For most children the first week in September marked the return to school after a long summer break. However, for a significant minority, this “back to school” week simply offered ‘more of the same’ in the struggle to understand how to help them access education. These children do not form a clearly identifiable group and are largely unseen and unknown.
In 2011 Freedom of Information requests revealed that 11,911 children aged under 16 had not received any education for at least a month. It is self-evident that non-attendance at school leaves children and their parents acutely marginalized, and we know that many of these children and their families have complex needs. What is less well understood is why so many children stop attending school. Nor is it widely understood that the issues are not limited to families in disadvantaged circumstances, but, like other aspects of special educational needs or mental health concerns, cross the boundaries of advantage and disadvantage.
For these children and their families, “complex” means there are many factors within any given situation of non-attendance, and the solutions therefore need a number of support networks to work together. Effective cross-agency working requires good systems of communication and the flexibility to understand that bureaucratic, inflexible systems do not work well for families in complex circumstances. It is no good to anyone if access to service A requires prior referral to service B, which has a10 month waiting list. The problems are exacerbated if no one takes any additional action whilst waiting for Service B to become involved. This is one reason why some of these children are shutting themselves in at home or roaming the streets for months, whilst parents are desperately trying to find a way through the system.
There is a great deal of concern about attendance. The government provides statutory guidance on a range of issues related to school attendance and parents who fail to ensure their child’s attendance may receive financial penalties. But what do you do, as a parent or a school, if a child refuses to attend despite their parents’ best attempts to get them there, not simply though non-compliance but because they find the whole experience too difficult? Faced with this situation, which is not uncommon particularly in young people aged between 12 and 15, schools and parents try a number of strategies and approaches. Just as parents face financial penalties, schools are operating within a performance management culture in which attendance figures are seen as a measure of school effectiveness. If there are genuine reasons for non-attendance, the school needs to use the measures at its disposal to identify the pupil as genuinely in need.
Given these dilemmas, schools and parents find ways round the problem. This in turn means that there are no overall figures that would reliably tell us how many children are in this position. Some are listed in the ‘persistent absence’ figures for a school, others are listed in the ‘medical reason for authorized absence' category. Some parents become desperate and take their children off the school roll and educate them at home. Schools, equally desperate, may even advise parents to consider this option.
So is there any help out there for parents? As part of the reforms to support for special educational needs, due to come into force in September 2014, all areas will need to publish a Local Offer. Local authorities will be required to provide, in one place, information about provision available for children and young people. This should include clear information for parents who have children out of school. The best advice could usefully draw on the guidance produced by ACE Education Advice CIC and could signpost the help available to parents through organisations such as Young Minds.
Catalyst Psychology is hosting a conference on 24th October: Inclusion Matters – Working together for change.