Viewing complex, multi-faceted problems through a single lens only distorts the issues; trying to impose a one-size-fits-all solution only causes further harm to those involved – especially when it sets the unreachable target of one hundred percent attendance!
What’s been said?
The matter of school attendance is rarely out of the news. Its relevance to them may not be immediately apparent to all home educating parents, but it is part of a narrative we should be aware of and seeking to re-balance by all means possible.
This Byte considers three items bringing different perspectives around this theme.
Firstly, on 13 November educational psychologist Chris Bagley posted on his blog, “The Schools Bill – a sleep-walk into tyranny?”, a heartfelt and strongly worded critique of attendance policies which adversely affect those young people who struggle with the school environment.
Secondly, a Welsh Government Children and Young People’s Education Committee [CYPEC] Report on pupil absence (November 2022) included enlightening feedback about changing attitudes towards education and attendance post-pandemic.
Finally, parents of children with special educational needs have reacted strongly to DfE draft plans to alter pupil registration regulations, fearing they may lose important protections. With support from Educational Freedom they have successfully raised funds for a legal opinion “on the process and content of the Draft School attendance (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2023,” to protect the rights of children with EHCP/CIN/CP plans. Part of the statement summarising their objectives reads:
“De-registration on demand is an important protection and fundamental right for children who may be struggling to cope with the demands of school due to not having their needs met or fully identified, we believe the proposals are discriminatory and breach human rights.
Once implemented the proposals could also open the door to requiring consent for all school roll removals, as it alters the current legal position where parents have direct control over deregistration of their children under current pupil regulations.”
Why does it matter?
Getting school attendance ‘back to normal’ is proving more difficult than expected, according to CYPEC. Chapter 4 of their Report focused on reasons for pupil absence, including feedback received about mental health issues and children with additional learning needs.
One Council had reported that the “relevance of curriculum and assessment” is now questioned by learners “post covid.” They attributed this to alternative forms of assessment during the pandemic having shown it is “no longer the ‘only way’ to assess at end of KS4”. They now see learners as being “less resilient but also less accepting of the narrative about presenteeism and exam success in a broad range of compulsory subjects being the only suitable route”. [Emphasis added]
Another “clear and consistent theme” from the evidence gathered was that the pandemic and school closures had led to “a more accepting attitude to lower school attendance.”
One Council pointed to the impact of broader social changes, such as the move to working from home, and attendance “no longer synonymous with attainment or outcomes.” The Association of School and College Leaders Cymru (ASCL) reported “a significant drop in parental concern” on the importance of attendance, and that students also perceive attendance as not as important.”
Such factors may well play into the current preoccupation with school attendance evident in both England and Wales. We have seen high profile campaigns from prominent children’s professionals such as Dame Rachel de Souza, and smaller local efforts which seek to “engage the pupil voice” in order to “reduce absenteeism” are also reported.
One may find oneself strongly questioning whether such things truly have the benefit of the individual child at heart, or whether some of the motivation has to do with an attempt to save face for a system that finds itself unable to meet the needs of so many of the children on its roll. (Of course, this is not to do down the dedication of those hard-working and caring teaching staff which are found in every school, but rather it is a window on a system which cannot possibly meet the needs of every child.)
According to Bagley, pressure for increased school attendance is actually causing harm to many of those young people who struggle with the school environment. He reports that of almost two thousand parent responses to a survey carried out by support organisations Square Peg and Not Fine in School, “an astonishing 94% reported that school has had a very negative or negative impact on their child’s mental health.”
He cites several factors which combine to create a climate where “more and more children cannot cope, stop attending school and are met with growing suspicion and threat of punishment. At the same time, attendance policing has ratcheted up exponentially.” These factors include “an inflexible, narrow curriculum, school competition, discriminatory assessment practices and explicit efforts to ‘remove the bias towards inclusive education,’” and he speaks of “an era where school policies are increasingly less accepting of difference and neurodiversity.”
Given that parents’ suggestions of more relational remedies such as ‘a flexible curriculum,’ ‘reasonable adjustments’ and ‘prioritising student wellbeing’ have largely fallen on deaf ears at government level, Bagley sees two options.
“As a society, we can either accept this, listen in good faith and think together about how to change things, or engage in legislative gaslighting as the government are currently doing.”
There follows a scorching analysis of schooling as we know it:
“In its current form, schooling is not a valid conceptualisation of education for all… For those who cannot comply with its demands, the school system operates like a gigantic scapegoating machine.”
Bagley’s concluding paragraphs highlight educational landmarks of recent decades, and place the measures outlined in the now abandoned Schools Bill (but which are more than likely to be revisited), in the context of a worrying journey into “an age of educational tyranny, a place where the state’s right to enforce its version of schooling trumps a young person and family’s right to health.”
He warns that “this latest wave of oppressive legislation undermines individual liberty and the right to family life” and speaks of “political ideologies that are not subject to rational challenge, alongside an assumed right for the government to enforce its will whatever the cost.”
He is certainly on point with this warning:
“Whilst it [the Schools Bill] has been delayed for now, the ideologies and approaches might emerge in more pernicious ways, through ‘guidance’ documents that are not subject to democratic oversight.”
Cautions of this nature should bring home to us that what happens to parents in one sector today may happen to all tomorrow if we stand by and allow the necessary checks and balances on legislation to be eroded. There is a need to support all families who believe their children are best provided for outside the state system, for the benefit of all.
This principle sets the parents’ crowdfunder for that legal opinion on the Pupil Registration Regulations in a broader context. If introduced, new rules would make it impossible for any child with an EHCP to be removed from a school roll without LA consent. But it matters for us all that deregistration on demand is not surrendered for any.
The fact that support structures have to exist for parents whose children struggle in a school setting, and that the majority of parental feedback to the September 2020 Education Committee inquiry into home education was played down in favour of the views of organisations should give pause for thought.
Somehow the approach to each child as an individual has got lost in a sea of data and statistics. But in the end, data is anonymous. It’s not relational; it’s about numbers, not individuals. It doesn’t matter to parents whether school attendance is framed in terms of reducing absenteeism or boosting presenteeism – ideologies don’t cut it. It’s those fundamental, human-scale relationships which make the difference, and parents instinctively know that.
What can I do?
Chris Bagley’s article is a must-read. It illustrates so clearly the struggles being faced by families of children with special educational needs for whom “navigating the education system can be a monumental war of attrition.”
It is indeed vital that parents are awake and aware of the direction of travel, standing up for their freedoms and responsibilities. Erosion does not happen overnight, but it does happen unless timely preventive measures are taken.
Relieved as we are that the Schools Bill has finally been laid to rest, there remains a need for continued vigilance in case lobbyists or policy-makers attempt to achieve similar objectives by alternative means in the near future.
Remember too that home educators are still under pressure in Wales. Keep up with developments through Families First In Education – Wales, or if you home educate in Wales, through the Welsh Home Educators Community Action Facebook group.