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Why scaring parents and carers is not appropriate....

It has been very noticeable that in the time that this project has been running I have had numerous conversations where parents are being alarmed or frightened by the tone of the communication coming from their child's school around attendance.

I know from experience that there are occasions when, in the child's best interests, it is important to send a very strong message to families about the need for their child to attend school. I have been involved in dealing with safeguarding and neglect issues where this has very much been the case, where the family is absolutely not engaging with the support that is being offered. These cases are serious, upsetting and absolutely require every possible action.

The conversations that I have been having as part of the "Finding Common Ground" project are not of this type - these are families who are engaging with the school, but, for a variety of reasons, usually related to mental health, their child cannot attend school regularly.

It is really important, therefore, to go back to the guidance to take some heat out of the situation and remove some of the fear so that parents/carers and families can engage constructively with the school rather than living in a state of conflict and apprehension.

Most recently, the Education Select Committee has said, at the end of September 23:

"We recommend the Department should instruct schools and local authorities to explore methods of support for pupils and families before the use of fines or prosecution, ensuring legal intervention is a last resort only..."

The key guidance from the DfE is "Working together to improve school attendance" and this says, in Section 5:

Where absence escalates and pupils miss 10% or more of school (equivalent to 1 day or more a fortnight across a full school year), schools and local authorities are expected to work together to put additional targeted support in place to remove any barriers to attendance and reengage these pupils. In doing so, schools should sensitively consider some of the reasons for absence and understand the importance of school as a place of safety and support for children who might be facing difficulties, rather than reaching immediately for punitive approaches.

For many of the families I am working with, the child has been absent more than present and, even if this is the case, the guidance says (again in Section 5):

These severely absent pupils may find it more difficult to be in school or face bigger barriers to their regular attendance and as such are likely to need more intensive support across a range of partners. A concerted effort is therefore needed across all relevant services to prioritise them. All partners should work together to make this group the top priority for support – this may include specific support with attendance or a whole family plan, but it may also include consideration for an education, health and care plan or an alternative form of educational provision where necessary to overcome the barriers to being in school.

When mental health is one of the reasons for absence the school has to take consideration of the guidance "Mental health issues affecting a pupil's attendance" , which says:

Taking forward attendance prosecution should only be considered where all other options have been exhausted or deemed inappropriate.

As an ex-headteacher I absolutely understand the pressures being brought to bear on schools around attendance, and as an ex-DSL (designated safeguarding lead) I fully understand issues around potential neglect and the school's responsibilities to keep children safe.

I am strongly arguing, however, that schools need to be careful to adopt a targeted, individual approach prioritising support and flexible approaches. Instilling a fear of prosecution and fines in families of children with significant needs is not a suitable approach. Parents and carers need to be supported to engage constructively and find common ground in the best interests of their child's education.

As always, I am more than happy to engage with anyone around these issues, and to offer support to anyone seeking to help their child thrive in secondary school - just visit email or message 07767142877. I look forward to hearing from you.

James Harris

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