Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on allergy awareness in schools

14th March 2018

Nadhim Zahawi responds to a Westminster Hall debate on allergy awareness in schools.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this debate. I would like to thank everyone present for their contributions to this valuable discussion.

I have twins who are now 21, one of whom is asthmatic. The hon. Lady talked eloquently and passionately about her own experience, and having an anaphylactic fit is similar to an asthma attack. We also have a five-year-old. In her school, the teachers clearly do things properly. Last week at breakfast, she was planning to have her best friend over for a play date and she said, “Daddy, my friend’s got a dairy allergy, so we have to make sure we’ve got the right food at home.” That brought home to me how complex it is, thinking about what food to give a five-year-old, to avoid what sadly happened to Karan in Ealing.

The hon. Lady spoke passionately about how the media handle this stuff. Yes, Sony has apologised, but I have looked at some of the comments linked to those media stories with people saying, “What’s the big deal? This is just a cartoon—a CGI movie. Get a life!” Actually, it is about life. Sometimes we have to step back for a second and not be so selfish as to think that everybody without an allergy has the right to everything, while people with allergies should be excluded.

The hon. Lady spoke about transport. British Airways no longer provides nuts on its flights, which I think is the right thing to do. I do not have a nut allergy—I love eating nuts—but I am in no way concerned that it has taken them off the menu. Think about the number of flights, children and holidays—that is a better way of doing things, and it provides lots of other nutritious and good food.

In the short time that I have been in post as Minister for Children and Families, I have been truly inspired by the commitment shown, at all levels in the school sector, to children from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of needs. I have visited early years providers and local authorities and seen the exemplary work that many of them are undertaking to support some of our most vulnerable children and members of society. Colleagues mentioned the inspection regime. Under its inspection framework, Ofsted requires inspectors to pay particular attention to children with allergies and to gather evidence about pupil welfare and how well needs are met by individual schools, and it will evaluate the experience of particular individuals and groups, including those with medical needs.

At the moment it is completely voluntary for schools to hold an EpiPen. Will the Minister look into ensuring that all schools have such devices?

Currently, governing boards have an obligation to put forward a clear strategy for what a school is doing for children with allergies. My understanding is that they have to have two EpiPens, not one—one and a spare—but I will hold a roundtable to look at what more we can do to ensure that happens in every school.

Our vision is that every child, no matter what their background or ability, should play an active part in their school community. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned that just because a child happens to have an allergy, they should not feel excluded from a trip, visit or any other activity at school. We want all children to reach their full potential and to receive the right support to succeed in their education and as they move into adult life. We recognise the importance of supporting pupils with medical conditions at school, and I share her concerns about instances of poor practice that have the potential to place pupils at risk.

With regards to statutory duty, in the Children and Families Act 2014 we introduced a duty on governing boards of schools in England to make arrangements to support pupils with medical conditions. That is a clear signal to schools that supporting pupils with medical conditions is important. I hope that through the roundtable we can see how to improve that further.

The guidance is based on existing best practice and sets clear expectations on schools. It covers a range of areas, including the preparation and implementation of school policies for supporting pupils with medical conditions and the use of individual care plans. It also covers staff training, medicines administration, consulting with parents and collaborative working with healthcare professionals.

The Government understand that food allergies can be complex and worrying for parents. That is why we have set out minimum standards for school food through legislation, with the latest school food standards coming into force in January 2015. We expect headteachers, school governors and their caterers to make effective decisions about their school food policies that take into account the needs of all their pupils.

I want to address an issue that has not come up in the debate but is equally important. Schools have a legal requirement to offer free school meals to all pupils in reception, year 1 or year 2 whose parents want them, and we expect them to make every effort to ensure that pupils with allergies are able to benefit from that entitlement. In all but exceptional circumstances, schools and their caterers are expected to take into account factors such as the type of diet required by the child with allergies, the number of children in a similar position and the cost of making suitable foods.

Like many colleagues, I was shocked and horrified to hear about Karan, who sadly passed away. The case is under investigation, so it is difficult for me to say too much about it. However, it is important to remember that this case could have been bullying. The hon. Lady was right to condemn the messaging to young people that it is okay to tease other children over their allergies and that it is a bit of harmless fun. That is completely wrong.

In conclusion, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting this issue this afternoon. We have much to be proud of in how we have moved forward to address the medical conditions of pupils in schools, but I recognise that there may be much more that we can do. I have arranged a roundtable with the Health Conditions in Schools Alliance to discuss in detail the issues that it feels still need to be addressed, to ensure that every young person has the best opportunity to reach their full potential. I am open-minded about what will hopefully be put in front of me. I will take my learning from this debate to that roundtable and ensure that we consider the issue of allergies in the round, alongside those of other medical conditions in schools. I feel incredibly privileged to have been placed in this role. I am aware that the system often seems to be stacked against those who need more help, and I want to make sure that all vulnerable children have the support to achieve in school and to progress successfully into adulthood.

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