School Q&A

Q - My child’s school is dragging my child over the threshold, and even attempted to drag out of my car. Is this acceptable or even allowed?

A – Even if we assume that the school staff are acting in good faith, it's simply not acceptable to be dragging a child out of the car. In fact, man-handling of any kind is unacceptable and contrary to common safeguarding principles. In most schools and educational settings, I would expect it would be against the employee's Code of Conduct to be making physical contact with a pupil, not least a distressed one.

In addition to the above, the fact that the school is advising the parent to drag the child out of the car suggests that the school has very poor understanding of safety, and of mental health per se.

For me, all of this raises alarm bells. The school's approach is detrimental to the child's health and well-being. Moreover, staff conduct could be investigated and be disciplined. 

You as a parent would have every right to raise this as an immediate safeguarding complaint, following the steps in the school's Complaints Policy. Alternatively, if the child has an EHCP, it might be worth first discussing the matter with the caseworker. They also have duties in this situation.

Q - My child’s school attendance is being affected by anxiety/mental health issues. The school is refusing to authorise their absences.

What can I do?
 

A - General Background

School registers are a legal record of pupils’ attendance, for all children on roll, from Reception year group upwards. When children are absent from school for any reason, their school has a duty to determine whether their absence is “authorised” or “unauthorised”. The vast majority of children’s absences in any school will be authorised. This means the school has determined that their absences are legitimate, reasonable and unavoidable. There can be no legal sanctions (penalty notices, prosecution) for authorised absences. Ultimately, the decision to authorise any absence sits with the headteacher. They have the discretion to decide whether or not any child’s absence should be authorised. In practice, this will likely be delegated to another member of staff.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has had a profound impact on health and, consequently, on school attendance. Over the last few years, schools have found themselves under enormous pressure to raise their overall attendance  figures. In some instances, this is leading to policies which take a hard line. This includes, in some settings, refusing to authorise absences for health issues.

What you can do!

Generally speaking, children who are not well enough to attend school - whether through physical health issues, mental health issues or both – should have their absences “authorised”. This has always been the case and this position is supported by the various DfE guidance documents for schools. Over 50% of all pupil absences in England relate to ill health.

The document “Working Together to Improve School Attendance” (May 2022) states the following:

“Schools must record absences as authorised where pupils cannot attend due to illness (both physical and mental health related.” (Paragraph 219, Page 58)

If you are in a situation whereby your child’s school is not authorising their absences, you have the right to challenge them. In the first instance, check the school/academy’s Attendance Policy. This policy should include information relating to absences through ill health. It should also clarify what sort of absences will be authorised and which might be deemed “unauthorised”.

Request a meeting with the school to discuss your child’s well-being, health and school attendance issues. Use the meeting as an opportunity to ask why absences aren’t being authorised. You can signpost the school to official DfE guidance, such as that quoted above. If the school still won’t authorise your child’s absence, they are effectively saying that they don’t believe your child’s health issues warrant them being off school. This is contentious and worrying. This position might raise concerns about their understanding of mental health and their ability to support your family going forward.

At this stage, your next option is to escalate your concern in line with the school’s Complaints Policy. You should be able to read the policy on the school’s website. It will advise you of how to raise a complaint. Essentially, your complaint would be that you feel the school is inaccurately and unfairly recording your child’s absences as “unauthorised” and that they are not accepting that your child’s medical condition affects their ability to attend school. If the school remains sceptical, you might be asked to provide medical evidence for your child’s condition. You oughtn’t really be asked for this (See Question 2) but it might help you if you can provide documentation from a medical professional.

Q - My child’s school is asking for “medical evidence” in relation to their health and absences.

What can I do?

 

A - When a child is unwell – physically or mentally – it is for their parents/carers to determine whether or not they are well enough to attend school on any given day. Parents have a duty to inform their child’s school of any absence and the reason for it. This should usually be done on the first day of absence. Schools should set out their expectations around this in their attendance policies.

