Councils reminded of their duty to provide alternative education

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is reminding council school attendance teams that their duty to provide alternative education may arise for reasons other than exclusion and illness.

West Sussex County Council has been told to apologise for not considering whether it should provide alternative education and support for a girl when she could not attend secondary school because of her high levels of anxiety.

The Ombudsman did not criticise the council for starting legal action against the parents for non-attendance at school. But it found the council was later at fault for advising the girl’s school not to send work home, and for not considering alternative provision sooner. If the council had taken a more flexible approach, the girl might have received a blended learning package earlier than she did.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“The Education Act specifically states that councils have a duty to provide education for children who ‘by reason of illness, exclusion or otherwise may not receive suitable education’.

“In this case, while I appreciate the parents could have explained sooner their daughter’s non-attendance, officers should have considered offering the family a learning package at an earlier stage, rather than continuing to focus on prosecuting the parents.

“I hope the recommendations I have made to make staff aware of their duties to children out of school, will ensure children in similar circumstances receive the education they are entitled to.”

The girl, who is now 15, started refusing to go to school in her early teens and eventually her attendance dropped to below 60%. Her parents and school tried a number of ways to help her, but she refused to engage. The girl’s doctor reported she had a physical medical problem but it was not clear whether this affected her ability to attend school.

As months went by, the parents sought support from the school for their daughter’s attendance, but she was refusing to see her doctor or engage with anyone.

The council wrote to the parents to start fast-tracking proceedings to prosecute. The parents explained they were doing everything to get their daughter into school.

The council refused the parents’ request to suspend proceedings while they sought help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), but said it would withdraw action if the girl’s attendance improved, or there was evidence she was medically unfit to attend school.

A forum meeting agreed the school would send work home for the girl, but afterwards a council officer told the school it did not support this approach unless the parents provided medical evidence for the non-attendance.

A youth worker thought the girl was not capable of attending school and wanted to see a ‘blended learning package’ put in place. However, a council officer said without a formal diagnosis that was not an option.

Eventually the girl was diagnosed with high levels of anxiety and social and school phobia. The council withdrew the parents’ prosecution, and made a referral to consider a programme of blended learning.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case, the council has been told to apologise to the parents and pay them £400 to recognise the loss of educational opportunity, to be used for their daughter’s educational benefit.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve a council’s processes for the wider public.

In this case the council has been asked to remind staff that the duty to provide alternative education may arise for reasons other than exclusion and illness.

Article date: 12 December 2018

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