PA0110

Written evidence submitted by PLACE Network, Charlie Waller Trust

  1. Introduction  

This document sets out the response from the PLACE national network for children and young people’s mental health parent and carer peer support programmes.  We have followed the format of the headline questions for ease of analysis by the committee.

We have summarised the views of our members, but to hear the challenges faced directly we offer to bring a group of parents and carers to meet with the committee privately.   We can also offer to give live evidence at a committee  - please contact us if you wish to discuss representation. 

  1. About us

The PLACE Network aims to develop, promote and sustain parent and carer support and involvement in children and young people’s mental health across the UK. The PLACE network is hosted by the Charlie Waller Trust which was set up 25 years ago by the family of Charlie Waller following his tragic death by suicide at 28 years old. Charlie Waller Trust helps people to understand their own mental health, to equip them to support themselves and those around them, and to empower them to talk more openly about the subject. Much of our work takes place in partnership with those with responsibility for young people - families, schools, colleges, universities, and employers.  Our work gives us insight into the challenges faced by pupils, students, teachers and families when their child is experiencing difficulty accessing education.

Our PLACE Network aims to connect existing parent and carer support groups/projects or those with an interest in developing one. We also want to ensure that the important role of parents and carers and the impact of supporting their child on their own mental health and wellbeing is included in Government Policy, service development and practice. As a member of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition our members have also supported their submission.

  1. In summary our parents and carers reported:

The government’s guidance  DfE document Working together to improve school attendance is  helpful and supportive.  We particularly  welcome the statement: 

Some pupils find it harder than others to attend school and therefore at all stages of improving attendance, schools and partners should work with pupils and parents to remove any barriers to attendance by building strong and trusting relationships and working together to put the right support in place.

 

The main problem parents experience is that schools are not yet following this guidance. 

 

We recommend rigorous promotion of this guidance to schools and councils and a robust  system which allows parents and carers to seek action where their experience does not accord with guidance .

 

Parents and carers have reported to us:

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Description automatically generatedThe Lived Experience Artist, Leanne Walker, has worked with the lived experience parents and carers and professionals research team at  Rethinking Education,  which produced the research report Happier during lockdown to illustrate their dream school – one that supports children’s mental well-being, emotional literacy, reduced academic pressure and attendance.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils.

 

PLACE supports peers with lived experience and professionals  supporting the parents and carers  of children with mental health challenges, including neurodiversity.  These children often face genuine, serious barriers to attending school and the parents and carers  need schools to work in partnership with them to overcome the barriers, make reasonable adjustments and enable to children to thrive in mainstream education or, if they cannot, to find the best alternatives for them.

 

We have considered disadvantaged pupils by thinking of our children and young people and their experiences that place them at a disadvantage.    Often “disadvantaged” is taken as socio-economic deprivation: poverty, poor housing etc.  Educational outcomes are closely linked to deprivation however many of the barriers to school attendance which our members experience exist in both affluent and less affluent households.  

Looked after children and young people face great disadvantage from the circumstances which lead to them being looked after.  Care experienced and adopted children may difficulty  regulating their emotions, trusting adults, and generally feeling safe.  This  puts them at far greater risk of exclusion unless schools adopt trauma informed models and teaching staff are trained to see these children’s ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses for what they – a coping method learned from earlier life experiences - not a personal attack or a child ‘flouting the rules’.

Our members who are neurodivergent or who have their own mental health challenges find it very hard to get support to overcome their child’s barriers to education.  They experience high levels of ‘parent blaming’ where the focus switches from trying to understand the child and their barriers to assuming the only thing the parent needs is early help or parenting classes.  Although some families benefit from Early Help or social care assessments, school attendance difficulties are not necessarily safeguarding or parenting problems.

There is a belief that well-educated, middle-class parents are better equipped to understand their young people’s rights and issues and to fight, or even pay, for better treatment (medical, social and educational).   Nevertheless they can also experience  the prevalent ‘parent-blaming’ culture that surrounds persistent absence from school, and be criticised for seeking what their child is entitled to with the expectation that reasonable adjustments are for  economically disadvantaged children .

Barriers to education attendance caused by poor mental health and/or neurodivergence affect young people of all ethnic backgrounds.  Although PLACE does not have primary data to differentiate between ethnicities  there is a wealth of published data that suggests some ethnicities suffer worse mental health than others on average. 

 

For those parents and children for whom English is not their first language they find it more difficult to make their needs understood and find it harder to access appropriate help - for example Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services and  talking therapies in their own language.

A recent paper in The Lancet makes a clear association between poor mental health/neurodiversity and absences from school and concluded that “Integrated school-based and health-care strategies to support young peoples’ engagement with school life are required”.

