Formal investigation: complaint reference number CR 13807

Response to complaint

A parent complained to the Council in August 2021 that her son had been unable to attend school since March 2021 (when children legally returned to school). He has a diagnosis of ADHD Autism. His anxiety around school and unmet needs at school led to him being unable to leave the house. He had received no formal education since then.

The complaint was investigated by an independent investigator, and they upheld the complaint.

We have fully considered the investigator’s findings and accept their conclusion that there were avoidable delays in providing education to the child.

We are truly sorry for the issues the family has experienced. We understand the impact this has had on all of them and we have unreservedly apologised for this.

We feel it is important to be open and transparent about the findings from this complaint. We have therefore agreed with the investigator and the parent to publish an anonymised version of the report on our website.

Summary of the case

The complaint centres on the view that Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) did not provide the child with alternative education since March 2021 when they became aware that he was not attending his school and further, after the Council were notified in May 2021 by a Neuropsychiatric Consultant, that the child had an autistic spectrum condition, demand avoidant behaviours and related extreme anxiety, which prevented him from accessing school on medical grounds.

CBC and capacity to respond proportionately at the time of the child’s continued and extended absence from school was hampered by the absence of medical evidence and explanation.

CBC requested of the parent to provide substantial medical evidence to explain why the child was unable to attend school due to medical issues.

The parent reported that her son missed out on his education for over five months at the time of lodging her complaint. The parent had to stay at home to care for him and the family have been caused avoidable distress and anxiety.

The Access and Inclusion Team involvement in this case was to determine whether the family required prosecution for non-attendance. CBC decided not to issue a penalty notice to parents as there was recognition by CBC that this would not have been helpful to the process at the time. CBC acknowledged that this case was not straightforward at the time.

Medical evidence of the extent of the child’s severe anxiety was not provided by parents to the School or CBC Access and Inclusion Service at the point of the child’s sustained absence from school. CBC were not in possession of all the information required to enable effective decision making regarding medical needs provision. Consequently, CBC identified that the child’s educational requirements did not meet the criteria for medical needs at the time.

Summary of the findings

We acknowledge that we did not listen adequately to the views of the parent and child in managing the difficulties he had encountered in attending school.

Our approach was too reliant on the views of the child’s school and too focussed on following strict process and criteria, rather than considering a holistic view of the child’s circumstances.

Clinical evidence of the child’s needs was provided in May 2021, however, we decided that this was insufficient medical evidence to satisfy the Section 19 threshold.

Although the investigator confirmed that the Section 19 threshold under the Education Act 1996 had not been met in this case - which meant that the Local Authority did not have a duty to arrange alternative provision - we accept we should have considered the explanation of the child’s non-attendance where there was a medical reason and special educational needs, which should have triggered the Council’s duty to arrange alternative provision immediately. As this did not happen the child was unable to attend school and has missed a considerable amount of his education entitlement.

We were too focussed on strict process and criteria, rather than considering a holistic view of your circumstances. We need to take a more personalised approach to complex cases such as this.

The child will be at the centre of the decision-making process going forward, taking into account relevant medical evidence and the Local Authority’s Section 19 duty.

We have introduced some significant changes to improve our services, especially since receiving the outcome of the Ombudsman’s case last autumn.

Improving the service

We are already working hard to improve our services and will take the learning from this to feed into the changes we are making.

We are working together with the Council’s education and social care services, schools, health professionals, parents/carers and children to ensure a more proactive approach to enable families to get the support they need, when they need it.

Since the start of the new academic year in September, we have expanded our team of School Attendance Officers to work directly with all schools to quickly identify children who are persistently absent and, more importantly, understand why they are not attending school. This approach is already proving to be useful in identifying cases early. School Attendance Officers look into each of the referrals and, where necessary, visit families to understand their unique circumstances.

We have also changed the criteria around medical needs evidence to accept referrals by a GP and/or other relevant medical practitioner.

We have changed the criteria for medical needs evidence to include referrals from a GP or other medical professionals, so that should help to avoid delays. The revised policy was agreed by Executive in October 2021.

We are also reviewing our policy around our Section 19 duties – when the council should step in to provide alternative education, including education other than at school. That work is currently ongoing. We have developed a toolkit to assist with decision-making and are currently reviewing cases using the toolkit to ensure it is fit for purpose. This is likely to be considered by the Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee later in the Spring 2022.

Our new Quality Assurance Framework will enable parents, carers and young people to inform how local practice will be reviewed, led by the lived experience of those that services are designed to support and improve outcomes for.

In light of this investigation, we will also work with an external expert to ensure our improvements make a real difference and enable us to support our families in an appropriate and timely way.

Whilst the above sets out our response to the investigator’s specific recommendations, there are other learnings from this investigation that are also important, such as how we handle complaints. We will take this feedback onboard going forwards.