A better response to truancy

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When children play truant, education supervision orders can be far more productive than prosecuting parents, says Jacqui Newvell – so why don’t local authorities use them?

Education supervision orders (ESOs) were introduced by the Children Act 1989 to tackle poor school attendance. They mean a local authority can apply for a supervisor for a year to keep an eye on a student who is playing truant.

Do they support vulnerable children and young people, and improve their chances across the fve Every Child Matters outcomes?

Truancy has been high on the government agenda for more than a decade. But many local authorities don’t make use of ESOs – now in their eighteenth year – despite their duty to consider an ESO every time they prosecute a parent for failing to make their children attend school.

It is now 12 years since the government announced its target to reduce unauthorised absence  from school. Over this period, there has been a range of initiatives – including changes to legislation on enforcement, mostly punitive measures against parents. 

The legislative framework on poor school attendance at school is complicated, confusing and at times contradictory. It sits uncomfortably across criminal justice and children’s policy. The range of measures available to education welfare officers (EWOs) often varies greatly from  one area to another. However, ESOs fit the bill perfectly. So why are they not being used?

In many local authorities, there are no mechanisms for administering ESOs. Many education welfare officers have had no training or experience – despite the duty in statutory guidance that officers are appropriately trained and qualified.

Magistrates, when hearing a case against a parent, also have powers to direct a local authority to make an application for an ESO. In fact, they are obliged to do so – or at least report to the court with convincing reasons why they have not. While there is no available data on directions, anecdotal evidence from practitioners suggest this is rare. In some local authorities, hundreds of cases are heard in the adult court each year and not one is considered appropriate for an application for an ESO. This is unlikely to be as a result of proper consideration – and arguably should be challenged by magistrates and children’s services.

Parental prosecution and the use of fixed penalty notices have a place. However, those working on the front line in schools and local authorities will know that, for some children and young people, this is not a simple issue of parental responsibility. If we are really focusing on children’s long-term needs, laying blame is not a starting point.

An ESO supports families to start a sustained improvement in school attendance. The Children Act does not deny parental responsibility for school attendance – but recognises that some families need a period of targeted support and supervision, which may not always be consensual.

Why do children miss school? This is a simple enough question, but a hard one to answer. The reasons for poor attendance are many and varied, often without a single cause. There are links between poor attendance and poverty, and between poorly performing schools and poor attendance. There has been a great deal of research into the causes of truancy. Not surprisingly, there are a range of causes with their origins at home, at school, within the community or, more generally, a mixture of all three. Poor attendance can be both a cause and effect of social exclusion and can be a very good barometer of family well-being.

An audit carried out by the National Children’s Bureau on behalf of NASWE (the National Association for Social Workers in Education) revealed that the four local authorities audited were working almost exclusively with children at levels two and three. (These numbers were assigned using a tool adapted from section 17 of the Children Act – three means serious/complex needs, two means moderate/additional needs and one means ‘lower level’ needs. These three levels correspond with the levels of need described in the Common Assessment Framework.)

In the audit 37 per cent were judged to have reached the significant impairment threshold. More than a third of the children had emotional or mental health problems, while 25 per cent of their parents had mental health problems and 22 per cent of the children had a parent who misused drugs and/or alcohol.

How can an ESO help?

An application for an ESO is heard in the family court. It is not designed to apportion blame. It is a consideration of a child’s circumstances and an attempt to put in place, within a statutory framework, a plan for the child and their parents. It’s similar to a parenting contract – except that it has court backing, the child’s needs are paramount and there are consequences for non-compliance.

It’s a bit like putting a family on probation – but only in regard to their child’s education. Far from letting parents off the hook, it maintains close surveillance over a child’s education for a long period.

The school has a duty to help with any plans for that child, along with the local authority, the family and any other services. Once an education supervision order is made, the supervising officer – generally an education welfare officer – is, in effect, the ‘lead professional’. Education is non-negotiable and an ESO, while predicated on partnership, may not be consensual. However, we know that sometimes well timed, properly planned coercion is both necessary and in the interests of children. As with all Children Act proceedings, the child’s needs are paramount and any decision of the court is made in the context of the welfare checklist.

It is unusual – but not unknown – for an application for an ESO to result in a care order. Family court magistrates may decide on a range of orders or decide not to make any. At any time during the order – initially a year period – the supervising offcer may direct a parent to co-operate with the school and the local authority on pretty much anything (so long as it’s relevant and reasonable). Failure to co-operate could result in a criminal prosecution and a fine. Similar directions can be made with regard to a child – but failure to co-operate will trigger an investigation by children’s social care and, where appropriate, other services may be put in place. 

Worryingly, colleagues report that this duty is not always performed as robustly, or taken as seriously, as it should until the broader impact of long-term absence is appreciated – not just the academic impact. This is not a weakness in the legislation, but a weakness in local authority practice. The Children Act 1989 guidance is clear: “Where a parent or a child persistently fails to comply with a direction given under the order, the supervising officer should ensure that the social services department is informed. In such cases, the department must investigate the circumstances of the child and consider whether it is appropriate for them to take any action to secure the welfare of the child (paragraph 19 of Schedule three). In doing so, they may need to seek the views of other support services, but they should not lose sight of the need to move quickly to bring about real improvement. If it is clear that improvements in attendance are not being achieved, the social services department has a duty to consider seeking a care order under section 31 of the Act, following the criteria laid down in section one.”

So, do ESOs work? The honest answer is: we don’t know. There has been no research into effectiveness – and this is something I am keen to take forward, but it is a complex research question. Every child is different, with different needs, and every supervising officer brings different experiences to their work. ESOs are by no means the answer to all persistent absence. We need to identify how and with whom this kind of intervention is likely to be the most effective. This, along with many other longer-term interventions, can be costly and time-consuming.

Any evidence that helps us target our resources is surely in everyone’s interests.

Putting children’s needs first

ESOs were never designed to be a single-agency provision. Even the best practice, if not supported by the wider organisation, will be flawed. If ESOs are to work effectively, it is right that they are led by education services – but unless there is wider children’s services support, we will miss a valuable opportunity to intervene early and secure better outcomes for some very vulnerable children and young people.

A greater use of ESOs is unlikely to make a statistical difference to what has become a notoriously intractable problem, but there is potential to make a huge difference for individual children. Somewhere, in all the confusion and target-chasing, the needs of every child must once again be paramount, with local authorities and schools working together, making decisions for individual children. To make this happen, there is no need for anything new – just the rediscovery of a good piece of legislation, rooted in common sense, partnership and child-centred practice.

School Leadership Today