Government consults on regulatory framework for schools
A comment piece by VCF – 29 July 2022
VCF – The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK is astounded at proposed penalties to be handed out by schools, for children who fail to attend for whatever reason; which will lead to fines and prosecutions for many parents, some of whom are already known to local authorities for Section 47 or 17 support per the Children Act.
In addition, it seems likely that these proposals will further criminalise black and minority ethnic children and families, specifically those subject to exploitation or disadvantaged by health considerations.
In the White Paper ‘Opportunity for all; strong schools with great teachers for your child’ the government set its vision for schools, and is consulting those working in the education sector around the regulatory framework for fines and prosecutions linked to attendance. Parents have not been specifically included within this consultation, yet there is a myriad of concerns for families making decisions on behalf of their children in accordance with their rights.
For families supported by VCF, current practice is increasingly delivered outside of stated procedures, guidance or laws, meaning many children have been failed by the system set up to safeguard and protect them.
Families not consulted on measures that affect responsibilities and children’s rights.
VCF offers a consolidated response on behalf of those families who are most likely to be adversely impacted by regulatory measures around fines and prosecutions, seemingly without a full grasp of the issues that have led to children either not-in-school, de-registered from school, or enrolled at school with barriers to attendance.
This response is informed by our independent advocacy service for children, young people and families involved with statutory agencies, primarily children’s social care. The plight of these children and their families has become all too visible as a consequence of poor, inappropriate, or unlawful safeguarding practices, and cannot be ignored.
We speak specifically of those discriminated, including institutional racism – across a range of safeguarding priorities – that has forced many parents to consider wider education options for their children.
Of course, many parents will speak emotively as to the reason why they are compelled to keep their children out of school. For these children and families, it is simply about love.
“We understand our children’s needs more than the teachers who step in with little to no understanding of the complex needs arising from having a child with special educational needs.”
“I myself have a child who is unable to fully function within a mainstream school environment. The screeching of excitable peers, the multiple conversations within a class of 30, constant distractions, a multitude of sensory stimuli. Yet, outside of the classroom, my child has the reading abilities of a 7-year-old (she is 4), eagerly speaks English and Japanese, and has exceptional learning capabilities as seen by her private tutor”
“Within Mainstream (on the days she was more able to attend), she was deemed as being the problem, her sensitivities labelled as a weakness by a school system which said she should simply cope like all children thrust into the system.”
“It is not because of parental neglect or uncaring attitudes towards our children which results in school absences soon to be punishable by law. It is because we love our children that we are unable to force them through a school system which actively seeks to punish those who are sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of their peer group.”
Black children are disproportionately represented within alternative provision, as a result of zero tolerance behaviour policies leading to permanent exclusion, with little access to formal education. Some are eminently capable and often gifted according to prior school reports. Others may be exposed to exploitation and criminalisation for whom the safeguarding response is sadly lacking. These children have long been ignored or overlooked for support.
There is a suggestion that alternative provision will be included for attendance reporting, yet many children attending pupil referral units (PRUs) seemingly do not have formal timetables or required to attend full time. Children that attend PRUs may still be enrolled at a mainstream school. Who or what records their attendance; and what caveats would there be for this cohort of children?
Without acceptance of the harsh realities facing numerous children and their families, how can we advocate for changes that will see prosecutions for parents unable to fund their own support, leading to child protection measures for their children. A further increase in children taken into care cannot be sustained or managed, by services that have become too impotent to deliver quality services for children and their families.
This is the basis on which the framework for fines and prosecutions must be considered, in getting closer to the desired 100% target for attendance put forward by Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner; an unachievable and unrealistic target for every child, when there are multiple reasons for non-attendance, including those children rejected due to school capacity issues. Why then the push to penalise parents within a system that is already punitive on issues outside of parental control? Despite their individual challenges, the majority of parents understand the importance of education and will strive to ensure children are attending at school, which is reflected in the greater than 80% achievement to date.
Closing the gap between authorised and unauthorised absence
As has already been broadly acknowledged, legally required support – in the form of Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans – has been missing for many children, and has necessitated absence from schools that do not have the capacity or funding provision. Yet, there is little or no confidence that such circumstances will be exempted within the proposed rules and regulations.
There will also be further implications when recording children’s attendance at school, particularly where the definition for authorised absences becomes further reduced.
Faith-based requirements will need further consideration; as there already exists a disparity between what schools will authorise and what may be required by faith leaders or institutions which could result in parents having to choose between faith and education.