Schools should not routinely ask for “medical evidence” of a child’s illness. In usual circumstances, a school should accept the reason provided by the parent, thereby trusting the parent’s judgement. Guidance written by the DfE for schools is very clear on this matter: “In the majority of cases a parent’s notification that their child is ill can be accepted without question or concern. Schools should not routinely request that parents provide medical evidence to support illness. Schools are advised not to request medical evidence unnecessarily as it places additional pressure on health professionals…

Only where the school has a genuine and reasonable doubt about the authenticity of the illness should medical evidence be requested to support the absence.” (Paragraph 220, Page 58, “Working Together to Improve School Attendance”, May 2022)

Despite the above guidance, it is increasingly the case that schools, academies, EWOs and LAs are asking for medical evidence almost as standard procedure. This is particularly true of absences relating to mental health issues. If you find yourself in this position, first check your school’s Attendance Policy. Does it clearly state that medical evidence will be sought? You can also ask the school why they are insisting on medical evidence in your child’s case:

Do they not believe you?

Do they not feel the illness is authentic?

Do they not feel your child’s absences are legitimate?

Do they accept that your child is ill but dispute that they are too ill for school? 

Those questions might be difficult to ask but, ultimately, these are important matters. It’s a matter of trust, and relationships depend on trust.

You might find that you have asked the aforementioned questions but the school is still insisting on you providing evidence. Frustratingly, you might also find that evidence is actually difficult to acquire (GPs, for example, are not compelled to provide such evidence for schools). If you find that it is difficult to acquire the evidence to satisfy the school’s requirements, make sure that you let the school know that this is the case. Remember, the school is supposed to be supporting you, not working against you.

Finally, if you are unable to resolve this matter, you might need to escalate your concerns into a formal complaint. You should follow the school’s Complaints Policy, as published on their website. If the school is not following its own Attendance Policy or if you feel unfairly treated, there would certainly be a case to answer.

 

Q - I’m being threatened with penalty notice for my child’s absences. They are only absent when they are unwell.

What can I do?

 

A -  Penalty notices and other legal sanctions can only be issued to parents when their child hits the trigger for a certain number of “unauthorised” absences from school. The trigger number of absences can vary between different schools, academies, trusts and local authorities. The “unauthorised” absences could be all in one block of time or they might be the total of a number of separate periods of absence within a particular academic year.

If you are being threatened with a penalty notice, the implication is that your child’s absences are being recorded as “unauthorised” in the school’s register. In the first instance, it’s important to clarify how your child’s absences are being recorded. You can ask for a copy of your child’s attendance for the year to date. This will provide you with a document of what is being recorded. Remember, the register is a legal record, so it must be accurate. You will be able to see, for each half day session, whether any absences have been recorded as “authorised” or “unauthorised”.

In usual circumstances, absence from school due to ill health should be recorded as “authorised”. This is in line with DfE guidance. See also the answer (above) to Question 2:

“Schools must record absences as authorised where pupils cannot attend due to illness (both physical and mental health related).”(Paragraph 219, Page 58)

If you feel that your child’s absences have inaccurately or unfairly been recorded as “unauthorised”, it would be wise to challenge this at the earliest opportunity. See also the answers to Question 2 and 3, above.

In a general sense, penalty notices and other legal sanctions relating to non-attendance or persistent absence are only supposed to be enforced if parents aren’t engaging with school and/or if it is felt that the issuing of the penalty notice will change parental behaviour. This relates to old-fashioned truancy laws. In the instance of ill health absence, it’s absurd to think that a penalty notice will change behaviour. The only possible change could be for parents to send their child into school when they are unwell.

If you are being threatened with penalty notices, and if the school won’t “authorise” absences relating to your child’s mental health, it’s important to have a conversation with them. Ask them questions such as these:

  •  Do they think coding your child’s absences “unauthorised” will improve their mental health?
  • Do they think a penalty notice is a supportive or punitive measure?
  • How will a penalty notice address your child’s underlying needs?
  • What support will they put in place for your child’s well-being?
  • More difficult questions to ask or consider:
  • Why is the school not following the DfE’s guidance to schools by not authorising absences caused by ill health?
  • Is the school following its own Attendance Policy?
  • Is the school’s stance on this matter aligned with their published values (eg is it compassionate, caring, fair, kind, etc?), ethos and mission statement?

