10,000 signatures reached
To: Nadhim Zahawi
Stop treating school 'refusal' as truancy
Create a new legal attendance/absence code that will measure the scale of school refusal by capturing social/emotional/mental health challenges, ensure a consistent school response and alleviate parents from the threat of prosecution.
Why is this important?
School refusal (sometimes known as school phobia or emotionally based school avoidance) is usually characterised by clinically diagnosable anxiety. It can result from any number of underlying issues including bullying, an undiagnosed/unsupported Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND) or a mental health problem. Living in poverty, insecure housing, being a young carer, fleeing domestic violence, having a chronic illness, suffering a bereavement are just some of the reasons a child or young person will struggle to attend school.
Whilst the underlying issue can present significant challenges in itself, the resulting attendance difficulties leaves families in crisis. A new 'mental ill health' code would start to measure the scale of this growing problem. We know there currently is not parity of esteem towards mental health challenges in children & young people who often find school does not believe them or their parents.
By introducing a mental ill health code, the numbers struggling due to a social, emotional or mental health need (be it emerging or chronic) would be captured. Schools would have agency to authorise these absences equitably just as with any other illness or physical injury. It would serve as a pastoral flag for schools and would ensure a consistent approach across all settings, drawing in support for children until the mental health challenges can be addressed. Crucially it would alleviate families from the threat of prosecution for 'unauthorised' absence.
The decision to authorise absence lies with individual schools who are governed by legal duties, attendance targets and OFSTED goals as well as duty of care for pupils' wellbeing. None of the current 23 attendance codes allow for the cause of school refusal is explored and appropriate support provided. Without medical proof that a child is unfit for school, absence is therefore often unauthorised and classed as truancy, a prosecutable offence.
Budget cuts, increased testing, delays in SEND assessments, higher thresholds for mental health support and difficulties securing and implementing Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs – which replaced the previous Statements of Educational Need), are all compounding the problem.
Whilst there is no official data on school refusal at present, the rise in home education, prosecutions and permanent exclusions are all indicators of a significant problem. A national Facebook group, Not Fine in School (NFIS) which launched in November 2017 now has over 27k members (May 2022) and growing at a rate of 800-1000 new members every month.
The results of a NFIS survey which ran in March 2018 and was completed by 1,661 families showed that:
• 92% of parents thought that their child’s school attendance difficulties were related to undiagnosed/unsupported SEND
• Despite this, 20% had been told not to bother applying for an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP) and a further 20% did not know what an EHCP was
• 55% parents were blamed for their child’s attendance issues
• 25% parents were reported to Social Services because of their child’s poor attendance
• 18.4% of parents had been accused of fabricating or influencing their child’s illness (also known as FII or Munchausen’s Syndrome By Proxy)
• 67% had been put under pressure to force their child into school, yet 59% said this had made the situation worse
Recently we carried out a survey across 10 days in February (2022) for our submission to the DfE Attendance Consultation. 1,960 families took part. Only 10% of respondents felt schools' responses to their child's persistent absence improved attendance, with 94% of families stating school had adversely impacted their child's mental health and wellbeing.
Latest research clearly links mental ill health and SEND with attendance difficulties, persistent absence and exclusion:
We are deeply concerned by proposals in the Schools White paper and new guidance which look set to increase punitive measures for families with more at risk of being successfully prosecuted and fined.
"The Bill strengthens the potential outcomes of a successful prosecution and extends the reach of the court to not only fine but to impose a custodial sentence."