Written evidence submitted by NASS (National Association for Independent Special Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools)


NASS is the National Association for Special Schools outside LA control.  We have nearly 400 special schools in membership that include Non-Maintained Special Schools (NMSS), Independent Special Schools, Special Academies and Free Special Schools.

Our written submission to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils will only focus on the following elements of the inquiry, as outlined in the call for evidence notice, as they are those aligned to our organisational remit.


Factors causing persistent and severe absence among pupils with SEND

By the time pupils are successful in gaining a placement at one of our member schools, many have large gaps in their learning due to their needs not previously metPupils often present with very poor attendance rates, often months or years of school refusals or part-time timetables or unelected home schooling by desperate parents and carers.  However, a significant number of these pupils often quickly find themselves with enviable attendance records within months or even weeks of starting their placements at special schools.  There isn’t any magic recipe for this, it’s just that special schools finally meet the needs of the pupils; whether it is social, emotional, physical or other type of need with well trained staff, reasonable adjustments and co-production with parents and carers.

Families of children and young people (CYP) with SEND all too well understand the importance of school attendance.  We would like to refer the Committee to findings back in 2021 by the National Network of Parent Carers forums that noted that the two key issues that were prevalent in the answers provided by local Parent Carers Forums, who responded to their survey asking What are the main reasons that children with SEND are missing school in your local area?

The findings support the evidence that our member schools witness in pupils when placed at member schools.  Many CYP present themselves with a history of several failed placements or large periods with limited or no access to any formal education.  Our own NASS survey of parents in 2017 showed that for 70% of the 306 respondents, their child’s current placement was at least their third and for 20% it was at least their 5th. These failures are more often than not a result of anxiety, mental health and failure to have the right support and their needs met in previous placements. 

Unfortunately, although not universal, there is a lack of flexibility, capacity or understanding in terms of support needed for CYP with SEND within the mainstream sector, and an increasing lack of capacity in the system for pupils to access education that meets their needs through a suitable placement within a special school.

We are concerned that the SEND and AP Green Paper still fails to acknowledge that workforce and capacity has an impact on the attendance and engagement in formal education of many SEND CYP and that mainstream pupils with SEND are still more likely to spend the majority of their time at school separated from the rest of the class, or in isolation rooms. Unless government tackles the workforce crisis in education, it cannot expect to improve the attendance of SEND pupils.

How schools and families can be better supported to improve attendance of SEND pupils

In terms of support for our schools specifically, we note the importance to have freedom to decide on the suitability of placements.  That is, that our schools are still able to consider if they can meet the needs of a child or young person without a ‘duty to admit’ is vital to ensure that the pupils attend the right placement suitable for their needs.  We are concerned that Government will seek to focus on locality rather than suitability of placements in any policy changes as part of the SEND and AP Implementation Plan.

The mountain of evidence shows a clear correlation between lack of suitable, trained workforce and capacity within schools and therefore unmet need that influences behaviour, attendance and attainment. We can’t continue to consider these issues in different silos. It is therefore important that Government finally recognises that to improve attendance of CYP with SEND, they need to invest in a modern SEND system that focuses on meeting needs rather than sanctions, fines and parent blaming. 

We would therefore ask this committee to recommend that Government seeks to set out some clear strategies to tackle the ever-worsening workforce crisis within our education system, as well as the crisis in terms of access to therapy and mental health support for pupils, again impacted by lack of investment by government in a clear and robust workforce strategy.

For families, the frustration and impact that poor attendance due to unmet need for SEND pupils is profound.  It impacts the whole family.  It has an economic impact.  It has a social impact.  It has an emotional impact.  Our schools witness daily the emotional relief by parents and carers that their CYP is finally in a place that understands and supports their pupils.  Families need support in challenging the system when the needs of their CYP are not met.  The proposals within the SEND and AP Green Paper to introduce compulsory mediation as a step before tribunal for SEND school places just places an extra burden for CYP and their families to get access to the education they need and deserve.  This will only serve to lengthen the time that CYP whose needs are not met will be out of suitable education.  At present it takes 12 months to get a SEND tribunal date.  This is unacceptable.

NASS is more than willing to provide evidence of real impact on the attendance and attainment of children and young people who were previously school refusers who now attend our schools and we are at presently conducting research into Delivering Value in SEND. We will happily share the findings with the Education Select Committee when the final report is published.

The impact of the department’s proposed reforms to improve attendance of SEND pupils

Like many others within the SEND sector, we are concerned that the proposed reforms are approaching the issue around SEND attendance level with a ‘stick’ approach.  That is looking at the issue from the perspective of a problem that can be changed by placing sanctions and targets for parents, carers and schools, rather than an understanding of the needs of children and young people.   

Proposals, such as introducing a new national framework for the use of fines for absence for example, will do little to support the parent/pupil/ school relationship and in fact for many SEND families can only further damage that vital relationship and co-production of strategies to support the CYP. 

Proposals around improving joined up working between schools, local authority attendance services, early help workers, and wider local services is always welcome, however we are concerned that with new regional and local structures being announced e.g. Integrated Care Boards, DfE regions and possible proposals for regional and local structures within the imminent SEND Implementation Plan means that without some overarching thinking, services will continue to work in silosWe are also concerned that the proposals identify relationships focused on policing and performance figures rather than improving and working together to removing the barriers that impact better attendance. 

February 2023