Written evidence submitted by Contact, the UK charity for families with disabled children

Section 1: Summary

1.1   Contact is a UK charity which provides a range of advice and support to families with seriously ill and disabled children.  Last year, we helped 196,000 families navigate the education, social care and health system. Our specialist education helpline, which receives funding from the Department of Education, constantly sees that school absence is one of the top issues raised by families with disabled children.

1.2   This response focuses on the relevant Special Educational Needs and Disability aspects of the Inquiry.

1.3   Contact welcomes the Committee’s Inquiry into Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils.  We are pleased that the Committee is asking specific questions about what factors are causing persistent absence for pupils with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

1.4   One of the most frequent issues reported by our education helpline advisers is the absolute insistence by many schools on full attendance by all children. For many families with children who have SEND 100% attendance is an unachievable target due to their child’s health needs.

1.5   This means that families are often faced with the additional pressure of repeatedly providing evidence of their child’s health condition or disability and often are confronted with the threat of fixed penalties or prosecution.

1.6   Many parents  feel their only option is to home educate as schools become less willing to make reasonable adjustments in relation to attendance that the Equality Act 2010 demands

1.7   Contact is an active member of the Special Educational Consortium (SEC) and has contributed to their response to the call for evidence. We are in agreement with SEC’s response and ask that their evidence submission be considered as representing our standpoint.

1.8   In addition to SEC’s response, we would like to highlight further evidence that has come to light through our education helpline.

1.9   Recommendations:

1.10           An increased focus on inclusion, inclusive practices within the school environment and culture and an acknowledgement that school absence is often caused by unmet need and that schools need to ensure appropriate provision for those with Special educational needs. To this end, schools need to be aware that the duty to make reasonable adjustments is anticipatory and so where SEN is suspected adjustments need to be made.

1.11           We would like to see the publication of an attendance code of practice. This could include guidance on best practice around issues such as bullying and school anxiety, in the context of the Ordinarily Available Provision framework.

1.12           The government’s Working Together Attendance Guidance should be updated to state that the Equality Act 2010 must be complied with rather than merely should be considered as it currently reads.

1.13           A move away from the punitive approach to persistent absence. To this end we would like to see schools cultivate dynamic working relationships with parents that are built on respect and compassion. 

Section 2: Response to Question 1: The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils


2.1 It is clear from a sample of Contact’s helpline calls relating to school attendance that the biggest factor contributing to absence for children with SEND is unmet need. Just under 40% of the calls received by our helpline are made by parents who feel that their child’s needs are not met or supported by the school or the local authority and that it is this which is causing the child’s absence. (Contact – unpublished from internal database 1/6/22 – 31/12/22).

2.2 Moreover, a focus needs to be had on improving the school environment. Many parents report that the school environment and culture is detrimental to their child’s needs. With schools under pressure to strive for high attendance from both OFSTED and the Children’s Commissioner[1], schools are chasing attendance figures at the cost of pupil well-being and good relationships with parents. To rectify this, we suggest a culture shift, identifying the need to look beyond the quantitative figures collected by OFSTED and focus on the review and evaluation of how schools are supporting pupils with barriers to attendance. We would suggest an avenue of research documenting good practice in schools which are achieving high rates of attendance for pupils with SEN.

2.3 We know from Contact’s Education Helpline that a lot of difficulties with attendance relate to non-inclusive practices in schools. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recent report entitled Children’s rights in Great Britain emphasised the need for increasing inclusive practice in education, recommending securing of “the long-term sustainability of SEND…provision…by ensuring that teachers and other school staff are equipped to support the needs of children with SEND”. We would support the implementation of this recommendation.[2]

2.4 Contact is also concerned about the number of schools relying on part-time timetables which are often being used as a means of managing behaviour and SEN. While we agree that part-time timetables are appropriate and helpful in some cases where pupils have high anxiety, there is a disjuncture where school condoned absence as a means of behaviour management is acceptable but when a parent keeps their child out of school they are faced with prosecution.


Section 3:  Response to Question 2: 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.

3.1 Contact agrees with SEC’s response to this question and asks that their evidence response be considered as representing our standpoint.


