The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complained about the way in which the Council accepted a referral for legal action form his daughter’s school in respect of her poor attendance. I can find no fault with its actions.
- Mr B complains that Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council (the Council) in respect of his daughter, C:
- failed to follow the correct procedure before accepting the Legal Intervention Referral from the school: in particular it did not have all the listed documents;
- was not allowed to rely on Police and Criminal Evidence legislation (PACE), when conducting interviews; and,
- had a meeting with the school without informing Mr B of the purpose or the outcome.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have written to Mr B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- The Council has a policy detailing the steps to take when considering whether to take legal action against a parent in respect of a child’s poor attendance at school. This states the following:
“Prior to referral to the Legal Intervention Team for formal legal action, there is a mandatory requirement that the school will have, as a minimum, completed the following:-
- fully investigated the reasons for absence;
- met with parent(s) – by home visit and/or in a meeting at school;
- implemented strategies to improve attendance, and provide evidence of this;
- considered and completed a Common Assessment Form where appropriate; and
- informed parents in writing that a referral is being made to the Local Authority requesting formal legal action and that ultimately this may lead to the issue of a Penalty Notice fine or prosecution in Magistrates Court
To help the Local Authority consider any request for legal action, schools should complete the referral form as fully as possible. The referral form should be forwarded to the Legal Intervention Team. All relevant accompanying documents can either be emailed with the referral form, or collected at the referral meeting.
The information on the referral and the accompanying documents will form the basis of any legal action and must therefore be accurate and as comprehensive as possible.”
- Mr B’s daughter C was excluded from school for a short period in March 2017. C was due back at school on 30 March 2017, but Mr B informed the school that she was not well enough to return. The school visited Mr B and C at their home on 11 May 2017.It also said it had daily contact with Mr B via telephone and email. C started a phased return on 15 May 2017 but after a few days C did not want to carry on due to anxiety issues and other physical ailments.
- In June 2017 the school wrote to Mr B setting out the options of C returning to school with support, continued absence which would lead to a referral to the Legal Intervention Team [LIT] or C could transfer to a different school. Mr B replied saying that C would be staying at the school, the school was fully aware of her needs and that the school needed to set out the specific support it could offer to her. He said he only wanted written communication.
- The school replied saying that C’s attendance was currently 54% and unsatisfactory so it would be making a referral to the LIT. The school continued to communicate with Mr B by email during July and said C was welcome back into school at any point to agree an appropriate reintegration package, such as a reduced timetable and structure at break times via student support. Mr B responded saying that the school had not provided details of the support plan. The school said it could not do so until it knew what C’s specific needs were and asked Mr B to provide this information. It offered to meet with C at the beginning of term in September and detailed some steps it could take to assist C in getting back to school.
- The school completed the referral form and sent it to the LIT. The form said that certain documents had to be provided before the referral could be accepted. These included a record of attendance meetings held at school and records of home visits made by school staff to discuss attendance. The LIT accepted the referral on 1 August 2017. It wrote to the school confirming it had opened a case, the school should forward weekly attendance registers and continue with its efforts to improve attendance. It also wrote to Mr B informing him of the possibility of legal action against him and inviting him to attend a meeting on 5 September 2017 to discuss the matter in more detail. It also said it would monitor C’s attendance for a six-week period form 4 September 2017 and expected a minimum of 95% attendance.
- Mr B had several telephone calls with the LIT at the beginning of August expressing his dissatisfaction with the process and the school’s actions. He said he had provided all the medical information to the school and it would not provide details of the support it would provide for C. He also requested a copy of the referral form which the Council sent on 8 August 2017.
- Mr B then requested details of the home visits and meetings at school the Council said they were not on the file and it would request them from the school. Mr B said these documents should have been provided with the referral and it should not have been accepted without them. He then emailed the Council to say all communication should be in writing and complaining about the lack of the correct documents with the referral form.
- On 4 September 2017 the Council wrote to Mr B offering an informal meeting on 11 September 2017 to discuss a way forward for C. On 7 September 2017 the school met with Mr and Mrs B and C to discuss C’s re-integration. After this C started back at school with support.
- On 13 September 2017 the Council wrote to Mr B requesting information under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) either in writing or by recorded interview. Mr B did not respond.
- In October 2017 the Council reviewed C’s attendance: as it was now 98% it decided to take no further action.
- The Council responded to a further complaint from Mr B in November 2017. It considered the LIT had followed the correct procedures but accepted that the information on the referral form referring to mandatory documents may have been misleading so it had amended this for the future.
- Mr B then complained to the Ombudsman. In response to my enquiries the Council said it accepted the referral form because it was satisfied that C’s attendance was well below the expected level, the school had demonstrated that it made attempts to improve the attendance, Mr and Mrs B had not engaged with the school’s attempts and had not provided any documentary evidence to support C’s absence.
- The Council’s policy requires a school, before referring a case to the LIT, to provide sufficient information to show that a pupil’s poor attendance has been fully investigated, that adequate attempts have been made to secure improvements and that parents have been warned of the consequences of continued poor attendance. The Council was satisfied that this information had been provided and there were sufficient grounds to open a case.
- On the evidence available I cannot find fault with this process. The school provided details of the steps it had taken in respect of reintegration. It said it had no records of meetings because Mr and Mrs B had not attended any and had provided no documentary evidence to support C’s absence. The Council then offered Mr and Mrs B several opportunities to provide more information but they did not accept them.
- In respect of the specific issue of the ‘mandatory documents’ the Council has accepted this could be misleading and has amended its form for future use. I do not consider this issue has affected the outcome in C’s case because the Council was satisfied from the information provided that C’s absence was low enough, without adequate documented reasons, to justify further action. It also appears that the evidence was not included with the form because it did not exist due to the lack of engagement by Mr and Mrs B.
- The Council is permitted to conduct interviews under the PACE legislation where prosecution may follow. I can find no fault with this and I also note Mr and Mrs B did not proceed with an interview in any event.
- The LIT did not have a meeting with the school without informing Mr B but it did communicate with the school following the referral to obtain further information. I cannot find fault with its actions. It could have discussed the information with Mr and Mrs B and obtained their views if they had attended one of the meetings offered, but they chose not to do so.
- I have completed my investigation into this complaint as I am unable to find fault causing injustice in the actions of the Council towards Mr B.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman