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What if my child is refusing to attend school?

School refusal or barriers to attendance are terms used to describe the reaction of children and young people who experience extreme anxiety and distress in relation to attending school. This reaction can occur for a variety of reasons, such as academic pressures, bullying, ineffective SEND support, separation anxiety and many other factors.

A child or young person may also experience other mental health difficulties such as depression, panic attacks, self- harm, and suicidal intention. Extreme anxiety of this sort can have an adverse effect on a child’s health and wellbeing and if not addressed appropriately, can also affect academic progress, overall engagement with school, and lead to a gradual or sudden decline in attendance.

Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 places a duty on parents/carers to ensure that their child of compulsory school age receives a suitable education either by regular attendance at school or at another suitable provision.

All schools including independent schools (except boarding schools), must maintain an Admissions register. The Registration (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2006 require a school to put the child’s name on the admissions register on the first day that the child is expected to attend school. If the pupil does not attend, they will be recorded as absent – this can be authorised or unauthorised.

A school will authorise an absence if:

  • the child is too ill to attend, and the school accepts this as valid (although if the child is off for long periods the school might ask for proof from a GP)
  • the parent has the advance permission of the school e.g., for a holiday, religious observation
  • the child has a medical or dental appointment
  • the child is being educated off-site
  • the child has been excluded

Schools must regularly inform the local authority of any pupils who are frequently absent from school, have irregular attendance, or have missed 10 school days or more without the school’s permission. Schools also have a safeguarding duty, under section 175 of the Education Act 2002, to investigate any unexplained absences.

What sanctions can be put in place for non-attendance?

Parents can be issued with a fixed penalty notice by the local authority for their child’s non-attendance. The penalty is £60 and rises to £120 if not paid until after 21 days but within 28 days. The school’s headteacher decides if they wish to fine unauthorised absences from school by issuing a fixed penalty notice. The headteacher then requests by a referral to the local authority to issue a fixed penalty notice on his or her behalf. There is no right of appeal against a fixed penalty notice. If this is not paid, the local authority can proceed to prosecution.

How can parents support children with barriers to attendance?

Keep a record of events, behaviours etc related to your child’s school attendance

Keep evidence of your child’s struggles and your efforts to resolve things and find help – you may need this if absence leads to threats of prosecution. This could include:

  • Record what happens on a day-to-day basis with your child – what they do and say
  • Keep records of all conversations with school or medical staff – follow up conversations with written summaries so that you have written records, also ask for written confirmation of any verbal agreements
  • Keep details of all medical appointments, any assessments, or meetings
  • Keep all relevant letters and print outs of emails
  • For every absence send an email to school detailing the reasons why

Speak to your GP

Explain the difficulties your child is experiencing and ask for the GP’s help, which could include:

  • Referring your child to CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service)
  • Writing to the school to confirm they suspect your child has an anxiety disorder and is currently medically unfit to attend school
  • Recommending that the school request an assessment through an Educational Psychologist and documenting anxiety symptoms and any other difficulties in your child’s medical records (for evidence if needed).

Read the school’s policies on SEN, Disability, Attendance, and Behaviour

Check the school are following their own policies and point out any inconsistencies between the school’s policies and the support your child is receiving. School policies are usually available on their websites but if this isn’t the case you can ask the school to provide you with copies of these.

Ask the school to provide work to complete at home for your child while absent

Some schools refuse to provide work to complete at home as they feel this encourages the child to remain at home. However, if a child is unable to attend school, they will need support so that they may be able to reintegrate at some point without the additional anxiety created by being behind with their work.

Consider contacting the education welfare officer

Tell the education welfare officer (at BCP this is the School Inclusion team) that you want your child to attend school, but there are significant anxiety issues. Explain to them how you are trying to support your child and what your concerns are.

Ensure school notifies the local authority if the medical absence lasts for over 15 days (consecutive or cumulative)

When a school is aware that a child is likely to miss more than 15 days of school due to health/medical reasons they are supposed to notify the local authority so that alternative education can be arranged.

Where full-time education may not be in the best interests of a child who is refusing to attend school due to reasons relating to their physical or mental health, local authorities should provide part-time education that meets the child’s needs.

Ask school to assess your child for any possible/relevant special educational
needs or disabilities

Although schools should have a positive approach to supporting pupils with anxiety, children and young people can sometimes be misunderstood by school staff. As a parent you may have raised the issue with them, but they do not appear to take your concerns seriously or contribute the issues to parenting difficulties. This is not a valid reason to ignore the situation if a child is obviously struggling with school attendance, therefore you should expect the school to take steps to put support in place.

The SEND Code of Practice says:

Schools should take seriously any concerns raised by a parent.

SEND Code of Practive 2015, paragraph 6.45

Request a meeting with the school SENCo to create a support plan

When your child is identified as having SEN, the school should use a graduated approach (referred to as the Graduated Response) which consists of assessing your child’s needs, planning the support the school will provide based on this assessment, putting the support in place, and then reviewing your child’s progress on a regular basis.

Ask school to make a referral to your Local Authority for an Education Health & Care Plan (EHCP) needs assessment

A parent can also submit a parental request for an EHC needs assessment. If school attendance is so low that you are being threatened with prosecution that is evidence that the mainstream setting is not able to meet the emotional needs of the child. Parents can make a parental request under Section 36.1 of the Children and Families Act 2014. An EHC Needs Assessment will involve assessments that should identify what needs or difficulties your child has so that appropriate support can be put in place.

If your child already has an EHC Plan, school refusal could indicate that the support they have in place needs adapting. If this is the case, speak to the SENCo or request an urgent review of the EHC Plan.

Join online support groups to talk to other parents who have similar experiences

The following links may also provide support and guidance on school refusal issues:

Not Fine in School

School Refusal Support Services

School Education Support Group UK

Summary of information provided by Not Fine in School

Further links and resources

Not Fine in School logo

my child is struggling to go to school – what can I do?

Let’s Talk About Anxiety: Animation and Teacher Toolkit

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