Vulnerable Parents Being Penalised Over Children’s School Attendance

Fines for School Attendance Hits Vulnerable Families: 

Parents most at need are being penalised over children’s school attendance, a report by researchers at Coventry University and the University of Roehampton finds.

The research found that in 2017, 16,406 parents in England and Wales, were prosecuted for ‘failing’ to send their children to school.

Of these, 12, 698 were convicted with 71 percent of them being women.

A 110 people were given a suspended sentence of imprisonment – 80 per cent of these were women.

And, ten people were sent to prison of which 9 were women. ‘It is thus clear that women are disproportionately pursued for this offence’ the researchers write.

Parents taking part in the research found the threat of prosecution was an ‘additional source of stress in an already fraught family situation.’

A Bristol parent with an autistic 11-year-old also struggling with extreme anxiety wrote: ‘Fine threatened but L.A. autism team told them to stop.’

Another Bristol parent, a single mother with two children struggling to attend school regularly contributed: ‘I received letters from attendance officers at both schools. The secondary school letter details fine amount/court proceedings etc. I have spoken with him to tell him, it makes no difference to my daughter being unwell.’

The parent’s 12 year-old struggles with extreme menstrual bleeding and severe menstrual pain. Her 7 year-old was bullied in reception and first year of another primary school going on to develop symptoms of PTSD, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, disassociation, and was ‘school refusing’.

The offence of truancy in England and Wales, affects parents with children aged between 5 and 18 whose school attendance drops below 90 per cent. A parent is liable for their child’s attendance even if they are unaware of the absence because the child lives with another carer.

In the study, reports from 126 parents who volunteered to contribute were taken into consideration. The majority of those taking part were mothers. The study found that the families were under great stress with fewer than half in employment. Others were on social or disability benefits and 80 per cent said they themselves had health problems.

The children of these parents were ‘anxious, fearful, often suffering night terrors, and bullied at school’.

Shockingly, 40 per cent had a diagnosis of autism. A 35 per cent of those parents had either been prosecuted or threatened with prosecution despite having made ‘every effort to get their child into school’.

Nearly every parent taking part said that their child was ‘often highly anxious’ with children having ‘extreme reactions of fear when it was time to go to school’. One parent said their child had meltdowns, was physically sick, had migraines and would self-harm.

A 90 per cent of the children had Special Educational Needs or Disability (Send) or a health problem.

All parents said it was ‘impossible’ to get their panicked children into school.

A 16 parents had taken their children off-roll to avoid being prosecuted. Two of those children attended an online school and a third child’s parent said they were now happily settled into home education. But, the report found the rest of the children were being ‘denied an education’.

The parents taking part said that their child’s school did not understand inclusion and that Send discrimination happens all the time, often through the imposing of ‘sanctions and behaviour management strategies’ on vulnerable children.

Recommendations by educational psychologists were ‘not implemented’, one-to-one support was ‘not sustained’ and long waits for assessments and support from CAHMS caused additional distress.

Bullying was experienced by 60 per cent of the children, mostly by other children. But, a ‘significant number’ of children were being bullied by education staff.

Bullied children were found to be hurt badly enough to be hospitalised and one parent said her child was locked in a cupboard at their special school.

A Bristol parent, now home-schooling her autistic 12 year-old, reported that he was bullied by other children. ‘My child was bullied and the school’s response was that it’s just what kids do. Games get out of hand. There was no help from school.’

Another Bristol parent wrote that bullying was an important element in school going wrong for her daughter. She stated: ‘My 7 year-old was repeatedly hurt, threatened and called names by a group of boys through reception and Year 1. This including hair pulling, punches to the stomach, being thrown to the floor and piled on, strangulation and sexual assault. The teachers failed to protect her and minimised what was happening, in favour of protecting the boys who struggled with ‘impulse control’. As a result she developed a fear of boys, mistrust of teachers and a reluctance to leave the house.’

The research has been published in the report –  Prosecuting parents for truancy: Who pays the price? It concludes that the current law is ‘cruel and discriminatory’ and does not reduce persistent absenteeism. The researchers say that criminal law should not be applied to parents whose children do not attend school regularly and that it should a child welfare issue.

A Devon parent of a 15 year-old with autism and high levels of anxiety and fined £60 for their child’s lack of school attendance wrote:  ‘He was just overwhelmed by the school environment. School bells, kids shouting and running, smells in the canteen, not understanding in the classroom. Expectations of him. He started cutting himself, and ran away from school on one occasion.’

Another fined parent in Cumbria wrote: “Myself disabled, husband autistic, daughter autistic, son ADHD. The school did not meet her daughter’s needs. School threatened her that we would be sent to prison, which just increased anxiety. School weren’t willing to be flexible and consider her needs to enable her to be happy attending school, constantly dismissed her anxiety etc. She doesn’t like busy noisy places and interacting with people so doesn’t like to leave home.’

Autism was a common factor in cases of low levels of attendance, with the researchers writing that it is ‘important’ to consider that the condition is often accompanied with other difficulties and issues. They found a ‘common’ issue was parents stating schools were ‘ill equipped’ to meet the needs of their child and that their encounters with schools regarding attendance were ‘negative’.

