Norfolk County Council (16 006 319)

Category : Education > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 12 Feb 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There is no evidence of fault in the way the Council tried to support Ms Z and Y to ensure Y attended school regularly. But the Council’s failure to communicate effectively with Mr X and to explain its role and what could be achieved amounts to fault.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr X complains the Council failed to provide appropriate or adequate assistance to his son, Y to ensure he attended school regularly. He complains that rather than help Y, the Early Help team made the situation worse.
  2. Mr X also complains that the Council failed to deal with his complaint properly.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word 'fault' to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint and the documents provided by Mr X;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
    • discussed the issues with Mr X;
    • sent a statement setting out my draft decision to Mr X and the Council and invited their comments. I have considered the Council’s response.

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What I found

  1. The Education Act 1996 imposes a duty on parents to ensure their child gets a full-time education that meets their needs. Failure to meet this duty is an offence. Local authorities have the power to prosecute parents who fail to ensure their child’s regular attendance at school.
  2. If parents are having difficulty in getting their child to go to school, the school and local authority can help

Fast Track to Attendance Programme

  1. The Council’s Fast Track to Attendance programme provides an opportunity for parents and their child to meet with teachers, school governors and Attendance Improvement Officers to identify the reasons for absence and to work together to improve attendance. Different strategies to improve attendance will be considered, a supportive action plan will be agreed and an attendance target will be set.
  2. The school will monitor attendance and if the attendance target is not met, it may recommend the Council take legal action. This could include: prosecution in the magistrate’s court, an Education Supervision Order or Parenting Order.

Early Help

  1. The Council’s Early Help team works with children, young people and their families to offer support in a range of areas at an early stage. The aim is to support families to resolve their own problems and prevent further problems in the future.

Key facts

  1. Y lives with his mother Ms Z. Mr X lives some distance away, but has regular contact with Y.
  2. In January 2016 Y’s school contacted the Council to ask for support for Y. The school was concerned about Y’s attendance level and his refusal to attend school, and had initiated the Fast Track process. The Council assigned Officer 1, an Early Help worker to support Y, Ms Z and the school to help Y get back to school.
  3. Officer 1 visited Ms Z and then met with Y at school. The records show Officer 1 also supported Ms Z in arranging and attending appointments.
  4. As Y’s attendance had improved the school took him off the fast track process in March 2016, but continued to monitor his attendance. Officer 1 also continued to support Ms Z and Y.
  5. Y’s attendance at school declined again and the school placed him back on the Fast Track process in May 2016.
  6. Mr X was concerned about the nature of the support Y was receiving. He felt Y was not receiving appropriate support to develop coping strategies to overcome his day to day concerns about attending school. Mr X was also concerned Y was being allowed to make poor decisions and avoid the consequences of his actions.
  7. Mr X attended a review meeting in early June 2016 to discuss the support in place to help Y and what could be offered. The records state that should Y continue not to attend school the option of him moving to live with Mr X would be explored.
  8. Y did not attend school consistently the following week and Mr X was concerned Officer 1 did not take any action to escalate matters or adhere to the Fast Track process. Mr X felt Y would benefit from moving to live with him where he would be able to have more direct influence over his attendance at school. Officer 1 advised Mr X they could only make suggestions and it was a matter for Mr X and Ms Z to agree whether Y should move schools.
  9. Mr X made a complaint to the Council about Officer 1. A team manager, Officer 2 contacted Mr X to discuss his concerns. I have not received a record of this conversation, but there is no evidence Mr X asked for his concerns to be considered further following this conversation.
  10. Mr X made a second complaint about Officer 1 on 11 July 2016. This complaint was prompted by Officer 1’s failure to attend a review meeting earlier that day. Mr X had taken the afternoon off work and was travelling to the school when Officer 1 contacted him to say the meeting had been arranged for 18 July 2016. Officer 1 had another meeting that afternoon, but Mr X states she offered to meet after that and would contact the school to arrange this. Mr X and school staff waited for Officer 1, but she did not arrive.
  11. Mr X attempted to contact Officer 1 and received a call back from another officer, Officer 3. Officer 3 said Officer 1 would not be attending and would not return Mr X’s call that day. Mr X complains that Officer 3 laughed at him when he said he would make a complaint.
  12. Mr X asked for Officer 1 to be removed from the case and for both Officer 1 and 3 to be subject to disciplinary processes. He also asked for an explanation for the decline in Y’s attendance since Officer 1’s involvement. Mr X wanted there to be a separate meeting of the professionals involved, without him or Ms Y present and for Officer 2 to attend the review meeting on 18 July 2016.
  13. Officer 2 attended the review meeting on 18 July 2016. The notes of this meeting state that it was agreed that Y would return to school in September. If Y did not attend every day for the first two weeks of term the school would put Elearning in place. This would allow Y to learn at home or by combination of home and school. The next meeting was arranged for 20 September 2017.
  14. Officer 2 then responded to Mr X’s complaint on 22 July 2016. Officer 2 suggested that as there was now a good plan in place in may be appropriate to end the Early Help involvement. They also noted Y’s attendance had deteriorated after the Fast Track process was halted. This coincided with Officer 1 taking on the case.
  15. Mr X was unhappy with this response. He wanted Officer 1 to be replaced, rather than for Early Help’s support to end. Mr X also disputed that Y’s decline in attendance was due to the removal of the Fast Track process. He asked for his complaint to be escalated to the next stage of the complaints process.
  16. The Council agreed to consider Mr X’s complaint at stage 2 of its complaint process in August 2016. It completed its investigation report in February 2017. This report noted it is the school’s responsibility to initiate processes that enable better attendance. Early Help are an additional resource to give more direct intervention at home to support that process. Officer 1 had tried a variety of methods to try and support Y and Ms Z to change the situation, but Y would not engage. Early Help has no method for enforcing behaviour changes and if the advice is not accepted and acted on then the service will end.
  17. The Council had considered whether the threshold had been met for a referral to the social care teams, but decided it had not.
  18. In terms of its communication with Mr X the Council advised that Ms Z had consented to share some but not all information with Mr X. The Council apologised if this was not made clear to Mr X as it meant that Officer 1 was restricted in what she could talk about with Mr X and the paperwork she could share.
  19. The Council apologised for, but was unable to offer any explanation for the confusion around the date of the meeting in July 2016.
  20. The Council urged Mr X to continue to liaise with the school about Y’s education.
  21. Mr X remained unhappy and asked the Council to escalate his complaint to stage three of its complaints process. The Council agreed, but this did not progress as there was no agreement on the terms of the complaint.
  22. As a result, Mr X asked Ombudsman to investigate his concerns. In response to my enquiries the Council has provided copies of its case records detailing the support provided to Ms Z and Y. I have considered these in detail but am unable to share them with Mr X.