Section 4: Response to Question 3: The impact of the Department for Education’s proposed reforms to improve attendance

4.1 (DfE,2022: Section 2) Expectations of schools -Contact welcomes the repeated refrain that attendance should not be seen in isolation and the acknowledgement of the importance of building and fostering strong relationships with families. However, despite the Government’s Working Together to Improve School Attendance Guidance, schools and local authorities are often not forming productive relationships with families. For instance, we know from our helpline that parents are repeatedly asked for the same medical evidence so that the child’s absence can be authorised. This medical evidence often comes at a price, with GP letters costing up to £50. This practice of schools requiring medical evidence contradicts the government’s Guidance on Mental health Issues Affecting School Attendance. Indeed, the guidance states “There is no need to routinely ask for medical evidence to support recording an absence as authorised for mental health reasons.”[3]

4.2 Moreover, a small sample from Contact's Education Helpline has shown that over 10% of the calls the helpline received about attendance were from parents who have felt threatened by their child’s school. Parents are reporting that they have been threatened with legal action, safeguarding interventions, and prosecution. One parent told a helpline adviser that they had been made to cry after receiving a call from the head teacher about their child’s attendance. (Contact – unpublished from internal database 1/6/22 – 31/12/22).

4.3 Additionally we know from our helpline that parents are still facing threats from automated letters concerning their child’s low attendance even when the absence has been authorised.

4.4(DfE, 2022: 2.18): Contact welcomes the reference to the Equality Act 2010 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the Government’s Guidance needs to state that the equality act 2010 must be complied with rather than merely should be considered as it currently reads.  

4.5(DfE, 2022: 2.43-44) Contact would like to see a reference to the Flexi-schooling approach in Government Guidance. The pandemic has highlighted the benefits of flexi-schooling for some pupils with medical needs and for others with anxieties about being in school. We agree with flexi-schooling where it is in line with the wishes of the parent and wellbeing of the child. We would like to see a specific attendance code allotted to flexi-schooling.

4.6 Indeed 5% of the calls received by our helpline regarding attendance were in cases in which the school had refused to send work home for the pupil despite the pupil’s desire to keep with up schoolwork. (Contact – unpublished from internal database 1/6/22 – 31/12/22). These rigid policies only exacerbate the stress felt by pupils with SEN unable to attend school. Flexi schooling will help to alleviate such additional stress.

4.7(DfE, 2022: 4) Section 4, Expectations of Local Authorities: Contact is concerned, as while the guidance sets out a plan for multi-disciplinary support, the methodology of the School Attendance Support Teams is not specified.

4.8 Due to this lack of specificity, we are concerned that the methodology of the school attendance support teams will diverge in each locality. Our education helpline advisers consistently see the discretion with which each local authority operates. For instance, some local authorities and schools have detailed policies on how to support children who have Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) whereas other local authorities and schools have nothing.

4.9 We would like the guidance to make it mandatory that all schools and/or local authorities should publish guidance to support pupils who have EBSA.

4.10 Moreover, contact would like to see more resources given to support pupils in year seven, as we know from our helpline that this educational phase of transition is often when attendance issues start to arise which are associated with the greater demands of secondary school.

4.11(DfE, 2022: 6) Section 6, Attendance legal intervention: Contact welcomes the statement that first steps in attending to school absence should be to understand the barriers to attendance and provide support. However, we disagree with a focus on a punitive approach to attendance. Contact would welcome change in the law away from  this approach. We also ask the government what evidence informs the approach which pushes families with long-term absence towards legal action. Research shows that parents and families are at risk of suffering significant stress when facing the pressures of LA – mandated fines, combined with the attendance challenges experienced by their child and this is often exasperated due to the power imbalance between the family and professionals (Munroe-Burrows, 2020; Epstein, Brown and O’Flynn, 2019). 

4.12 Indeed evidence from Contact's Education Helpline has shown that over 10% of the calls the helpline received about attendance were from parents concerned and anxious and about being fined when in all cases their child’s absence was not under their control but was due to their child’s SEN.  (Contact – unpublished from internal database 1/6/22 – 31/12/22).


Section 5 Question 4: The impact of school breakfast clubs and free school meals on improving attendance for disadvantaged pupils. 

5.1 Contact accepts that such provisions can ease some of the financial pressures on families and can positively contribute to better attendance rates. However, we are aware that some disabled children either cannot access or eat the free school meals provided due to dietary restrictions or sensory processing difficulties.

5.2 In such cases we would encourage the government to extent the holiday supermarket vouchers scheme so that parents can still benefit from free school meals and the positive correlation between free school meals and school attendance can continue.


Section 6 Response to Question 5: 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.


6.1 While Contact accepts that such provisions can ease some of the financial pressures on families and can positively contribute to better attendance rates, it is important to acknowledge that many disabled children are excluded from these activities in the first instance. This is due to lack of funding for additional support to meet their needs.

6.2 Therefore, for any positive correlation between after-school clubs and improving the attendance of disabled children or those with SEN to be achieved, all extracurricular activities would need to be fully inclusive.

February 2023

[1] Children's Commissioner, “Education history and attendance report” December 2022.

[2] Equality and Human Rights Commission, Children’s rights in Great Britain: submission to the UN (2023) p.68 

[3] Department of Education, “Summary of responsibilities where a mental health issue is affecting attendance” February 2023, P.10