March 2022

The Department for Education recently published a set of proposals to increase school attendance, and invited public views on these. Education ministers have been clear that reducing what they call “avoidable absence” is a priority for the Government.

IPSEA submitted a response emphasising that school attendance policies must be flexible enough to reflect the particular needs of children and young people with SEND. We told the Government that if schools are required to publish an attendance policy, they should also be required to state clearly how this will be applied to pupils with SEND. The Equality Act 2010 is clear that schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for pupils with SEND, and that this duty applies to the way a school operates on a daily basis, including its policies and decisions. 

Barriers to school attendance for pupils with SEND

We stated that schools’ attendance policies should not be over-simplified and should be underpinned by a good understanding of the wide range of barriers to attendance for pupils with SEND. The issue of attendance can’t and shouldn’t be considered in isolation from other factors, such as what stops pupils with SEND attending school, what they struggle with, and whether the support they need is being provided.

We are particularly concerned about the popularity in some schools of award schemes for good attendance. These award schemes not only have a negative impact on pupils with SEND, they may also be discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010.

In addition to illness and regular medical appointments, children and young people with SEND may be dealing with high levels of school-related anxiety and/or bullying. They may experience repeat exclusions, including so-called ‘informal’ exclusions. Their experience of school may not be a positive one, and schools need to find out why this is, rather than sanctioning parents. 

Meeting children and young people’s needs in school

If a child has special educational needs, schools have a clear duty under section 66 of the Children and Families Act 2014 to use their best endeavours to secure the special educational provision the child needs.

If a child or young person has an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan but is still struggling to attend school, the school should work with parents to consider whether the EHC plan needs to be reviewed and amended. In these circumstances, local authorities should make sure that the child or young person continues to receive special educational provision, and that they comply with their duty to secure a suitable full time education for those of compulsory school age.

Supporting children, not sanctioning parents

The emphasis throughout the consultation paper is on sanctions for parents rather than support for children, and on local authorities’ legal powers rather than their legal duties (such as their duties to support children and young people with SEND under section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014).

It is our view that the use of legal powers as set out in the Government’s proposals is not appropriate for the parents of a child or young person with SEND who is experiencing school-related anxiety. Instead, there should be coordinated action by schools and support agencies to identify and make provision for all of a child or young person’s needs. Guidance for schools should state this clearly.

Finally, it is important to recognise that parents of a child or young person with SEND typically have to fight hard to secure the additional support their child needs. They may be fighting for this support while at the same time they and their child are being sanctioned for not complying with the school’s expectations on attendance. It is vital that schools address the root of attendance problems, rather than punishing families for the consequences of unmet needs.