Not Fine In School? Bristol Launches School Attendance Taskforce

“Oh they’re fine in school,” is a chorus oft heard by parents and carers struggling with children who simply will not go to school no matter how hard they try.

I speak with the experience of a parent who once took something like six hours trying to get my child into school on one occasion. Other times, I would get 20 ft down the road and spend an hour sat on the pavement.

I tried taxis, bribery, at one point trains around the outskirts of the school and blindfolds so they could not see where they were going. I was lying on pavements next to them to keep them safe – to the utter distain of one assistant head.

There was one occasion that I managed to get my child into the school reception where upon they lay screaming on the floor before attacking me. This was not bad behaviour, my child was absolutely terrified.

The truth of the matter is that at that point, I was the problem. You become so frightened by school welfare officers, threats of fines, social care and being told that it’s your mental health that is the problem, that you go to extraordinary lengths in what you think is the right thing to do when you should really tell the school no. It is you and always has been you.

And when you reach that point, there is nothing. There is not one single service, and I’m speaking about Bristol now, that you can go to in an attempt to resolve the issue. Bristol City Council’s own welfare service would not help me. You’re just left floundering and watching your child’s education disintegrate.

The only way to solve the issue was to spend a year getting an EHCP, more months waiting for and going to Send Tribunal and then a further six months waiting for a special school place to become available. It took two years.

At this point, I’m not even considering the most complex issues, but simple things like allowing squash instead of water for autistic sensory processing difficulties. I’m not sure that’s worthy of 45 minutes of procrastination and ending up on a part time timetable.

One of my children is ridiculously well behaved in school and yet a primary school deputy head suggested I send them to another school instead of solving bullying issues and the fact that due to her dyslexia, they would rather die than do another spelling test or Big Write. Guess whose fault that was? It was my fault again.

If a child or young person does not want to go to school, in the vast majority of cases, there is a very good reason why. For those children who are said to be ‘fine in school’ this simply isn’t true. They are spending the entire day holding everything in as best they can until the end of school. At that point, the child explodes. They may have epic meltdowns, whilst too often teaching staff shake their head, say the child was ‘fine’ in school and note down on school records that ‘mum’ is the problem.

It’s not every school, but it is many schools. And whilst this approach carries on, the child will not be getting the support they need. Arguably, the majority of the time it will come down to a lack of provision or adjustments for the child’s special educational needs or disability. This can be attributed to a number of issues including the Local Authority EHCP process, generally poor education funding and individual school approach to inclusion as well as disability prohibitive behaviour policies.

I have mixed feelings about ending up with a special school. I have no issues with the concept of special schools, I think they are fantastic and very much needed. For one of my children it was absolutely the right thing. But I do wonder how many children, like another one of mine, could have had their needs met in mainstream when Local Authorities take a strong approach to inclusion and accountability.

Special schools work because they are geared up for Send, the staff choose to work in them. Mainstream Send is too often a box ticking exercise because it has to be done. Inclusion has to be embraced to succeed. But a rigid mainstream approach to behaviour by following programmes such as Ready to Learn too literally is like a fist in the face to the Equality Act 2010. It’s a Harry Hill ‘fight’ and no parent standing alone is a match for the weight of a Multi Academy Trust.

A recent post for a SEND School Improvement Officer advertised by Bristol City Council is heartening. But with an academy system ruling all but two secondary mainstreams in the city, one wonders how far a Local Authority officer will be able to get.

One social enterprise that is aiming to tackle the difficulties children and their families face when they struggle with school attendance is Square Peg, a group that set up in 2019. They work closely with Not Fine In School, another organisation which supports and campaigns for children struggling with anxiety based school avoidance, also known as ‘school refusal’.

As part of a way to evidence the national scale of barriers to school attendance, Square Peg asked parents to take part in a real time Google map to plot the status of the school avoidance affecting their families.

Since the mapping project started a month ago, 4131 families have logged school attendance issues across the country. Bristol is already showing its fair share of issues.

Bristol school attendance is a massive issue for the city, although a dedicated role to tackle the issue was not funded until last year.

In a Verbal update At Bristol Schools’ Forum on 22 September 2020, Director of Education and Skills Alison Hurley responding to a question about COVID-19 and school attendance said: ”With regard to attendance, that probably is one of the highest priorities for us as a local authority in our sort of advocacy role for children and young people. Particularly obviously those who are categorised as vulnerable because they have social care involvement or Education Health and Care Plans.

“But also more broadly really making sure that we use the support in the priority on this in terms of getting more and more children and young people back into our schools and able to remain in schools. That’s obviously for Bristol been and area that we’ve not been great at in terms of our performance with attendance so I really do see this opportunity as a point to make sure that we get it right and that we build up from the significant focus we have on this and the significant resource we have on this from September.

“So really working with schools, families and when I update in the Education Transformation there’s obviously a reference to a new attendance and belonging group that’s a sort of task driven group in order to make sure we increase attendance across the city and we don’t have anybody not returning.”

Hurley further covered school attendance at the meeting during an update on progress and spend on the Education Transformation Programme.

She said: “The attendance and the sort of focus on an integrated joined-up approach between education and skills and children and families, children and social care, has been absolutely critical during lockdown in terms of wrapping around parents and carers and really working together to try and successfully make sure A, makes sure children and young people are safe but also make sure they’re back into schools where they can be.

“We’ve taken that a step further through this programme and through the funding that was became available through that transfer and we’ve established an attendance task group, so that’s led by a member of staff who is full time on attendance and reaches through to all of the different services areas that play a part in this system because it is a system approach, it’s not sitting with one individual team and really making sure that there is that integrated approach that there is that operational delivery of improved performance with attendance that we are monitoring and absolutely on any child or young person falling through that system whether it’s child missing education or any of the other categories that we’re looking at, part time timetables for example is another area that we need to get better sight on across the city. So that is a significant piece of work that really A, responds to the situation that COVID has created but as I said previously was already an area that we needed to develop and resource and actually this allows us, this is one of the positive opportunities I think that has come out of this crisis that really enables us to scrutinise this area in way that we haven’t been able to before.”

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