A Wiltshire parent of an 11 year-old child with OCD and suspected ASD said: ‘School said they could not apply for an EHCP as she ‘was able to access the curriculum’. CAMHS would not help either as ‘other children with OCD go to school’. Still under CIN (Children in Need) safeguarding who are offering no support, they are just looking to prove I am making her worse. I can’t see myself ever being able to get back to work again. I have worked as a counselling psychologist for 20 years but I have lost complete faith in the mental health system.’

Children with these kinds of conditions are more likely to have specialist appointments affecting attendance as well as ‘more frequent’ bouts of illness. The report points towards the Send Code of Practice and ‘underlines’ the need to follow the Equality Act (2010). This involves putting in reasonable adjustments, ‘thinking round potential issues’ and making allowances.

Most of the children in the survey had additional learning needs, with dyslexia and dyspraxia being ‘common’.

Anxiety, often in the extreme, notably affected attendance. A BANES parent with an ‘extremely anxious’ 15 year-old wrote: ‘She refuses to go to school, and she self-harms: My daughter is desperate to get a good education. However anxiety is not taken seriously and all the schools are interested in is ticking all the boxes. Attendance – tick, results – tick, image in the community – tick.’

A mother from Wiltshire with a 14 year-old wrote: There is little to no support for school-related anxiety and phobia. Waiting lists for CAMHS are too long and your child can’t access the level of support they require unless they are suicidal. Schools don’t have the level of support required. He needs more proper support with managing anxiety. A key worker from school who would work consistently with him.’

A Bristol parent with a 12 year-old son who is autistic and receives Disability Living Allowance said that he finds the school environment overwhelming: ‘He finds it exhausting to continually decode what is expected of him. He has to mask to fit in. He was also bullied by other children. He felt utterly alone and truly unhappy. I believe school is a totally unsuitable environment for autistic children and there’s little or no support available for high functioning autistic children who mask.’

Researchers also found a ‘failure’ in the EHCP process to bring together ‘different expert reports’ which should influence decisions. The found a frequent lack of reports, lack of attendance at meetings by professionals and inadequate resources to provide evidence to support the needs of the child.

The academic school pressure of the curriculum and SATS was also found to be contributing to fear of school. A Bristol mother reported that because of it, her daughter struggles with ‘anxiety and low mood due to bullying, stress about constant assessment.’

A North Somerset resident with a disability herself wrote: ‘My son was pressured by the academy to work harder (he was hitting his targets). This badly damaged his mental health.’

The most common experience found by researchers was that schools involved were ‘antagonistic and unhelpful, and did not understand their child’s special needs.’

A Hampshire mother wrote: ‘While she has been off school, seven months now, the LA and School have failed to provide any alternative education or help at all.’

A Buckinghamshire mother of a 14 year-old child with autisim dyslexia, SPD, asthma and selective mutism wrote: ‘I’ve been threatened and referred to social services who declined referral. Had to prove to and fight school and county and CAMHS and everyone else. Schools are not able to cater for very bright children with ‘invisible’ diversities who also have learning difficulties. There is a total lack of understanding and a blame game that schools place both on children and their families.’

The effects of school academisation on Send support was found to be ‘variable’ but because they have greater freedoms to organise their own curriculum and can set their own terms and conditions, researchers believe that: ‘This has led some parents with children at academies to believe that financial costs and academic reputation has trumped doing the right thing by their children. This was also the case in local authority schools but many believed that if an academy chose to behave in this way, it could do so without challenge. This led some parents to believe that academies were a law unto themselves.’

A North Somerset parent with a child with dyslexia and dyspraxia, anxiety and depression wrote: ‘He was pressured by the academy to work harder (was hitting his targets) was being bullied and not believed by staff (even bullied by a teacher) his mental health not believed by SENCO, no one wanted to help him, heart-breaking… If the school had helped our son he wouldn’t have got so bad. He still struggles to leave the house, to trust others, to feel worthy, to believe in himself. This could’ve ended much worse than it has… He’s on medication that helps. There are students who’ve taken their own life, we’re so thankful everyday that our son asks us for help. He’s getting better every day … All the above happened in 2016. We don’t want other students to go through what our son has. The school let him down massively; he was just a number to them (large academy) not a person with feelings whose voice needed to be heard.’

Co-author and honorary research fellow at Coventry Law School, Rona Epstein, said the system is causing ‘significant harm and stress’ mainly to mothers who are already at their limits both ‘mentally and financially’.

Rona Said: “What our research suggests is that this overwhelmingly, issues of poor attendance are linked or perceived to be linked, to a special educational need or disability. And in that case prosecuting parents is simply not the answer.

“We found that these parents are often ill or disabled, or are caring for others and are under considerable financial strain. Parents cannot physically force a child into school, and almost everyone we spoke to about absenteeism reported that their child was anxious and had fears around going to school with cases of meltdowns and self-harm.

“It seems that for many there is little or no support available or extremely long waits for diagnoses which could help get that support. Some parents had even been asked to keep their children at home because schools said they could not meet their needs.”

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