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Children with health conditions need new rules to protect them at school


Staff member
Verified Member
Nov 24, 2010
Children with long-term health problems, such as asthma, often do not get enough support at school, campaigners say. Photograph: Corbis

Sarah Wheatley (not her real name) did not want to teach her children, Alison, Sasha and Billy, to break their primary school's rules. But, she says, she never felt quite confident enough in its approach to her children's asthma. So Wheatley felt "subterfuge" was necessary. "Alison had to hand in her Ventolin inhaler to her teacher, which the teacher checked was in date and then put in a bag on the back of a cupboard door in the school office," says Wheatley. "She had to ask for the puffer when she was wheezy or felt tightness in her chest." Wheatley discussed her fears with the school. "But Alison was not allowed to have her own inhaler with her despite my concerns that she could have an asthma attack," says Wheatley, a psychologist.

Unsatisfied by the Gloucestershire primary's approach, Wheatley gave her eldest child a second puffer, which she secretly carried round in her pencil case. Wheatley deployed the same tactic with Sasha and Billy. It was for her, and her offspring's, peace of mind. "A lot of people think that because it's common, asthma is just a bit of wheezing. But children who get an asthma attack can go downhill very, very quickly, and children can die. I didn't want any of them having the added anxiety of having to find a teacher to get their puffer when they were wheezing. With asthma attacks, minutes can be vital."

Mismanagement of asthma can have serious consequences. In 2010, the inquest into the death of asthmatic 11-year-old Samuel Linton, a pupil at Offerton high school in Stockport, Cheshire, heard how a teacher told him to sit in a corridor when he had a serious asthma attack one afternoon in December 2007. A teacher whom pupils alerted to Sam's situation told them she was in a meeting and he would have to wait. By the time his mother got to the school, he was grey and his lips were blue. He died soon afterwards. The inquest jury returned a verdict of neglect which, they said, had involved 12 separate failings by the school, 10 of which "caused or significantly contributed to" his death.

There are estimated to be over 1 million children in the UK with an underlying health problem such as asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, anaphlyaxis and ME whose condition means they either need extra support while at school, or could end up needing emergency assistance, or both. But health campaigners are warning that too many of them do not get the help and understanding they need from schools and their staff, and that a new law is needed to ensure they do.

The Health Conditions in Schools Alliance, a grouping of health charities including Diabetes UK and Asthma UK, claims that "while many schools provide very good support, far too many do not". It says a lack of training and understanding is putting the wellbeing, health and even lives of children at risk. "Children are often excluded from lessons and trips, and sometimes miss school entirely for months at a time, because of a lack of support. Some parents have to give up work or reduce their hours to provide care for their children in school."

Until now ministers have relied on guidance to ensure schools manage pupils' health problems properly. Indeed, the latest guidance is due to be published again before the end of the year. But the alliance insists that "non-statutory guidance has failed too many children for too many years" and firmer action is needed. , On Wednesday the House of Lords will debate an amendment to the children and families bill that would tackle the situation by imposing new duties on schools. If parliament passes it, the amendment would oblige the governing body of every school in England to implement a medical conditions policy setting out how it will help children with such conditions. It would also require schools to draw up a healthcare plan for each such pupil and to ensure school staff had been trained to provide help and deal with any emergencies.

"We are aware of children being denied access to inhalers, including when they are playing sport, or not being allowed to take their medication on school trips. In the worst instances, children's lives can be put at risk," says Emily Humphreys, head of policy and public affairs at Asthma UK. "Worryingly," she adds, "just one in four teachers say they would feel completely confident knowing what to do if a pupil had an asthma attack."

Similarly, the alliance points out that fewer than 40% of schools have a written policy on how to deal with epilepsy, which 63,400 under-18s have; that 59% of schools that have pupils with diabetes do not have a policy that tells staff how to help administer insulin; and that pupils with migraines are often not allowed to instantly take the medication they need.

The profession is sceptical. Sion Humphreys, policy adviser at the National Association of Head Teachers, which represents 95% of primary school heads, says it agrees that "all reasonable measures should be taken to meet the needs of children with long-term and progressive medical conditions [and] the principle of producing healthcare plans is sound."

But, he adds, the NAHT is concerned about several problems. First, teachers' contractual terms and conditions do not include a requirement or expectation to administer medical procedures. "No member of the school workforce could therefore be instructed or compelled to carry out such tasks nor, ipso facto, to undertake training," he says. "It would require an agreed adjustment to the contract of employment if an individual was so willing." Second, the NAHT is concerned that "the duty rests with schools to produce and implement the policy. Educationalists do not have the appropriate professional background and … it is not reasonable to expect governors to possess the necessary expertise."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We have been discussing this issue with a number of health organisations including Diabetes UK and the Migraine Trust. We will make an announcement shortly on how we plan to address their concerns and ensure all schools are able to support children with long-term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy."

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