Regardless of choice, parents will run the gauntlet of being risk assessed as to the respective needs of their child which is already playing out within children’s services;
In a child protection conference, the social worker stated that the children come from a Jewish family, and that because the father supports this way of life more than the mother, it is emotionally harming the children. The social worker further commented that as the children’s father is more orthodox the children are being denied their natural heritage.
As a mother who has legal residency of the children, I am more traditional within the Jewish community and observe the key holidays only, in order to comply with and support the school in relation to my children’s education. Their father has court ordered contact, including certain Jewish occasions in alternate years, that exceed the school allowance.
Thus in complying with the school, I have been determined to be less ‘Jewish’ and disrespecting of my children’s rights and needs.
This is a ludicrous situation facing families – across all faiths and none – and why this will pose a challenge for schools to apply the proposed penalties on parents meeting their children’s needs and legal rights.
We know from parents supported by VCF that the provision for SEND children is patchy and inconsistent across local authorities; some will be accessing specialist support, others hardly any at all.
Black children are more prevalent to conditions such as diabetes, sickle cell and more recently, the impact of Covid-19 and covid-related issues for pupils and family members all of which will affect a child’s attendance. Many children will have been impacted by the unprecedented levels of family or parental bereavements, some of whom may have been orphaned during the pandemic. How can these children hope to achieve 100%, and how will these children and families be catered for within the proposed regulatory framework?
Children exploited or at risk of exploitation
What about children known to be criminally or sexually exploited within the school system. Children and families wishing to seek alternative education settings are not being supported or facilitated, with young people forced to return to the same environment on reduced hours and isolated, thus prohibiting emotional development.
Families known to children’s services not receiving required support
It is difficult to comprehend that a child for whom school attendance is low will not already be known to children’s services and referred for support. Further referrals would instigate new records for cases that are closed prior to being resolved.
D is on the school register and social care welfare is aware of the ongoing issues within the family. There will be duplication because D. is already on lists, and may show up multiple times and skew the data. Registers may be useful for data collection, yet bring no informative understanding of a name on a list.
D was moved down a set at school and received numerous detentions despite known safeguarding issues at home. With 61 days of absence, of which some were covid-19 related, 90% were not because D. was poorly.
The school holds rank of achievement (ROA) exams and pupils are tested on the knowledge they have gained over the previous 6 months. This enables the teachers to place students in the most appropriate set. We could all understand if D was moved down a set because her marks were affected due to her absence, however this is not the case. D had the same marks as another child and was moved down purely because of her lack of attendance. As already mentioned, the majority of D’s absences were due to very difficult circumstances surrounding her family. She is the youngest pupil in a 450-girl year group and was placed from set 4/9 to 5/9. Therefore her actual exam marks are a credit to her and should have been celebrated as it demonstrates how hard she has worked despite her absence. Instead D was punished for absences due to circumstances that were way beyond her control.
If exams are a capability test then they should be based on capability and capability alone. Regardless of attendance.
How can it be that a child’s education is so severely impacted, even with social care involvement?
Are we suggesting that social care interventions are ineffective for children who face barriers to attending school?
B was enrolled and registered at school and because they didn’t obey the law, my child was put on a reintegration plan. B had no option but to stay home with me for 7 months. What would this [proposed] register have identified in that situation? If I had decided to keep B home, i.e. taken the same stance as the school; who stated that ‘B is not coping at school’, I would have racked up thousands of pounds and quite possibly a custodial sentence under these proposals.
B has a registered legal document and is entitled to the required support. Where’s the list that showed all the **** ups; a register for all the ineffective and pointless actions because agencies don’t do what they are supposed to do, by law, either wittingly or unwittingly.
What then is the solution?
We wholeheartedly support the overarching aim of improving school attendance for those opting for classroom learning, as access to education should be the priority for every child.
Following the public inquiry into child protection, in response to the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, a multi-agency approach was created to ensure that everyone works together to improve consistency of support for pupils and families, for that support to be available earlier and more focussed, and for appropriate measures to be embedded to improve the school experience.
This has not worked, due to lack of implementation of reforms and developments from Laming to Munro – at operational level – and the increase in concerns that have led to unprecedented levels of absence or removals from mainstream schools. We would advocate a return to the principles of Every Child Matters; to ensure that every child is able to grow and develop to reach their own potential.
VCF is supporting the Counting Children coalition – initiated by Defend Digital Me to focus on three key proposals which present a threat to children’s rights. Parents with SEND children, particularly, are also being represented by organisations such as Square Peg and Not Fine in School.
Thus, we urge the government to address our shared concerns, on behalf of the many children and families who will be particularly impacted by this regulatory framework.