The injustice of school 'refusal'

Fran Morgan
Monday, 28 October 2019

When adults in the workplace experience trauma or anxiety, we expect our employer to be supportive. Our children, on the other hand, are expected to carry on regardless.

If they can't, and the school refuses to accept that they are legitimately unable to attend, then parents can be fined or prosecuted. Where's the justice in that?

There are so many unlawful practices going on in the education system at the moment that it’s hard to know where to start. They revolve mainly around gatekeeping shrinking budgets in schools and local authorities and ensuring that attendance and attainment figures look good for the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted.

Unlawful practices

That’s a pretty bold statement, so what are these unlawful practices? Off-rolling and illegal exclusions have been widely reported. However, what is less well-known is the large numbers of parents who are subjected to fines and prosecutions because their child is struggling to attend. This really hinges on whether an absence is authorised or not, and it’s down to the individual school leader to make this judgement, based on very vague, non-statutory advice from the DfE.

It’s a growing problem, compounded by a perfect storm of school budget cuts, delays in the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) process and difficulties accessing external mental health and specialist services. And the data simply doesn’t allow us to analyse what’s going on. There are 783,425 ‘persistent absentees’, but 40 per cent of these absences are recorded as unauthorised, with no known reason. That’s 318,854 absences – and it’s all the usual suspects: ethnic minorities, pupils on free school meals and pupils with SEND.

Struggling services, struggling children

Schools must use one of 23 absence codes when a pupil isn’t present, for both morning and afternoon sessions. Too often, children are being marked as present when they are not, to protect attendance figures. Those that are marked as absent are often given an unauthorised code (usually O for ‘other’ reasons), despite parents having struggled to secure medical evidence from a GP or consultant in order to authorise the absence. It’s no secret that waiting lists and service thresholds have risen to alarming levels, so it will also come as no surprise that children are struggling to carry on, for months if not years, whilst waiting for an assessment, diagnosis, therapy, a different school setting or maybe just some reasonable adjustments at their current school.

The SEND inquiry has heard that between £70-100m is being spent by local authorities in the tribunal process. This is money being spent on parents challenging refusals to assess for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or challenging the plan itself, with 89-90 per cent of parents winning these cases. Barristers have tweeted that cases are being adjourned two and sometimes three times because the court system simply can’t cope with the number of cases.

Supporting children

Compare this to adults in the workplace. If we experience trauma or anxiety which affects our day-to-day life as adults, we expect our employer to be supportive, showing understanding and offering flexibility – maybe time off work, or a reduced workload. We’re entitled to two weeks off if our GP deems it necessary to protect our mental health. Our children, on the other hand, are expected to carry on regardless. If they can’t, and the school refuses to accept that they are legitimately unable to attend, then parents can be fined or prosecuted.

Another worrying trend is the number of groundless accusations of abuse and neglect, whereby families are subjected to scrutiny from social services, simply because a child is absent from school. Safeguarding is necessary, of course, but many of these cases are subsequently found to be without substance and simply a result of low attendance being a red flag in safeguarding policies. It may be that schools are keen to involve other services so that if neglect is an issue, they have at least followed protocol; it may be that there are genuine concerns because the child isn’t being seen at school on a daily basis. However, too many parents are having to justify to outside services, as well as school, that their child’s low attendance is about anxiety and not abuse. The most extreme example of this is an accusation of Fabricating or Inducing Illness (FII), formerly known as Munchausen’s by Proxy, which is a crime so serious that even if absolved by a judge, it remains on a parent’s record for life.

The parents of children who are struggling to cope with school are already facing worry, financial hardship and a battle for support. They are then faced with scrutiny or legal action. Where is the justice in that?

Fran Morgan is the parent of a school ‘refuser’ who has worked in this area for 11 years. She set up Square Peg to affect national change and works alongside parent support group Not Fine In School.