Severe food allergies are increasingly common: these days, between five and eight per cent of children have a proven food allergy.
That’s an average of one or two in a class of 30. And the numbers are rising: 21 per cent more children have a peanut allergy now than in 2010.
We, as a family, know all about this. I am the parent of a Reception-age child with severe food allergies. My son has already suffered a serious allergic reaction after he was given the wrong food at school.
In fact, it has happened twice. On two occasions he was given food containing egg – innocuous to most, potentially deadly to him – by his nursery, which is part of an independent school.
The first time it happened was the result of systemic error: the storage of his safe food was confused with that of another child with different allergies. The second time, it was individual error: a member of the team had been briefed on his allergies but, overworked in the lunchtime rush, she had forgotten and given him the wrong food.
Putting individual teachers in a dangerous situation
It’s not fair that individual teachers are put in this situation. The teachers who looked after my son are conscientious, but they were operating in a school that did not have proper allergen management systems in place. The teachers – just like the children – were left wide open to the risks.
After the first incident, we provided the school with a template allergen management policy, but it was never implemented. And then the second incident occurred. In the classroom, compassion abounded. But in the corridors of power in that building, complacency reigned.
In the words of an allergy nurse, “he was lucky”. Severe allergic reactions can be fatal. But the school was lucky, too.
The incidents prompted a formal investigation in which Trading Standards considered criminal charges against the school. In the end, they settled on a written warning, sparing the school the reputational damage of a court case – but it remains on record should another error occur. For us as a family, and for individual staff members, it was a hugely stressful time.
So, when our son started in Reception at a new school, we were relieved to meet with the special educational needs and disability coordinator (Sendco), class teacher and teaching assistant, and to find that they listened – really listened – to us. Not only did the school already have solid procedures in place but they also wanted to agree the plans with us.
An allergen survival guide for classroom teachers
I believe that teachers need the backing of senior management on this issue because, in the classroom, they’re on the front line. So, with hat-tips to our brilliant Sendco and also to a group of allergy parents who helped with what follows, here’s an allergen survival guide for classroom teachers:
1. It’s good to talk
It’s all about communication. Each year should start with a conversation between teachers and parents about how the allergies will be handled. And after that, the lines of communication should be kept open.
Listen to child’s voice, too. Often children will be able to explain for themselves if something is not safe for them.
2. Inclusion is the default
The best sessions involve everyone. Too often, children have to sit outside a classroom during an activity that isn’t safe for them.
So, if you’re planning anything involving food – whether that’s a baking task, Easter treats, modelling rock formations in chocolate or demonstrating the effect of gravity by dropping raw eggs – please talk to the allergy parents first. Many are happy to help source alternatives.
3. Issue reminders before school trips
Mistakes happen when the routine is disrupted. School trips are an example. Parents who aren’t used to making packed lunches can easily forget to avoid nuts. Peanut-butter sandwiches or nutty cereal bars might unwittingly sneak in, so please remind everyone beforehand.
4. Be vigilant during craft activities
Junk modelling is a lot of fun but check what the packets contained. Packages for nut products should be discarded. If a child in your class has a severe egg allergy, ditch quiche boxes and wash out mayonnaise bottles thoroughly.
And if you’re building bird feeders, don’t fill them with peanuts.
5. Medication should be easily accessible
Medication kits should always be kept somewhere that is quickly and easily accessible. Everyone should know where it is. Depending on the school’s size and layout, it may need to travel to the lunch hall and playground. It should never be locked away or be far from the child.
Supply staff should be able to quickly spot information about children with allergies and their medication.
Schools are now allowed to purchase their own spare adrenaline pens as back-up.
6. Be careful with treats and rewards
This is where mistakes often happen. The simplest solution, of course, is to reward children with non-food items such as own-clothes days, a designated “birthday hat” or movie afternoons.
Beware well-meaning Parent and Teacher Association (PTA) initiatives that either bypass school procedures or inadvertently ambush teachers at short notice to share snacks with a class. If your PTA provides ad hoc treats – coins at Christmas, chocolate bunnies at Easter, say – they should have a proper written protocol for doing so.
If you’re giving treats, go for lower-allergen items like Haribo, Kinnerton chocolate or popcorn. Even with these, parents of allergy kids should be allowed to check ingredients lists first.
Consider allowing kids with allergies to keep a stash of safe snacks at school.
7. Use available resources
Allergy UK and Anaphylaxis Campaign have great resources to help teachers and schools learn how to ensure children with allergies are safe and included in the classroom. Most important is to learn how to spot allergic reactions and know what to do next.
And then teach your students about it, too. You could, for example, use glitter to show how easily allergens spread.
8. Work with senior leaders
Classroom teachers can’t do it alone. Really, teachers need the back-up of their senior leadership team. So, please consider asking senior leaders to review the school’s approach to allergies.
The hallmarks of schools which are great at this include: having an allergen-management policy; agreeing individual healthcare plans for each child; being nut-free, including the staffroom; training all staff not only in how to use an adrenaline pen but also in how to spot the early symptoms of a reaction; welcoming an ongoing dialogue with allergy parents; and having a zero-tolerance approach to allergy bullying.
Anna Ford is a parent and writer