Analysis

  1. As referred to above, I am restricted in the information I can share with Mr X. The information provided shows that the Early Help team offered support and advice to Ms Z and Y to try and help Y attend school. Mr X does not consider the support provided was sufficient or robust enough to be successful in ensure Y attended school. But the Early Help team’s work is dependent on Ms Z and Y’s engagement and acceptance of the support offered. The Council has no way of compelling them to accept the support offered.
  2. Decisions about where and with whom Y lives or the school he attends are a private matter between Mr X and Ms Z as his parents. Possibly requiring the intervention of the court, if this cannot be agreed. The Council could not compel Y to move to live with Mr X if he did not attend school.
  3. It would clearly have been beneficial if the Council had explained the Early Help team’s role and limitations to Mr X at an earlier stage. This would have ensured Mr X’s understanding of and expectations about what support could be provided, and the outcomes that could be achieved were accurate.
  4. Mr X is understandably disappointed Y’s attendance did not improve, but there is no evidence of fault in the way the Council tried to support Ms Z or Y in assisting Y attend school.
  5. It is unclear how the misunderstanding around the date of the review on July 2016 arose. To avoid such confusion, I would expect a clear record of the outcomes and the dates of future reviews to be shared with all parties. The review document does not specify the date of the next review meeting but Officer 1’s notes of the meeting state this was scheduled for 18 July 2016. However, neither the school, nor Mr X received copies of the review document or minutes of the meeting. Had these documents been available, any confusion could have been avoided.
  6. Mr X does not feel the Council has adequately addressed his concerns or complaints. I consider this is, in part because the Council is unable to share full details of its support to Ms Z and Y with Mr X. This will have been compounded by failure to ensure Mr X understood the Early Help team’s role and limitations at the outset.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr X and to pay him £150 in recognition of the frustration, anxiety and time and trouble he has experienced as a result of the Council’s failure to communicate effectively with him and to explain its role and what could be achieved.
  2. The Council should apologise and make this payment within one month of this decision.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation on the basis there is no evidence of fault in the way the Council tried to support Ms Z and Y to ensure Y attended school regularly. But the Council’s failure to communicate effectively with Mr X and to explain its role and what could be achieved amounts to fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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