Elizabeth Harris recounts how an ill-judged absence letter prompted her to bring a legal challenge to her LEA...
When a parent is told that their child will live with a disability or medical issue for the rest of their life, you accept that there’ll be challenges along the way – but as a parent to a partially sighted 6-year-old-boy, I didn’t expect to encounter our first hurdle at his school.
Last year, my husband and I received a letter from the school in relation to our son’s attendance record. He’d been in hospital for a week recovering from an eye operation, of which the headteacher had been made fully aware and was supportive of. It was a standard absence form letter, with our son’s name added in a different font. The letter seemed threatening, making reference to ‘welfare action’ if his attendance didn’t improve.
To receive a letter based on the same template the school uses for unauthorised absences was devastating, after what we had already endured over the previous few months. So why did our son’s school feel it appropriate to send out a letter about his attendance?
I’m a legal advisor by profession, so it’s in my nature to continually question everything. It was with this mind that I read through the school’s attendance policy, which originated from the model policy provided to schools in Essex by the local education authority. The policy suggests to schools that they should offer attendance incentives to children who are present in school for 100% of a term or academic year. But what happens to the children who simply cannot achieve 100%, due to absences necessitated by their disability or other medical issues?
I raised the issues of threatening letters and attendance incentives with both the school and the Department of Education. The school’s response cited a ‘government requirement’ to send template letters to parents when their child’s attendance drops below 98%. However, the Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, confirmed that there was no requirement for schools to send such letters to parents – but that if they chose to out of genuine concern, they should be personalised and non-threatening.
The DfE doesn’t provide guidance for incentive schemes, but has stated that it expects schools to be “Appropriate and inclusive”, and run them in line with the government guidance for schools relating to the Equality Act.
In the end, our son’s school confirmed that we would receive no further attendance warning letters, but refused to amend the existing attendance rewards scheme to include children with disabilities, since it felt that healthy children who had attended school for 100% of the time should be rewarded for this “Considerable feat”.
I then turned to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to reaffirm my concerns about discrimination. Its guidance confirmed that the LEA’s model policy was failing to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for children with disabilities under the Equality Act 2010.
The policy further failed to adhere to the Children’s and Families Act 2014. According to the government’s statutory advice for school leaders and managers [PDF], “It is not generally acceptable practice to…penalise children for their attendance record if their absences are related to their medical condition, e.g. hospital appointments”.
Presented with this information, I took my concerns directly to Essex County Council, which agreed to amend its model policy in time for the next academic year. The amended model policy, which will be shared among all schools in Essex, now includes advice on how to ensure that attendance reward schemes are inclusive of children with disabilities and serious medical conditions.
While this is great news for pupils in Essex, my experience of speaking with hundreds of other parents across the rest of country paints a frightful picture.
One of the saddest examples of discrimination I encountered was from a mother whose daughter is currently in remission from battling cancer. As a direct result of her being absent from school for life-saving treatment, she wasn’t allowed to join her friends on the playground for a bouncy castle event. Another parent contacted me to explain that their son, born with a heart problem, was denied the opportunity to join his friends on a visit to Harry Potter World as a result of his hospital appointments.
How are parents supposed to comfort their child, when all they see is that their medical issue is preventing them from joining in the fun? Imagine being told as an adult in the workplace that you can’t attend this year’s Christmas party because of your disability?
As long as these discriminatory policies continue to exist, children with disabilities and serious medical conditions will not be treated on equal footing with those who don’t live with health problems. The law is clear – it just needs to be applied throughout our education system.
Further information on how schools can develop fully inclusive attendance policies can be found in the following documents, both produced by the DfE:
You can follow Elizabeth Harris at @ReemanHarris