Written evidence submitted by West Northants SEND Action Group


As an action group comprising SEND parents with a range of experiences, with close links to many others in our local SEND community and working relationships with groups and individuals in other local authority areas working within the field of SEND, we have an excellent insight into persistent absence among children with SEND.


The causes of school attendance difficulties in children with SEND


The causes of persistent and severe absence among children with SEND are numerous. In some cases, there may be a clear medical cause, for example when the child has known complex medical conditions. Many children, however, are out of school due to mental health needs, which are often triggered or compounded by the child’s needs not being met while in school.


Schools are severely underfunded, often oversubscribed, and short staffed, with teachers who are overworked, stressed, and who have often received very little training in SEND. They also do not have the support of SEND specialists at the LA to draw upon in the way that they used to. It is no surprise, therefore, that many mainstream schools are failing to meet the needs of children with SEND. Gone are the days when schools had plenty of teaching assistants, with time and funding to support those children who need a little extra care and support. Additionally, schools have less and less flexibility in their approaches as times goes on, given the ever-increasing curriculum demands, excessive focus on testing, and constant push on school attendance both locally and nationally.


This crisis in our education system has led to a situation where an ever-greater number of children require an EHCP if they have any hope of their needs being met. Schools sometimes fail to make even minimal reasonable adjustments or implement simple recommendations made by professionals, such as educational psychologists and occupational therapists. They are often uncertain regarding their rights to offer gradual transitions and part time timetables to those who need it (and cannot rely on their local authority to support them by providing accurate information). The difficulty for families is, of course, that these same schools are often then unsupportive of these children getting an EHCP, which is no surprise given their already excessive workload and the fact that they end up having to fund some or all the child’s provision out of their already very strained budget. Parents find themselves fighting on multiple fronts: getting their child into a school that causes them distress, trying to get the school to support their child appropriately, and going through lengthy mediation and tribunal processes to secure the EHCP and provision their child needs so that they can attend. This damages parental mental health, which is not helpful for their child, either.


Sometimes the adjustments that children need from their school are relatively simple. Examples include: adjustments to uniform; items to support sensory needs such as ear defenders, fidget toys, seating aids etc.; slightly altered start and finish times and/or the use of different entrances and exits; reduced or altered homework expectations. Some schools make excellent reasonable adjustments for SEND pupils, but others fail to implement them. We have seen cases where this has led to children becoming dysregulated at school, with a meltdown then being handled poorly, and the child ultimately becoming traumatised by school and losing all trust in staff, due to a situation that is completely avoidable.


We must also highlight just how many children are at schools that are completely inappropriate for their needs, regardless of how much effort a school may put in. Our local authority has acknowledged that this is a problem here and we know that it is across the country, to varying degrees. There is a severe shortage of specialist places and maintained schools appear to provide places for children with too narrow a range of needs, failing to recognise conditions such as PDA or accept that mainstream schooling does not work for all autistic children who do not have a diagnosed learning disability or learning difficulties. It is no wonder that children struggle to attend schools that are wrong for them, and the risk of children suffering trauma at school is far higher when children are stuck in a school that is completely wrong for their needs. There are children in our area who have suffered school trauma and have been completely unable to return to any school environment; in some cases, children have been traumatised at a young age and years later are still out of school due to the trauma that they have suffered. This is a major flaw in the system, and not something for which we should lay the blame at the feet of the families are suffering at the hands of said system.


Current approaches when children are struggling to attend


It is apparent that local authorities and schools are often not working with parents, regardless of what Department for Education guidance states. Indeed, it’s clear that many teachers are completely unaware of the guidance and when schools reach out for support, they are not necessarily signposted to it. In fact, we have heard reports of the LA encouraging schools that reach out to utilise punitive measures in place of offering support to the family.


Approaches vary massively and can be very inconsistent, even within a single school, leaving parents feeling victimised, children feeling unsupported, and making the family and everyone working with them to question the validity of their actions. Academies appear to be a law unto themselves, not only with school attendance issues but also when it comes to their wider approach to children with SEND.


Implementing punitive measures when it comes to children with unmet SEND needs and mental health problems is ultimately missing the point entirely. We do not understand why the government, and local authorities, are placing so much emphasis on attendance figures when the simple fact is that improving the school system for all children, including those with SEND, would undoubtedly have a positive impact on attendance.


We frequently see statements regarding the link between attendance and achievement, sometimes complete with some statistics e.g. for every missed day of education, children are x% less likely to achieve their target grades. This is incredibly misleading and is a clear oversimplification but is being used to put pressure on children and parents. Correlation does not equal causation. A child with SEND is more likely to face a range of barriers to reaching their academic potential. A child with SEND is also more likely to struggle to attend school. Naturally, missing lessons means missing some learning opportunities however we would like to see a more realistic approach to education and attendance for SEND pupils, rather than the use of misleading statements to further the attendance agenda.


The fact is that current approaches are ruining people’s lives, damaging mental health and family relationships. Families are living in fear of the latest threatening letter or email. Many families are feeling like they have no choice but to deregister their children from school in favour of “elective” home education, to avoid finding themselves in court because they are no longer able to consistently get their child into school each day, or indeed at all (home education should be elective, but these particular families deregistering are often feeling forced). This seems an odd route to be forcing parents down, for a government that expresses concern about the increase in the number of children being home educated and the desire to introduce more stringent checks.


Other parents decide that they will keep their children in the system but start the often lengthy fight to get an EHCP, and it is not unusual for their primary motivation behind taking that step to be the need to get some level of protection against being prosecuted for their child’s poor school attendance. A child shouldn’t have to have an EHCP to have it acknowledged that they have SEND that can impact on their attendance, but this is the reality; indeed our LA clearly stated, when challenged on the lack of consideration of SEND when issuing fines, that they would consider the child’s SEND where they have an EHCP or social care involvement, with no apparent process to take into account any SEND unless the child meets these criteria. This puts parents in the position of having no choice but to seek an EHCP if they do not want to face endless fines. Again, this seems an odd approach when local authorities and the government complain that too many children have EHCPs. It’s important to understand that the increasing numbers are nothing to do with entitled parents and everything to do with the severe failings of the system, leaving parents with few options.


Preventing and supporting school attendance difficulties in children with SEND


When it comes to children with SEND and mental health needs who are struggling to attend due to their needs, we need to change the whole narrative. We need to stop talking in isolation about how we can improve their attendance and instead discuss how the system can be overhauled to meet the needs of all children, which will in turn improve attendance for children with SEND. Anxious, dysregulated children do not learn anyway so the current approach must change. There is no point churning out more school attendance guidance and changing the relevant legislation if the system remains so completely unfit to meet the needs of so many.


Focusing on attendance reforms misses the point when it comes to this group of children, and while we can see how breakfast clubs, free school meals and holiday and after school clubs may improve attendance and engagement for other disadvantaged groups, they are unlikely to make any material difference to most children whose attendance difficulties are due to SEND-related barriers to attendance. Their school must meet their needs before they can be expected to be able to attend school full time – it really is that simple.


February 2023