Parents of autistic boy reveal nightmare court battle over school attendance | UK | News

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Parents of autistic boy reveal nightmare court battle over school attendance | UK | News

Scott school absence fines case study

Scott, father of 13-year-old Kaylan, was taken to court over his son’s school attendance (Image: Express)

The parents of an autistic teenager are outraged at being dragged through a nightmare court battle after their autistic son was too overwhelmed to attend school.

It was when children returned to school after the Covid lockdowns that Scott and his wife noticed a change in their son Kaylan.

He really struggled with the noise, the crowds, and his attention span in lessons, not to mention the fact that he had developed a fear of going outside and was hardly sleeping.

The parents asked for help but were offered none from his school in Northamptonshire.

Scott said: “Issues started with Kaylan a few years ago when children went back to school after the pandemic. He found it really hard to re-adjust and the school didn’t want to help us with this.

“He wasn’t sleeping, he would experience crippling anxiety about going to school and we knew that sending him in would just make him feel worse, so often, we had to keep him at home – we had no real choice.”

At the end of 2022, they received a warning letter about their son’s attendance, threatening a fine and even court, despite the school knowing the reasons why Kaylan was kept off, Scott claimed.

The school decided to pursue court proceedings due to the vast number of days off Kaylan had accumulated and Scott and his wife arrived prepared with 95 pages of evidence.

Scott added: “He is one of the kids that have been forgotten about because of Covid and now we are being forced to pay the price.”

School kids

An increasing number of parents are being fined for their child’s non-attendance at school (Image: Getty)

The evidence was delivered the day before the deadline, Scott said, and he filmed himself doing this just in case something went wrong.

But it wasn’t until June 2023 that they heard back, receiving a letter in the post issuing the couple a fine of £1,020 which had to be paid in 21 days.

Scott added: “I phoned the court and asked why we had been found guilty without a trial and they looked on their system and told me they hadn’t received our defence, despite me filming me dropping it off to them a few months prior.

“Eventually, we went to Northampton Magistrates Court with our paperwork, and they said that they would re-open the case – which was good news, but we shouldn’t have had to go through this in the first place.

“I wanted the school and the local authority both in court during the trial so I could finally get some answers.

“But when it came to the court date, we were told that no one – not the school or the local authority – had turned up, so the case was thrown out and we didn’t have to pay the fine.

“We went through all of that stress for months for nothing, on top of the stress of having a child who is struggling mentally.

“My wife is disabled, and we don’t have that sort of money, so it caused a real panic for us. My biggest concern is this happening again because Kaylan still really struggles with school.”

The youngster is now allowed to arrive at school later than other children to avoid the crowds, but he needs 1:1 support, Scott said.

Scott and his wife want to see situations like this dealt with on a case-by-case basis, so parents of disabled and seriously ill children are not fined or threatened with fines because of their children’s struggles.

School kids

Children with disabilities and health conditions have historically had more absences from school (Image: Getty)

It comes as an increasing number of parents are being fined for their child’s non-attendance at school – amounting to more than £6.2 million in fines so far in this school year, the Daily Express can exclusively reveal.

But parents of children with disabilities or serious illnesses say the recent Government crackdown on unauthorised days off – which will see fines rise by 33 per cent – is unfair on them.

Children with disabilities and health conditions have historically had more absences from school for a number of reasons: health issues, lack of support in school, waiting for a suitable school place, as well as being subject to higher rates of exclusion and illegal exclusion.

In this academic year so far, 116,652 fines have been issued to parents across the country, with £6,265,272 collected from those, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent by the Daily Express have revealed.

And in the previous academic year – September 2022 to July 2023 – 296,180 parents were hit with fines, amounting to a staggering £13,494,672.

Two mums who both have autistic children – Maddie Roberts, 41, and Susan Liverman, 45 – say the Government is “prioritising attendance over the needs of children, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)”.

When Susan’s son started to struggle with going to school, it was a symptom of an underlying cause, she said – autism.

She said: “He tried so hard to go, but just couldn’t. We didn’t know it at the time, but he has sensory differences that mean a classroom environment can be overwhelming.

“We soon realised that forcing him into school was actually increasing his distress.

“Worrying about being fined when my son’s difficulties would have been made worse by going to school, as it didn’t cater to his needs, caused us more anxiety at a really tough time.”

