How all schools can help keep children with allergies safe

23 April 2024
One in 40 school children suffer from at least one serious allergy, and 20% of serious allergic reactions to food happen while a child is at school. This means schools need to be prepared for both preventing and dealing with serious allergic reactions.

The Benedict Blythe Foundation works to improve allergy awareness and training in schools. We spoke to the Founder Helen Blythe about what schools can do to ensure children with allergies have a safe and inclusive space to learn. 

What is the Benedict Blythe Foundation? What do you do? 

We founded the foundation as a legacy in memory of my son Benedict, who died in December 2021, when he was five years old. The foundation does a couple of things. First, it supports children to have really positive connections with learning and finding their confidence and value in the world. Secondly, it focuses on creating safe school environments for children with allergies and asthma. We do that through lobbying for legislative change as well as creating and bringing together practical tools to bridge gaps. 

How well-equipped are schools generally in dealing with allergies and serious reactions? 

It's very much a postcode lottery, which in our view, isn't something that should be the case in 2024. We know that around 7-8% of children have an allergy - the equivalent of a couple of children in every normal-sized classroom. It's the most common chronic condition among children. It's also one of the few chronic conditions that has the potential to be fatal within minutes. 

All of the stats support this being a very important issue that we should be looking at because of the combination of prevalence and potential severity. Yet the research consistently shows that there isn't enough done from a policy perspective. 

Last week, we published findings from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which showed 69% of schools do not have all recommended allergy safeguards in place, and among the remaining schools, there’s huge variance in terms of access and content. 

We found that 70-80% of schools do not train on what food allergy is, inclusion or the impact of allergy on pupils. Also, more than half of schools provide no training in managing allergies in school or on trips. So, we still have a long way to go. 

What safeguards do schools need to have in place? 

We say all schools should have an allergy policy in place. This should include an individual health care plan for all children with allergies, including those who may get a poorly tummy after consuming dairy all the way up to pupils who need to carry an auto-injector around. 

We also want to see all schools receive training that covers how to respond in an emergency and to be equipped to do so, with a spare auto-injector pen or multiple pens on site. 

It’s also very important for everyone to have an understanding of how to prevent an allergic reaction from happening. Only 4% of respondents in our recent teacher survey said they had received prevention training, which is very worrying. Auto injectors are an essential tool to have but they can’t always be relied on to save a child’s life. So, prevention is the most important way to keep children safe. That's what we're asking for in terms of the must-haves.  

The longer list of what good practice looks like includes things like having a designated allergy lead, having allergy as a tick box on every risk assessment, and practising emergency response scenarios, as you would with fire drills. This is all covered in the Schools Allergy Code, which I’ll talk more about. 

I think in an ideal world, we also think about a child's emotional well-being, considering what it's like to be the child who is sitting at a separate table unable to enjoy the same food as their peers. It’s about inclusivity as well as, of course, safety. 

You advocate a whole school approach for protecting children with allergies. What does that mean in practice? 

A whole school approach means that everybody in the school has an awareness of allergies, their role in mitigating the risks, and how to respond in an emergency. For example, that means if you’re in charge of procuring, you have allergies in mind when making orders or if you’re a playground monitor, you know which children have allergies. 

At the moment, the legal requirement is that there's one person on site who has first aid training in anaphylaxis and administering an auto-injector in primary schools. But schools are often large buildings with lots of students. That means providing training beyond just the First Aider or Teacher is a really important thing. All staff play a role in keeping the child safe. 

Where can schools turn to for advice and guidance? 

The Schools Allergy Code is a free-to-access resource we created together with The Allergy Team and ISBA to help schools keep pupils with allergies safe. It clearly lays out what schools should be doing, where there are gaps, and what good looks like. A couple of local authorities and some MPs have shared it within their constituencies, urging schools to adopt it, while the Under Secretary of State for Education has recommended that it be something all schools look at. 

There’s also a lot of useful information and tools put together by other allergy organisations, so we created an information centre on our website to bring it all together in one place. One of the things you’ll find there is a model allergy policy - an online editable template that schools can use to help protect children without having to reinvent the wheel. There’s also, for example, a statutory guidance process map on there around how to develop an individual healthcare plan - something we need to make sure we have in place for all children with allergies. 

Why is there such limited awareness about allergic reactions among the general public? 

As allergies are more prevalent in children, more young people will grow up now knowing someone with an allergy and will understand the need to keep them safe. My daughter’s friends are very aware of her allergy and are really loud advocates for her safety. So if someone brings in a different brand of oat milk, they would say, ‘No, no, no, she can't have that one’. I think the weight of responsibility that children often feel for keeping their peers safe isn't focused on as much as it should be. We have a generation of children who will grow up into allergy-aware adults. 

But there's still a large proportion of the population who grew up in a world where it was relatively rare to have an allergy. And that can make it really challenging to understand the severity of it or how to manage it.  

Some people have a misconception about milk allergies, for example, not understanding that this also means restrictions on things like butter. I would love to see a point where there is education in schools around all parts of food - not just allergies - as some of the lack of knowledge people have comes from not understanding food properly and where it comes from. I think that'd be a really positive change for the future. 

Your foundation runs some of its own educational programmes. Can you tell me about that side of your work? 

My son Benedict developed a strong passion for learning and joined Mensa at the age of four. To nurture his curiosity, we did lots of outdoor learning and learning through play rather than just using worksheets. We wanted to figure out how to support other children and families in a similar way, regardless of what their talent or interest is. 

We collaborated with TV Garden Designer Adam Frost to create a woodland learning area. Here, children engage in bulb planting, construct bug hotels, and learn about various woodland flowers through educational signs. Over the summer holidays, we did lots of community events around storytelling, where children developed their confidence in telling stories through creative and fun mediums like music, art, and puppetry. We've also supported children talented in specific areas, like cooking or karate, to secure funding to continue their journeys. 

If there was one key message you could share with schools, what would it be? 

That would be the importance of prioritising the issue of keeping children with allergies safe. We understand it’s really difficult for schools to prioritise anything amongst the thousands of different requirements they have to juggle, but this is just so important. In schools, 30% of allergic reactions take place in children with no known history of allergy. That means all schools have to be prepared to deal with severe reactions because if they’re not, the outcome could be catastrophic. So let’s make and keep allergies a priority! 

Read the Benedict Blythe Foundation's newest research: the REACT Report.