Schools in England send police to homes of absent pupils with threats to jail their parents

Some schools in England are sending police to the homes of children who are persistently absent, or warning them their parents may go to prison if their attendance doesn’t improve, the Observer has learned.

Headteachers say they are now under intense pressure from the government to turn around the crisis in attendance, with a record 150,000 children at state schools classed as severely absent in 2022-23. From September, all state schools in England will have to share their attendance records every day with the Department for Education.

But child psychologists and parent groups are warning that the push for full attendance is driving “heavy-handed” crackdowns at some schools, and ignores the issues that often lie behind school refusal, including mental health problems, unmet special educational needs, bereavement or the child being a carer.

Ellie Costello, co-founder of Square Peg, a lobbying and support group for children who don’t fit into the conventional schools model, said: “Parents have told us about very strict schools actually forcing entry to their homes. Schools are turning up with community police. They are shouting up the stairs to highly anxious children, demanding they come into school now.”

Naomi Fisher, psychologist: ‘I’ve heard many times about a child being told, ‘If you don’t come in your mum or dad will go to prison.’ Photograph: Manuel Arias Duran/Getty Images

The group’s membership has more than doubled to 58,000 since the government published strict new guidelines on enforcing attendance for schools, including higher fines and prosecution for parents. Costello said “unprecedented” numbers of families were now “fighting against a toxic, coercive attendance drive”.

Dr Naomi Fisher, a child psychologist who specialises in trauma and autism, said: “I’ve heard many times from parents about a child being told, ‘If you don’t come in your mum or dad will go to prison’.” She describes this as “the most terrible thing you can say to a child”, and argues that this level of pressure will only increase their fear about school.

Fisher is in contact with many families who have described their child hiding when a school attendance officer, or a council welfare officer, or “sometimes the police” turned up and insisted on talking to the child.

Headteacher Ben Davis says it is wrong that the government was trying to ‘vilify parents’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

She said: “The children I see tell me that they are so worried about school they aren’t sleeping, or they’ve stopped eating, or they are having nightmares.” She added that if an adult were to report similar feelings about their job, she would advise them to seek support or consider moving rather than insisting they must not miss a single day.

Last week, Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, criticised parents who she claimed were allowing their children to take Friday off school because they were working at home.

But Fisher said the narrative that poor attendance is all about “slack parents” is wrong. She describes the parents she advises as “desperate”. “If your child isn’t at school, it is very hard to live a normal life,” she said.

Oliver Conway, a child protection solicitor at London law firm Oliver Fisher, which is co-hosting a conference with Square Peg this week on the impact of prosecuting parents on attendance, said many poorer parents were unable to pay fines. He asked: “Why aren’t they giving these families proper mental health support and support from social services instead of trying to punish them?”

One “deeply vulnerable” woman came to him in great distress because the local authority was taking her to court for not sending her 14-year-old daughter into school.

“Her daughter wasn’t going in because she was pregnant. She was involved in county lines [drug trafficking] and she was being sexually abused by a drug dealer,” he said.

He said some of his clients struggled because the council was moving them from one temporary address to another much further away, meaning they had to take two or three buses to reach school.

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Ben Davis, headteacher of St Ambrose Barlow RC High in Salford, said: “We need to move away completely from this idea that people are swinging the lead.”

He said it was wrong that the government was trying to “vilify parents” when the vast majority of severe absences involved families who were “really struggling”, often because of issues which stemmed from poverty.

Secretary of state for education, Gillian Keegan, has criticised parents she claimed were allowing their children to take Friday off school because they were working at home. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

At Davis’s school, a therapist and safeguarding staff try to understand what is causing stress about coming to school and offer children support, as well as a place to escape to if school becomes overwhelming. Issues have included bereavement, family breakdown and criminality.

He said: “We have a girl who is a young carer. At the start of each day, we make sure we say hello to her and she feels seen.” Her low attendance has now increased to over 80%. Attendance rates across the school, especially for disadvantaged students and those with special educational needs, are above the national average.

Davis warned that pressure from government was making it harder for schools to take this sort of gentler approach to absence. “It is an absurd idea that we need to double down on stressed kids with greater robustness and rigour,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We know some children face greater barriers to attendance, like pupils with long-term medical conditions or special educational needs and disabilities.

“That is why we are taking a support-first approach to tackling absence, setting clear expectations that schools and local authorities work closely with families to identify and address the underlying issues.”


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