 

Q - My child Is struggling to attend school full time, due to their mental health. What are our options for doing things differently?

 

A -  

There are a number of different options which you might be able consider, depending on your personal circumstances and on your school’s policies, approach and provision.

In the first instance, if you have not already done so, request a meeting with your child’s school, to discuss their health, well-being, difficulties and overall situation. This might be with their class teacher, a head of year or key stage, the SENDCo, inclusion leader or a member of the school’s pastoral team. It’s  important that the school hears your concerns and understands holistically what your child is going through. If your child already has a SEND caseworker, a mental health practitioner or a EBSA practitioner, they will be able to offer advice and support you in any decision making.
 

Part-time or Reduced Timetables

One of the options – and this is used widely in schools around the country – is for your child to be put on a reduced timetable or a part-time timetable. This is a plan, agreed by both parents and school, for a child to attend on a less than full-time basis.

The reasons behind children’s struggles are varied and complex. A part-time timetable in itself will not address any underlying issues which cause your child to struggle to attend regularly. However, a reduced timetable can alleviate pressure and anxiety, as the child is not expected in school on a full-time basis.

Many schools, academies, LAs and trusts will accommodate requests for part-time timetables, although they are not compelled to do so. Guidance from the DfE advises schools that they have their discretion to use part-time timetables but that these must not be permanent arrangements. Specifically, guidance sets out that such an arrangement should be for “as short a time as possible”.

Part-time timetables can be successful in various contexts. They can be implemented when a child is struggling full-time in school or they might be used as tool for a child’s reintegration, after a period of absence. One of the benefits of a child being on an agreed part-time timetable is that their absences will be authorised for the sessions when they are not scheduled to be in school.

 

There are two particular pitfalls with part-time timetables which you should be aware of at the outset: 

Firstly, many schools expect to see the timetable progress in a linear way. For example, a child might attend for the first hour a day for a week, then the expectation might increase to the first two hours a day in the next week. The reality is that progress for any child is very unlikely to be linear. 

Secondly, as part-time timetables are not supposed to be long term, schools invariably set an end date early on. Quite often, such provision is capped at six weeks. The reality here is that the vast majority of children and situations will require the part-time arrangement to be much longer than that.

When it comes to mental health, a reduced or part-time timetable is more likely to be successful when all parties understand that the arrangement should be organic, flexible and carefully mapped out. It isn’t a race back to full-time education and “temporary” doesn’t have to mean six weeks. Patience will be absolutely pivotal.
 

Flexischooling

Flexischooling is perhaps less well-known than reduced timetables and it's certainly less widely implemented. It is, however, an innovative and proactive option of education which headteachers can agree to at their discretion. For an increasing number of families, flexischooling is proving to be a positive and successful arrangement which meets their children’s needs better than traditional full time schooling.

What is flexischooling?

Flexischooling is an agreed arrangement, between parents and school, whereby the child attends the school on a less than full-time basis. The school retains full funding for the child but the child spends their time between home and school. Flexischooling arrangements are indefinite. This is in contrast to reduced/part-time timetables which have to be temporary, and which are intended to lead to full-time attendance.

Many schools, local authorities and academy trusts have flexischooling policies. These will typically set out details relating to this type of provision. In brief, where a flexischooling arrangement is agreed, the parents and school enter a contract. The contract will set out the details, with terms which can be stipulated by the school's headteacher. A bespoke schedule will be drawn up. The terms of the agreement should have the child's best interests at heart and they should be reviewed regularly.

One of the advantages of flexischooling is that parents have autonomy over the shape of the days and times when their child is not expected in school. Those periods might be used for rest, recovery, learning, to engage in hobbies and other experiences...the options are almost limitless!

Of course, with this being an indefinite arrangement, flexischooling requires a family to have sustainable childcare plans in place. This might, however, be far preferable than the reactive arrangements which have to be put in place when a child is struggling to attend school full time.

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