 

PLACE supports parents whose children struggle with mental health and neurodiversity.  This comes under the umbrella of “SEND” but unfortunately many schools do not realise or accept parental report about their child’s symptoms and struggles until there is a formal diagnosis for their child.  With waiting lists for  CYPMHS/CAMHS or for autism / ADHD assessments which are in some parts of the country years the child is a significant disadvantage for a long time.  

 

PLACE does not have comments to make around people clinically vulnerable to covid 19

PLACE accepts that for some young people mainstream schools are not suitable for their needs and alternative provision is required.  We found the Ombudsman’s key learning to be compelling evidence that Councils are failing in their duties to provide this.   For some pupils, appropriate alternative provision has been life changing.  For others, the same barriers to them thriving at mainstream school are replicated in alternative provision and then, unsurprisingly, the absences persist.

Although for many children and young people the impact of Covid has been detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing,  for a significant cohort not being in schools was  associated with improved mental health and wellbeing, suggesting that having a range of ways to engage with education would be helpful.

 

Research following COVID show  that one-third (33%) of children and young people reported improved mental wellbeing during the first UK national lockdown. Happier during lockdown reported improved relationships with friends and family, less loneliness and exclusion, reduced bullying, better management of school tasks, and more sleep and exercise.    The authors found an increase in wellbeing and decrease in risk of anxiety, and amongst the greatest improvements were for those who had poor pre-pandemic mental health and wellbeing.

 

Happier during  lockdown echoes the pre-pandemic YouGov survey from February 2018 commissioned by Barnardo’s which showed that school is the biggest source of stress for young people, with 65% of 12-16-year-olds reporting that school is their main cause of stress; by the age of 16, stress at school is a worry for 83% of children in England.

 

 

 

 

  1. How schools and families can be better supported to improve attendance, and how this affects pupils and families who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19.

 

All professionals, especially education professionals, need to LISTEN to the parents about how their children are experiencing school and what are the barriers to attendance (and furthermore what the barriers are to a happy school experience even with young people who do attend regularly.) 

 

Our members report a very high degree of ‘parent blaming’, professional arrogance and unwillingness to make adjustments that seem reasonable to the parents.  Many parents are told their child is “fine when they are in school” but the parents see and hear from the child how they are anything but “fine”.  Stories of bullying go unbelieved, requests for scribes or IT assistance for dyslexic pupils are refused, issues of sensory overload for autistic pupils are ignored.   We have many real-life examples we can share with the Education Committee in an informal meeting or at a formal hearing.

 

 

We recommend :

 

 

  1. The impact of the Department’s proposed reforms to improve attendance.

 

The consultation on the reforms mentioned in this call for evidence only sought the views of education professionals and not parents or young people.  This may explain the focus on enforcement and registration processes rather than moving forward an understanding about the barriers that lead to absences and working in partnership with parents to overcome them.   

 

The Statutory Instrument is focused on the process of Registration and does not offer any new solutions for removing barriers to attendance.

 

The draft guidance document perpetuates some of the practices and barriers that our members report making school attendance harder for our young people.  For example:

For many young people with neurodiversity or enduring mental health conditions the best “reasonable adjustment” for them may well be an agreed part-time timetable within their mainstream school. This guidance  prohibits that being put in place as a long term solution.

Existing guidance such as the 2022 DfE document Working together to improve school attendance is far more supportive, but schools are not yet following this guidance.  We recommend rigorous promotion of this guidance to schools and councils.  There should also be a system in place for parents and carers to challenge schools where the guidance is not being followed. 

 

We note the publication of  the Summary of responsibilities where a mental health issue is affecting attendance   but have note yet had time to consult with our members for their views – we plan to do so as soon as possible and should the committee wish to hear from us in person or further in writing we would be happy to submit our views on this new publication. 

 

One Government reform that is frequently mentioned by parents as being detrimental is the move to make all schools into Academies.  The Ombudsman also highlights this as an issue and gives several examples of the problems it causes.  Academies have no incentive to make reasonable adjustments for pupils struggling with their attendance when they can pass the problem to Councils.  This dynamic is even more damaging at post-16, where we have heard cases of young people with mental health challenges being rejected by every 6th College in their area.  This is further exacerbated by “Fit to Study” policies which effectively prohibit part-time attendance.

 

  1. The impact of school breakfast clubs and free school meals on improving attendance for disadvantaged pupils.

These initiatives can benefit  children or young people  from an economically deprived background, but  it is crucial that schools and colleges apply a personalised approach to vulnerable children,  working in partnership with parents to understand what helps and what hinders their child.    These initiatives could exacerbate barriers to attendance, for example:

 

  1. The role of the Holiday Activities and Food programme and other after school and holiday clubs, such as sports, in improving attendance and engagement with school.

Once again – a personalised understanding of each child’s vulnerabilities will help parents and teachers to determine whether activities such as these would help a child with attendance barriers.

February 2023