Mum to Harleigh, Maddie, from Bedfordshire, said: “My son Harleigh shouldn’t miss out on being educated because he’s autistic and can’t cope in mainstream school.

“He finally has an education otherwise at school (EOTAS) that meets his needs, and he is starting to recover from his autistic breakdown and thrive again.

“Our children have done nothing wrong by having a disability or difference which means they need more support or an alternative to mainstream school.

“We want our kids in school, but they couldn’t be, which caused us stress and pain every single day.

“The threat of prosecution is terrifying and does nothing to provide our kids with the support they need to get an education.”

The pair have launched a petition, which has amassed more than 270,000 signatures, calling for more local authority funding for alternatives to mainstream education, as well as an end to school absence fines.

It read: “We are asking – why are parents being punished for having kids who struggle with mainstream school?

“Support isn’t being fined and imprisoning us wouldn’t have helped our children obtain an education, but it would have torn our families apart.

“We need more local authority funding for alternatives to mainstream education so that our kids can be in schools that are right for them.”

In February, the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, announced that fines for children in England missing school are to rise by 33 per cent.

Ms Keegan is to overhaul the way local authorities fine parents for unauthorised school absences by bringing penalties “under a national framework to help tackle inconsistencies”.

The Department for Education (DfE) said that fines “must be considered if a child misses five days of school for unauthorised absence”, with local authorities currently having wide variation over whether they levy fines.

Under the new rules, the initial penalty notices will be raised from £60 to £80, if paid within 21 days. Those who delay payment will have fines raised from £120 to £160.

Schools’ daily registers will also be shared online with the DfE and local authorities, as part of the Government’s drive to improve attendance from its post-Covid slump.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, stressed that most fines were applied to children taken on holidays during term time, while higher absences were often the result of serious issues such as mental health problems. 

Barton said: “There is a wider issue about absence relating to the growing number of children who suffer from anxiety, families who are struggling to cope, and disengagement with education, which schools are endeavouring to address by working with families and pupils to improve their attendance rather than using fines. 

“Schools need more help from the Government in this work, both in terms of the funding they receive and investment in local social care, attendance and mental health services. 

“Education has become an unofficial fourth emergency service, picking up the pieces for a decade-long erosion of support services. This cannot go on.” 

Department for Education spokesperson said: “Penalty notices cannot be used in cases where a child has been absent solely due to authorised illness or medical appointments. 

“We recognise some children are more likely to face greater barriers to attendance, like pupils with long-term medical conditions or special educational needs and disabilities. 

« Our guidance is based on a support-first ethos ensuring schools work with pupils and families to support each pupil’s individual needs, particularly those with SEND and mental ill health. »

Anna Bird

‘Parent carers tell us that they – once again – feel blamed’ (Image: Contact)

The increasing number of parents fined for their child’s non-attendance revealed by the Daily Express today, alongside the news that fines will be increased by 33 per cent from September, will be worrying news for parent carers. 

At Contact, we know that absence rates for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have always been significantly higher than their peers. This is often down to unmet needs. In fact, just under 40 per cent of calls to Contact’s helpline are from parents who say the school or local authority is not providing the right support for their child. It’s also important to look at other reasons children with SEND may be absent including medical reasons, a lack of support in school, assessment delays, lack of suitable school places and disproportionate use of exclusions for children with SEND.

The Government’s recent communications campaign encouraging parents to send their children to school when they are anxious or not feeling well did not land well with the families Contact supports.  

Parent carers tell us that they – once again – feel blamed. In the last six months, we’ve seen an increase in calls to our helpline from parents negatively impacted by the Government’s current attendance policy. They’ve told us about unannounced visits from school staff – implying their child’s absence was their fault – and being threatened with court proceedings and fines because of absences explained by their child’s health conditions or disability. 

We’ve also heard from families who say that the Government’s current focus on near-perfect attendance has resulted in a refusal by the school to send work home to pupils unable to physically attend – effectively acting as gatekeepers to their child’s education.  

Parents of children with SEND aren’t keeping children out of school for the sake of it. We believe that the Government’s determination to achieve full attendance whatever the cost, needs to be refocused so that those families with children who genuinely can’t attend school and who are already missing out on spending time with their peer group are not unfairly penalised.

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