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Councils must not let down children who are out of school for special reasons

The Local Government Ombudsmen urge councils to ensure that children’s rights to full-time education are met and to avoid some of the common mistakes made when providing education to children not in school.

The LGO, which independently investigates complaints about local authorities in England, has published lessons learned from recurring themes in complaints received from parents about children not in school – Out of school…out of mind?

Councils have a statutory duty to make other arrangements to educate a child where there are reasons for them not being in school full time. Looking across recent cases, the Ombudsmen conclude that some local authorities misunderstand their duties or pay them less attention than they should. As a result, some children are missing out on crucial years of education, which could disadvantage them for the rest of their lives.

Earlier this month the Government clarified that education provision to children out of school must be full time, by strengthening legislation.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman and Acting Chair of the Commission for Local Administration in England, said:

“We believe this change in the law is a helpful development that makes local authorities’ duties much clearer and strengthens the rights of children. It can be really serious for a child if they don't get the opportunity of a good education. They can struggle to get qualifications and find it harder to get work. The law is clear that all children should get an education that is suitable to their needs – and that includes those who for special reasons are not going to school. But too often we find they are the victims of injustice. Councils need to understand what commonly goes wrong and learn from good practice. Otherwise, more children will miss out. We know that councils will want to get this right and we want to help them."

The report tells the stories of six teenagers who did not receive proper educational provision. They include a girl with special educational needs who was denied specialist help; a child with behavioural difficulties who was taken out of school by his parents because of physical threats; and a boy advised not go to school because of his mental health problems.

The Ombudsmen identify mistakes that councils often make by assuming they:

  • have no duty to act because the case does not concern illness or exclusion from school
  • can provide the minimum entitlement for sick children of five hours teaching a week
  • have no responsibility for a child because he or she remains on the roll of a particular school, or
  • are doing enough but fail to provide interim arrangements when there is a delay in organising provision.

The Ombudsmen recommend that, to avoid these problems, councils should:

  • consider the individual circumstances of each case and be aware that potentially a council may need to act whatever the reason for absence, even when a child is on a school roll
  • consult all the professionals involved in a child’s education and welfare, taking account of the evidence in coming to decisions
  • choose, based on all the evidence, whether to enforce attendance or provide the child with suitable alternative education
  • keep all cases of part-time education under review with a view to increasing it if a child’s capacity to cope increases
  • adopt a strategic and planned approach to reintegrating children back into mainstream education where they are able to do so, and
  • put whatever action is chosen into practice without delay to ensure the child is back in education as soon as possible.

Article date: 29 September 2011