My child won’t go to school – what can I do?
“I just can’t get my child into school” is a familiar refrain on the SENDIASS advice line nowadays. Struggles with attendance have always been an issue for children with SEND. There are many things at the root of this. A mismatch between a child’s needs and the environment or support currently on offer for them at school is one. Mental health issues that prevent a child being able to learn or feel safe in school are another. Sometimes bullying or a traumatic incident are a tipping point. But both schools and families say that Covid-19 and the unusual circumstances of the past two years have made the problem bigger than ever.
Here are the SENDIASS team’s dos and don’ts for parents trying to manage this tricky issue
DO listen to your child and acknowledge how they feel. Let them know education is important and you will keep trying to help them get back to school, feeling more comfortable and able to learn, working with whoever can help with this.
DO keep talking to school even if you feel they are not hearing you properly or taking on board what you are saying. Seek out the most useful people to speak to. Is it the SENCO or a pastoral lead? You are probably going to have to be persistent given the many pressures on schools. They will not immediately know whether your child is one who will get back to school with a bit of extra encouragement or pushing, versus a child whose situation and needs are more complex. The school should make a plan with you about support and the next steps.
DO write a summary about your child and the issues they face that you can send to each new person or service you have to speak to, so you are not endlessly repeating yourself. Keep it short (bullet points, not an essay) but include their known needs and any that you think need more investigation, a brief timeline that shows when things changed, a list of what has been tried already by you and others and if it helped, and details of any assessments or medical input that have happened or you are waiting for. Keep it factual so it can be used in different situations.
DO contact your GP if mental health issues are part of the picture for your child. We all know children’s mental health services are overstretched and it can be difficult to get the response you want from them, but you have to ask. At the very least you need your child’s GP to be aware. Ask the school about the mental health or emotional wellbeing services they can access too.
DO think about what your child enjoys and what helps them. Look for positive things you can help them do whilst they are not in school – anything that gets them out of the bedroom and feeling engaged. If there are positive links with school you can keep going, do so, for example links with school friends if they have any. Try self-help approaches to building their emotional health. See links below for good places to look for ideas.
DO get yourself informed about the local authority (LA) services that deal with this issue and how they should help. There are services that help with attendance issues, arrange tuition for children that are too ill to attend, and give advice about elective home education. We give links below to the key services in East Sussex and Brighton & Hove for each of these.
DON’T allow anyone to push you towards taking your child off roll at a school (AKA de-register them) and switch to Elective Home Education (EHE) to solve this problem. Home Ed can be a great option for families that choose this for themselves but it is not something you should do because of pressure or the threat of fines for non-attendance. It also means that you become solely responsible for meeting your child’s special educational needs.
DO make sure you know the legal position and your child’s rights. As a parent, you are legally responsible for making sure your child receives a suitable education by attending school or via elective home education. But local authorities (LA) have to provide alternative education, or ‘education other than at school’ (EOTAS) to children who are not currently receiving an education by reason of illness, exclusion or otherwise. So if you and the school have tried all the right things to help your child attend and they really can’t go to school, the LA should provide them with an alternative such as home tuition or alternative provision. This is pretty clear cut when it is a physical health problem but can be trickier when it is a mental health issue or unmet SEND. Ideally, you will have evidence from a health specialist, but it can legally be from your GP in some circumstances, for example if you are on the waiting list for CAMHS. See below for additional information about the legal position from national advice charity IPSEA.
DO cooperate with the things the school or services like ESBAS ask you and your child to try, even if you are sceptical about whether they will work. Ultimately you will want to show that all reasonable alternatives have been tried, and sometimes things go better than we expect. On the other hand, if you think the proposed approach could be damaging for your child you need to explain why and look for evidence to back this up.
DON’T accept a part-time arrangement as a long-term solution. Part-time timetables can be a useful tool to help a child through a tricky period or help them return to school after a gap. They should be time limited with a process to review and build up towards getting a full time education. If a child is on a part-time programme longer than a period of weeks, careful thought needs to be given to whether they need different provision. Is it time to look at requesting assessment for an EHC Plan? If they already have an EHCP do they need a different placement now? Watch our Amaze SENDIASS video about informal school exclusions and part-time timetables.
DO find out more about Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) if you think this may be the best way to understand what is going on for your child. This is a term used to describe children who are having serious trouble attending school due to emotional factors such as anxiety. But bear in mind that for some children what looks like EBSA is actually due to unmet SEND needs, for example if they have learning difficulties or sensory issues that have not been fully recognised or supported. Read more about Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA).
DO look for advice and support for yourself a well as your child. It can be very stressful supporting a child who is unhappy and struggling. There are many other families in a similar situation. SENDIASS can offer impartial advice about the law and local services, but why not also join a parent group to get mutual support. Our SENDIASS advisers can provide details of local and national groups, but the groups run by Amaze Face 2 Face are a good place to start.
Help from Amaze
- SENDIASS advice line: 01273 772289 or email@example.com
- Amaze Face 2 Face has parent groups in East Sussex and Brighton & Hove
East Sussex County Council
- Education for children too ill for school in East Sussex: Teaching and Learning Provision (TLP)
- ISEND Services to help children with SEND including ESBAS (support with attendance and behaviour)
- Elective Home Education (East Sussex) information
Brighton & Hove City Council
- Education for children too ill for school in Brighton & Hove: Education Other Than At School (EOTAS)
- BHISS (the local inclusion support service that offers help with SEND, including behaviour and mental wellbeing)
- Elective Home Education (Brighton & Hove) information
- IPSEA advice
- Not Fine In School – support information for families with a child facing barriers to school attendance
- West Sussex County Council produces really useful information information on Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)
- Sussex CAMHS parent page
- NHS advice for parents on helping their child’s mental health
- Young Minds parent advice
- Place 2 Be (parenting advice from child mental health experts) Place2Be: Parenting Smart: Articles