The DfE is failing children who struggle with school attendance

by Square Peg & Not Fine In School

The DfE is failing children who struggle with school attendance

by Square Peg & Not Fine In School
Square Peg & Not Fine In School
Case Owner
We are two parent-led organisations focused on school attendance difficulties. Visit us at &
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Square Peg & Not Fine In School
Case Owner
We are two parent-led organisations focused on school attendance difficulties. Visit us at &
Pledge now

This case is raising funds for its stretch target. Your pledge will be collected within the next 24-48 hours (and it only takes two minutes to pledge!)

In a nutshell

There are a growing number of children and young people who struggle with school attendance. This may be due to unmet Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND), bullying, trauma, physical illness or severe anxiety. School attendance difficulties (commonly and controversially referred to as ‘school refusal’) are often poorly understood, are compounded by current challenges within the education system, and often have severe consequences for both child and family.

We are fighting back and exploring a legal challenge to the Department for Education. If you believe young people and their parents should not be penalised if they struggle with school attendance, please contribute now and share this page with friends, family and on social media. 

What do we want and how much do we need to raise?

We believe that the DfE is failing in its duty of care since it is unable to identify this group of children, to track how they are being supported or to monitor trends. It is also failing by allowing schools to make their own judgement about the impact of a child's difficulties and by utilising a system of 23 attendance/absence codes that are not fit for purpose.

We want to raise funds to instruct our legal team at Irwin Mitchell LLP and a specialist barrister to provide us with advice on whether we can legally challenge the Secretary of State for Education through a process called Judicial Review.  

We will be asking the team to investigate all possible legal grounds and remedies and in particular to investigate:

  • Whether the DfE’s current absence codes and guidance discriminate against those with school attendance difficulties (and their parent carers who face prosecution for non-attendance);
  • Whether the DfE is failing in its duties to ensure these children receive a suitable full-time education that meets their needs.

We need to raise £5,000 to cover the legal costs of this initial stage of investigation. If the advice indicates that there is merit in bringing a legal challenge, the next step would be for our legal team to send a formal letter before claim to the DfE to give the department the opportunity to resolve these concerns without having to go to court.

Who are we?

Square Peg launched in May 2019 with the aim of effecting change for children with school attendance difficulties and their families. It has a focus on three key areas: legislation, research and guidance. Square Peg works in partnership with Not Fine In School (NFIS), a group providing information and support to parents of children with school attendance difficulties. NFIS launched in November 2017 and currently has over 6,500 members, with 820 new members joining in March alone. 

Why does this matter?

If you have first-hand experience of school attendance difficulties, you will recognise this story, which represents the experience of many NFIS members.

“Our daughter has been deteriorating in front of our eyes. Her anxiety is palpable and results in vomiting, panic attacks, stomach aches and a range of other symptoms. She doesn’t sleep and often talks about how much she hates her life. Some days I manage to persuade her to go into school, but usually only after a lot of coaxing. When she does make it to school, they tell me she’s fine. She tells me she spent all of lunch time in the toilets and she barely remembers what lessons she had. I can’t get anyone to listen, I’m told she’s not serious enough for CAMHS to see her and she wouldn’t get an EHCP so there’s no point applying. I’m told I’ll be fined because her attendance is now under 80% and she has been told we might go to prison if it doesn’t improve. All of this is making things ten times worse. I want her to go to school but she just says she can’t. I don’t think she even knows why; it’s just too stressful. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who can support her or us, they just keep telling us that she deserves an education and we need to get her into school. They have no idea what home life is like for all of us.”

Case Background: school attendance difficulties

School attendance difficulties (sometimes known as school refusal, school phobia or emotionally based school avoidance) are usually characterised by severe anxiety. They can result from a variety of underlying issues including bullying, trauma, an undiagnosed/unsupported SEND, sensorial difficulties or a mental health problem. The number of children struggling with attendance is growing, compounded by budget cuts, increased testing and academic pressure, delays in securing SEND provision or mental health support. 'Non-elective' home education is on the increase, partly because many parents are watching their child's mental health deteriorate, or face prosecution, and feel they have no choice but to take their child out of the system. 

Government statistics show that over 11% of pupils (that’s nearly 800,000 children) are 'persistent absentees', 100,000 more than two years ago. Yet the current 23 attendance codes and the degree of autonomy given to individual schools in using these codes mean that the DfE is unable to identify children considered to be ‘school refusers’ and evidence the scale of the problem. Government guidance for schools around certain registration codes is vague, and the decision on whether to authorise an absence or not is at the discretion of individual head teachers. This leads to an inconsistent response to school attendance difficulties around the country. 

Head teachers will sometimes authorise absence on the grounds of illness (code I) but they will usually require the endorsement of a medical or mental health professional (possibly a GP, but often a psychiatrist, psychologist or paediatrician). Involvement of CAMHS is currently hindered by long waiting lists and high thresholds for treatment. Furthermore, current problems obtaining assessments and diagnoses, and securing EHCPs, means any SEND can remain undiagnosed and unsupported for many months, during which time a child’s struggle with attendance becomes entrenched and more difficult to resolve.

If a head teacher decides not to authorise absence, the register will usually show unauthorised 'other' (code O), a code that also covers truancy and term-time holidays. This subjects parents to the threat of fines and criminal prosecution. Also, when an absence is ‘unauthorised’, a child’s legal rights to receive alternative education at home or elsewhere are not triggered in the same way as if they had been excluded.

Being forced to deal with pressures and challenges such as these ultimately leaves families in crisis, without official support or effective solutions. If parents complain about the actions of a school, they need to manage the complaint process without any independent support or guidance. Initially this involves bringing a complaint to the Headteacher and then, if necessary, the Board of Governors or Trustees. (This effectively means that a parent is asking the people they are complaining about to investigate their complaint, which is not fair or transparent.) Complaints can then be escalated upwards through Local Authorities or the EFA, Ofsted, the DfE and Local Government Ombudsman. However, parents report that these options are often ineffective, time-consuming and stressful because they lack independence and have a limited remit.

In conjunction with this, we are also running a petition to call for a new attendance/absence code for school attendance difficulties.

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