Children too anxious to attend school being failed by English councils – report

Councils are failing to put adequate alternative education in place for the growing numbers of children in England who are unable to attend school because of social anxiety, according to a report by the local government ombudsman.

Many have complex special educational needs and are unable to go to school because there are no suitable places available in their area, meaning they can go months and even years without any proper alternative arrangements, the report said.

In one case, an autistic boy with extreme anxiety who was unable to attend his mainstream school was given just five hours a week online tuition in English and maths for a year, with no proper consideration for how he might study for the rest of his GSCE subjects.

In another example, a teenager was without a school place – or proper alternative education – for almost 14 months after moving to an area in the middle of the school term, at a time when she too should have been preparing for her GCSEs.

Parents have a duty to ensure their children receive a suitable, full-time education. Under the law however, where children are not in school because of illness, exclusion or otherwise, councils are required to assess and make arrangements to provide a proper alternative education where required.

The local government and social care ombudsman, Michael King, warned children were being robbed of their potential to thrive because councils were failing to fulfil their responsibilities properly. Last year, the ombudsman upheld 89% of investigations into complaints on this issue.

“We know getting an alternative education set up as soon as possible is crucial to ensure children do not fall behind their peers, but we see examples of councils trying to pass the buck, saying it is the school’s responsibility,” King said.

“Parents need to know this isn’t right. Councils have a legal obligation to properly consider what alternative education is provided when a child cannot attend school, and it must be suitable to the child – not a token gesture of the minimum hours.”

In a separate case highlighted by the ombudsman, a mother made a complaint about Dorset council after her son, who has special educational needs, missed out on his education for almost two years.

The boy, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and traits of autism, became unable to attend school because of high levels of stress and anxiety. The ombudsman found the council failed to provide him with adequate alternative education and social support between February 2020 and November 2021. The family has been awarded £8,800 in compensation.

“I am pleased Dorset council has readily agreed to the recommendations I have made to put things right in this case,” said King. “I hope the changes it will make to the way it keeps track of children out of school, and the services it provides for them, will ensure other children are not disadvantaged like this child.”

Cllr Andrew Parry, portfolio holder for children, education, skills and early help at Dorset council, apologised for the council’s failings. “We have taken these matters seriously and have made a number of changes to our services so other families do not have to go through the same experience.”

A spokesperson for the Local Government Association, which represents more than 300 English local authorities, said: “Councils are committed to working with parents and carers to ensure their child attends a school where they receive the best possible support and education, and are doing everything they can to achieve this, within the budgets made available by the government.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Local authorities are responsible for ensuring there are sufficient school places for all children in their area, and we have increased high needs funding for them to £9.1bn overall next year, to help them meet the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities. We encourage them to work collaboratively with parents and local partners so the right range of provision is available for all children.”