Bristol City Council School Attendance Strategy Consultation School Refusal

Send in the City by Jen Smith
Navigating the Special Education Needs and Disability (Send) provision in Bristol one disaster at a time

‘Hidden’ Consultation Leaves Out Bristol Send Children Again:

On Monday 22 October, I Tweeted about there being ‘no cohesive approach in Bristol to deal with anxiety based school refusal’. What I did not realise at this point, was that Bristol City Council had launched a School Attendance Strategy Consultation on 09 October. But I wasn’t the only one who was unaware of this. It wasn’t until a person in a different part of the country on a national Facebook support page concerning school refusal brought it to Bristol parents’ attention that anyone realised it was there.

It’s being called a ‘hidden’ consultation by Bristol parents due to a lack of consultation with the city’s parents and carers and parent support services. Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) are disproportionately affected by school attendance and as my own child is on day 20 of school refusal, I feel more than qualified to talk about the Bristol problem.

School Refusal as it is known is not a great term. It implies that the behaviour is a choice rather than a complex series of issues coming together to make attending school impossible. My own child’s school refusal comes from a medical condition and a lifetime of functional school exclusion.

Shockingly, one reason given was ‘pupils on part-time timetables due to their behaviour or other Special Educational Needs or Disabilities.’

Functional school exclusion is the name covering instances such as needing to home school a child due to a failure of school support. Functional school exclusion is when you know staff are unable to keep your child safe in school and you need to keep them off for their own welfare. Functional school exclusion is when school staff deliberately won’t put in reasonable adjustments to aid a child’s attendance. Functional school exclusion is all those meetings you have with school staff who fob you off by saying there isn’t a problem when there is. Functional school exclusion is also committed by a local authority who refuses to needs assess a child with Send causing a school place to breakdown, again due to a lack of appropriate support.

Bristol City Council’s School Attendance Strategy Consultation, instead of taking the opportunity to properly address the issues and barriers children with Send in mainstream education face, they’ve chosen to ignore them altogether.

The school attendance statistics used for the purpose of the draft strategy are useless. They focus on mainstream, EAL and special schools. But they do not further breakdown the statistics for children with Send in mainstream which is a crucial detail.

Statistics also show that in 2015/16, Bristol’s primary and secondary school attendance was ranked
bottom nationally. But it’s worth bearing in mind that it was found that Bristol City Council was not using the legal test for EHC Needs Assessment between 2016-17, with 17,464 children in the city being refused assessment, at a nearly 50 per cent refusal rate.

school refusal

In 2016, we were one of the families who were refused a needs assessment. Bristol City Council did not even bother sending a letter informing us of their decision to refuse a needs assessment for my child. They left us flounding in a school that could ‘not guarantee to keep him safe’, failed him educationally and even offered to authorise absence instead of bringing him to school. A perfect illustration of illegal exclusion and functional exclusion.

In 2018, my child has now missed 20 days in eight weeks due to a mixture of functional exclusion, illegal exclusion and worst of all, indifference. Where is our experience reflected in the current consultation? It is not. Is this because Send functional exclusion reflects badly on Bristol City Council?

The draft consultation places great weight on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) being a major cause of school absence. An ACE would be a traumatic event occurring before a child’s 18th birthday. This would be things like abuse, living with a family member who abuses drugs or alcohol, exposure to domestic violence, parental loss through divorce, death or abandonment or living with a family member in prison or with serious mental illness.

‘Additional reasons’ for school absence after this includes ill health, being a young carer, bullying, poverty, waiting for school places, period poverty, term time holidays, exclusions and long distance travel to school.

Shockingly, one reason given was ‘pupils on part-time timetables due to their behaviour or other Special Educational Needs or Disabilities.’

As the parent of a child who has been suggested a part-time timetable, I can absolutely confirm this was offered in place of putting in any suitable Send support. My child did not need a part time timetable because of any bad behaviour, but because he struggled with sensory processing difficulties in the school environment, found shouty teaching styles too confusing and stressful to follow and quickly found the whole idea of attending school anxiety inducing.

Equating ‘behaviour’ to part-time school attendance is a worrying approach, because these children are experiencing functional exclusion, which may or may not end up with part time access to education, if any access at all.

The council continues that ‘many schools already have excellent processes in place and attendance is significantly improving in a number of them. Schools and MATs are keen to work together, and with the Local Authority, to share their good practice and learn from each other. Despite the pressure on resources, there is a vast range of high quality support services for children, young people and families living with the city and agencies are keen to ensure their work supports the overall aim of improving school attendance across the city.’

