Written evidence submitted by Hendricks

Barriers to school attendance are complex and intersectional. Disappointingly, the public discourse involving politicians and the DfE has been undifferentiated and headline grabbing, and media coverage too has displayed no nuance or depth, much less compassion with affected children and families, let alone a serious attempt at sourcing the little evidence that exists to explain this phenomenon. Lack of evidence is a fundamental problem, as is the idiotic application of standards and expectations of children that are not even met by adults in the workplace, such as 100% attendance.    

There is a woeful lack of structure in the debate about this issue. I will propose a way to structure  our thinking about school absence, and then offer evidence relating to two of the situations.
I suggest that the following distinctions are helpful in principle (recognising though the inevitable intersectionality):  

  1. Children with a chaotic, dysfunctional or even unsafe home environment, or those without an appropriate housing, living in poverty, etc. Their barriers to attendance are complex and are a combination of factors that include points 2. and 3. below.
  2. Children who when attending, feel safe enough in the school environment and are generally able to conform to expectations of the school system, thus engaging in curricular learning and making progress. The children live in ordinary circumstances (they have a home, a reasonably organised home life and ‘good enough’ care).
    However, there are factors in these children’s lives that make attendance difficult intermittently or for periods of time, that are more important than school attendance, or that arise because their carer(s)/family have conflicting care responsibilities. Examples are:
    a) They have an ongoing/chronic health problem that renders the child unfit for school at times but does not necessitate a doctor or hospital visit.
    b) There maybe illness or disability of family members, and the child is a carer or – if not – significantly emotionally impacted by the situation, and wishes to be with their family member for hospital visits, or when they are unwell at home. They may not be able to engage in learning when attending in such situations because they are worried.
    c) The child’s carers are also carers for other family members with high medical, mental health or other care needs, but without appropriate support options (or where present this may not always be appropriate to the situation) that would allow the child to attend school whilst the carer attends appointments, hospital visits etc. The child needs to come along, because they cannot be dropped off or picked up, or make their own way home and then be home alone until the carer returns.  
  3. Children who have developmental trajectories or have needs (SEND) that render the standard (or special) school environment unsuitable for them. Their barriers to attendance are feeling unsafe, scared, or being unable to conform to school rules, expectations and schedule. Their needs are not being met, and for some can never be met in such environments. When these children do attend, they cannot engage in learning in a way that achieves their potential. The current, standard school environment and behaviour approaches render these children at high risk of sustaining cumulative school-based trauma and typically – some sooner, same later – escalation to ever-increasing absence or permanent non-attendance. These children cannot attend. They and their families care and wished they would attend, but are at extremely worried, stressed and helpless faced with this situation.  


We would like to offer the following evidence relating to children and families that fall into groups 2 and 3 above, based our own experience over the past eight years with two children with barriers to attendance, and on professional experience as a paediatrician meeting families with SEN and disabled children every day.

Ad 2. Many of these absences (a, b) are unavoidable and require an approach that is nothing but supportive and compassionate for the affected child and for the family. Constructive and creative  solutions should be available to support these children as best as possible, and they should not have to carry the added burden of a threat of absence consequences.  Sadly, this is not the reality for many families, who may feel forced to send their child into school when they are unfit physically or emotionally, and who may face attendance pressure even when the child’s health condition is known. We have personal experience of being subject to harrassing school attendance procedures over regular absences due to our child’s chronic illness, which was well documented.
Absences due to situations described in c) put carers between a rock and a hard place. School expectations are often unrealistic and unforgiving (not ‘allowing’ a child to miss school because they will have to accompany the sibling to their hospital appointment, or insisting that this be organised around school time), as is the attendance policy of many healthcare providers, certainly at secondary and tertiary tier level. There non-attendance is penalised by automatic discharge from the service.
Families frequently cancel appointments they had waited for for many months because they are worried about penalties as the sibling’s school will not authorise the absence. Our hospital sends letters to schools pleading to authorise a sibling’s absence as not to jeopardise the patient’s health care. It is tragic that families are having to choose between absence penalties for one child and healthcare for another.

We refer back to the highly unrealistic and profoundly unhelpful expectation of 100% attendance that is placed on schools, and that in turn is passed on in most unhelpful ways to families and children.

Ad 3. This is a particularly tragic group of children whose barrier to attendance is directly caused by the education environment and exacerbated by unhelpful attitudes towards attendance.
Here we comment with the experience of eight years of negotiating education involving four schools and three years of EHCP procedures, for our two children, one (14y) with cPTSD (exacerbated by school trauma), generalised anxiety disorder and atypical autism, and the other (12y) with autism and periodic fever syndrome. During this time we have met many families with similar experiences, directly and through support groups.
We will not recount here in detail our own, astonishing past and ongoing experiences with the SEND system. A summary of child A’s situation shall suffice: Over three years the local authority has provided funds in excess of £30,000 for EHCP school support (and we have privately funded around £6,000 for professional assessments). None of these funds translated into support for the child. A has now been unable to attend and educational setting for nearly two years, 18 months of which she receiving no educational provision from the school or the LA. The LA are keeping her on roll at the school she cannot attend, and the school continues to receive maximum EHCP funding.

In summary, our conclusions here are:
The mainstream school environment is not suitable, in many different ways, for a large number of children that are neurodivergent and/or have additional needs and good/high cognitive ability. Understanding of their educational needs is frequently insufficient or absent, or does not translate into effective support in school. Targeted education provision for these children outside mainstream school is largely absent (the few SEMH and moderate to severe learning disability schools are not suitable for most of the affected children). The SEN system is completely unfit for purpose, with schools frequently not implementing effective support, local authorities largely failing to adhere to their legal duties as a default (or where timelines are adhered to, the output is incomplete or unacceptable) forcing parents to take legal action, and an equally dysfunctional remedial system (SENDIST, LGO).
Public funds haemorrhage to schools that do not implement the required support, to ineffective and self-serving pseudo-support systems, and to the LA’s legal defence of appeals the majority of which are upheld; SENDIST and LGO statistics are available. All the while, parents are doing their best to utilise the SEN labyrinth so that their struggling children receive support to enable them to attend and engage in formal education, but to little effect. Attendance and/or mental health deteriorate. Parents and schools then call for mental health support, that is not available, to fix the child until the child ceases to be able to attend at all, utterly broken.  And this tragedy unfolds under the threat of attendance prosecution.

There are many organisations and individuals doing amazing and insightful work around barriers to education. Prominent examples are the barriers to education projects of Spectrum Gaming (in progress ), Not Fine in School ( ) and SquarePeg ( ). This consultation just needs to listen to them, and to the parents’ experiences. Most of all, read this book: .  If anyone had recounted to us only half of the failures of the schools and the LA we have actually experienced through our two SEN children, we would not have believed that this was possible in a developed, Western country.

Closing comments:

The debate around school attendance has many flaws, the two main ones are:
- Lack of evidence underpinning the phenomenon. Reasons for school absence are not captured.
- At the outset the problem is largely located in the child and their family, as a choice. Where family support is mentioned, this is still based on this notion. Many suggestions of support for families are made without any understanding of the phenomenon. Where are the voices of the families? Read .
- Someone has to have the courage to accept that the current school system is creates barriers to formal education for a significant proportion of children. These ultimately manifest in mental health and attendance problems, which mutually perpetuate each other. This is where the effort needs to be directed.

The pressure on attendance enforcement that schools are now exerting on families is utterly, utterly unhelpful and must be reversed.

January 2023

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