Childhood cancer awareness month:

Supporting a child or young person with cancer in your school

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By Anne Rushton
on 04 September, 2015

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Childhood cancer awareness month

The impact of cancer on children and young people’s education.

Every day, 10 children and young people in the UK hear the shocking news they have cancer. Treating cancer is a long process and can sometimes take up to three years therefore, unsurprisingly, there are often long absences from school.

It is now three years since the charity CLIC Sargent’s 2012 reportNo child with cancer left out’, highlighted its findings that a cancer diagnosis significantly affects a primary aged child’s schooling. They reported that when a child is diagnosed with cancer, treatment often starts immediately and in many circumstances requires the child to travel many miles. Furthermore, frequent and/or lengthy absences from school have been found to have a profound effect not only on the learning but also on relationships with peers. Parents reported that their child found separation from friends one of the hardest aspects to deal with, as very often when the child did return to school the friendship groups had moved on.

The key recommendations from this ground-breaking study are:

  • The education that children and young people with cancer receive in hospital schools and at home could better meet their needs
  • Communication between a young person with cancer, their family and school is vital and should start as soon as they are well enough to learn
  • Tailored support when a young person returns to school following a period of illness can make a real difference to their future education and development.

CLIC Sargent’s subsequent 2013 report ‘No teenager with cancer left out’ also drew on the above research and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) teacher voice survey in which nearly four out of 10 secondary school teachers said there was not enough information or guidance to support a pupil with cancer.

The main additional message was that not providing young people with the extra support they needed after treatment for cancer could jeopardise their education and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. These young people feared they may have to retake the academic year and would be left behind.

The 2012 research also indicated that by primary schools adopting a more individualised and flexible approach to supporting the child, the experience of children returning to school during and after cancer treatment could be greatly improved and this approach needed to be generalised to secondary educational settings.

What are the current statutory duties associated with children and young people with cancer?

The Statutory Guidance set out by the Department for Education (last updated July 2015) aims to ensure a good education for children who cannot attend school because of health needs. Local authorities must have regard to this statutory guidance when arranging education for children who are unable to attend school because of their health.

Academies (unless they are only for pupils between 16 and 19 years old), maintained schools and pupil referral units should support children with medical conditions by making reasonable adjustments. The academy or school policy should be available for parents to see.

If the child or young person is going to be away for a long time, the local council should make sure they get as normal an education as possible. This could include arranging:

  • Home teaching
  • A hospital school or teaching service
  • A combination of home and hospital teaching.

The local authority should have a senior officer in charge of the arrangements and a written policy explaining how their responsibilities are met. Additionally they are required to:

  • Make sure a child isn’t without access to education for more than 15 school days
  • Arrange education from the start of the child’s absence if it’s clear they are going to be away from school for long and recurring periods
  • Ensure continuity of full time education unless part time is better for their health needs.

The new SEND legislation, with its child-centred assessment; planning; doing; and reviewing cycles will improve the experience for these children and young people, but in some cases, an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) may also be required.

What can you do to help whilst the child or young person is receiving treatment?

It is critical to maintain communication with the child or young person whilst they are receiving treatment.

Ideas and practicalities:

  • Encourage the child’s peer group to send cards, letters, emails, pictures and photos to their classmate
  • Update the child or young person regularly on what you are learning and any news that children in the class may have
  • Invite the child/ or young person to any day trips or events happening in school such as assemblies
  • Arrange for classmates to visit the hospital
  • Use the internet and communication tools such as Skype to enable children and young people to chat to each other
  • Ensure that the contact is regular and that it doesn’t diminish over time or if the treatment process takes longer than expected
  • Staff in school should also maintain contact with home tutors or teachers in hospital schools to allow for some consistency in learning so that when the child does return to school, he or she does not feel there are big gaps in their knowledge.

What can you do to support a child or young person’s return to their educational setting?

The CLIC Sargent research indicated how difficult it can be socially for a child or young person with cancer to return to school. They have often found that their friendship groups have moved on and the child can feel very isolated. A significant problem with bullying (35% of parents reported bullying) has also been found when a child with cancer returns to school. Some of the aspects of bullying experienced relates to hair loss, weight loss or gain (due to steroid treatment), and changes in appearance.

Ideas and practicalities:

  • Plan for the return. Use a person-centred planning (PCP) approach to allow the child or young person to feel empowered
  • Educate the year group about cancer, treatment and effects so that they have an understanding of what their peer has experienced and this will reduce the stigma of cancer
  • Be flexible on the child’s return and regularly discuss the support offered with the child and their parents. Research showed that some became upset because their education settings were being over protective and they found this isolating
  • Ensure your anti-bullying polices are updated and that children and young people understand how and who they can ask for help
  • Set up a buddy system in the classroom, playground, canteen so that the child or young person can access support and a friendly face if needed
  • Allow the child or young person access to a learning mentor or pastoral support officer who can help deal with the emotional impact of returning to school.

What can CLIC Sargent do to help?

As well as working with policymakers and schools to help ensure children and young people to get the support they need, the charity has social workers that can liaise with schools and hospital school staff. Their nurses and social workers help children when they return to school, including supporting teachers with information and advice, and visiting schools where possible. The charity has made a commitment to share examples of good practice and to provide information to educational settings encouraging them to deliver the reasonable adjustments that a child or young person with cancer might need on their return.

Further reading:

The following can be found at CLIC Sargent

Cancer and school life pack: This resource has been designed to help teachers communicate confidently with schoolchildren about childhood cancer, as well as help pupils understand the illness and how they can support their classmate. The pack includes a teaching session, information about childhood cancer, and guidance on how to deliver the session and answer questions. It also includes a DVD featuring children who have had cancer, and their school friends, speaking about their experiences.

Back to school: This DVD is for schools where a young person is due to return during or after cancer treatment. It provides guidance on what schools need to consider, as well as interviews with teaching staff about how their school supported a young person with cancer. It also includes young people talking about their experience of going back to school after being diagnosed with cancer.

Storybooks for children: These are designed to be read with children, to help them understand what cancer is and the treatment it involves. Each storybook also has a useful glossary of words related to hospital stays and treatment.

Chemotherapy, cakes and cancer: Written by 14-year-old Megan Blunt, this is a friendly A-Z guide to having treatment for childhood cancer. It covers hospital life, side effects and a range of medical terms.

The following can be found at The Royal Marsden

Returning to school: a teachers’ guide for pupils with brain tumours: Detailed guidance by Royal Marsden and Cerebra on how to help a young person with a brain or spinal cord tumour return to school after treatment.

Pupils with cancer: a guide for teachers: A guide by the Royal Marsden with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, outlining issues that might occur when a child with cancer returns to school after treatment. Aimed at teachers in secondary schools and colleges, it can also be adapted for primary schools.

Further reading and resources:

Teaching resources: Cancer-related lesson plans, created by Cancer Research UK, for KS4 pupils, and curriculum-linked information on cancer and health.

Talking about cancer tool kit: This pack is designed by Macmillan  to help teachers give young people the information they need to understand and discuss cancer. It contains lesson plans for KS2-4, DVD clips, activity sheets and useful signposting information.

Education and learning: Lesson plans and activity sheets for KS3-4 with links to the UK curriculum created by the Teenage Cancer Trust. These resources are also designed to be used at home by parents and young people.

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