I would say this is a lie. Send support has been withheld at the three schools we have attended to this point. And it’s not just my son that struggles with school attendance due to functional exclusion. I also have a dyslexic child who struggles with attending school due to working memory difficulties, sensory processing difficulties and processing speed. She is in Year 4 and considers herself a ‘failure’ because she cannot hit national curriculum targets.

school refusal bristol

Before I paid for a private ed psych assessment which went through all the tests, her previous school’s teachers had said to my face that she had been where she needed to be and there was nothing more to worry about. This was said after their own referral to Speech And Language Therapy (SALT) which they made out of concern for her progress was rejected.

The OT department at Southmead Hospital had invited the current school to send a member of staff to an OT sensory clinic to help them understand my daughter’s condition. Nobody was interested and nobody attended.

One of my dyslexic child’s teachers in a recent meeting said that she deliberately took my child’s fidget toy and put it on her desk all day. This fidget toy is usually a squeezable stress object which stops my child from chewing apart her clothing, grinding her teeth and becoming stressed with work.

The teacher also did not deal with a child who had deliberately ripped apart one of disability aids and another teaching assistant had put her blu tac from home in the bin in front of her. These are all things which build up to functional exclusion in children with Send.

‘We have begun the process of listening to children and young people’ the council writes. Continuing ‘we recognise that this needs to be a continual process if we are to achieve our aims, and that we need to listen to parents too.’ Bristol City Council can listen to this.

– One EHC Needs Assessment unlawfully rejected in 2016.
– Twenty days of missed education this term by one child, the other child I have not documented.
– Many other days of education missed due to a slap dash approach to send support in schools.
– No cohesive approach to resolving the situation.
– No access to hospital education.
– Camhs referral rejected.
– No work sent home from school.
– Bristol Autism Team criteria changed so autistic children without an EHCP can not access them.
– Bristol Send parents had to have a judicial review this summer for funding from the council.
– Schools are already poorly funded and not enough money is coming from central government.
– Headteachers who illegally exclude and functionally exclude children are not being held to account.
– The Equality Act 2010 is not being adhered to in schools.
– Neither is the Send Code of Practice.
– No specialist setting in Bristol for children with dyslexia other than a private school and the council maintain it is up to the child’s individual school to put their hands in the pockets and pay for specialist provision in their mainstream setting.
– A hidden consultation about school absence that few families and no parent forums in Bristol were aware actually existed.

It is already a failure to have an expectation that ‘all schools and MATs to develop and implement a whole school attendance policy that is culturally sensitive and includes effective intervention strategies that support families to addresses barriers to attendance’ will happen because Send parents know that they won’t. And, if they do, it will not stop functional exclusion because attitudes towards disabilities need to change. It is a protected characteristic. Let’s have some protection.

The Attendance Strategy is ‘aligned’ with safeguarding procedure, under the section Priority Two – Working Together. In this, safeguarding is defined as Protecting children from maltreatment; Preventing impairment of children’s health or development. Yet, I would consider the way children are functionally excluded from education both maltreats them and impairs their mental health and educational development. Seven years of meeting after meeting, raising concern after concern, it is beyond frustrating to finally get sent home infant school spellings for a Year 7 child as part of intervention English work.

If parents may be fined for a lack of school attendance, then schools should be held to much higher accountability for failing children than poor Ofsted and Sats results. And, how about some more honesty on the school register instead of marking children absent with school refusal, functional exclusion or other Send related difficulties unauthorised?

The one key point about Send in this consultation is hidden way down at point 12 of Priority 2:

Ensure schools understand their duty to provide a full-time, suitable, education for their pupils. Develop guidance to ensure pupils are only placed on part-time timetables in the most exceptional medical circumstances, and that part-time timetables are not used by schools as a strategy to deal with behavioural issues or special educational needs and/or disabilities

But this doesn’t go far enough. Disability is an equality and equity problem. The Equality Impact Assessment Form does not indicate that any of Bristol’s high profile Send and disability carer forums or support services were included, the people at the coal face of school exclusion, attendance and absence every day.

Yet again, Bristol City Council is continuing to marginalise children with disabilities in education. I don’t know why I’m so surprised. Children with Send bear the brunt of everything. The brunt of the cuts, the brunt of indifference and then difficult ‘behaviour’ is seen as a moral failure of both the child and the parent.

It’s always a joke amongst Send parents that they are That Parent. That particular label is slapped on a parent or carer by a school. But that parent has doggedly fought through hell sometimes just to try and get their child access to services, support and education that they are lawfully entitled too.

Perhaps before writing off parents as difficult or problematic, something that I think at times shines through this consultation, services, schools and education staff could think, perhaps we could actually put in a reasonable adjustment that would allow a child to attend school. Then take a look at school attendance figures and see what a difference that might make.

To take part in the consultation:

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