.

I find that I’m almost, almost, starting to pine for Gavin Williamson. No really. He may have been infamously rubbish but his incompetence meant this express train to the land of nightmares would probably never have got on the rails. Zahawi is a good deal sharper.

But that sharpness is turning into a dagger aimed squarely at parents. Not Fine In School, a parent/carer led advocacy group set up in response to the growing number of children and young people who struggle with attendance, is urging people to sign a change.orgpetition calling for the laws that prosecute (and persecute) vulnerable families on behalf of children who can’t, not won’t, attend to be dropped.

I would second that. The way things are going, it isn’t just school vulnerable children are not fine in. It’s Britain.