New Clause 25 - Children and young people temporarily unable to attend mainstream school

Children and Families Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 25th April 2013.

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‘(1) This section applies where a child or young person of compulsory school age is unable to attend school for a period of between one and twenty four months.

(2) The local authority responsible for a child or young person for whom subsection (1) applies must ensure that appropriate educational provision is available and provided to the child or young person concerned, and that any identified health or social care needs are provided for.

(3) Regulations may specify acceptable reasons for which subsection (1) may apply, including, but not limited to—

(a) the placement of the child or young person in a certain school under section 39 of this Act is the subject of dispute;

(b) the child or young person has been withdrawn from school while an EHC Plan is being prepared;

(c) the child or young person has been withdrawn from school as a result of a diagnosed medical condition;

(d) the child or young person has been withdrawn from school, whether by the school, their parents or themselves, as a result of bullying or fear of bullying;

(e) the child or young person has been withdrawn from school as a result of a diagnosed mental condition or temporary mental instability, including phobia or trauma.

(4) In discharging their duties under this section, a local authority must—

(a) consult with the child or young person and their family;

(b) consult with the school at which the child or young person is currently enrolled, or was last enrolled at;

(c) consult with professionals from any other agency known to be in contact with the child or young person and their family in relation to the reason for which the child or young person concerned has been withdrawn from school;

(d) continue to monitor the development of the child or young person concerned;

(e) have regard to the age and prior educational outcomes of the child or young person when determining provision, and

(f) consider the suitability of internet-based educational provision.’.—(Mrs Hodgson.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I have spoken several times about children and young people who miss out on chunks of their education because, for a variety of reasons, they are not able to attend school. I know that the all-party group on bullying, which is led by the noble Baroness Brinton and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), has raised the issue with the Department since the publication of the Green Paper, but it still does not appear to have been addressed.

In its submission to the Department, the all-party group cited research conducted by NatCen, which concluded that the best estimate of the number of children absent long term from school—that is, self-excluding—as a result of severe bullying exceeds 16,000. The anti-bullying charity Red Balloon argues that more than 85% of the children who have been to one of their centres have what might be understood as a learning difficulty that has been directly caused by their experience of bullying. Those difficulties could be an inability to think, concentrate, speak logically, focus, write, calculate, conduct lucid conversations, organise themselves, play, work with others, be a team player, be empathetic, or to reflect on their behaviour. Many of those children may have had a disability or a special educational need that set them apart from others and the bullying exacerbated it, but it is more likely that they were perfectly able students before the bullying occurred.

Children who have been severely bullied often develop mental health problems and their ability and even desire to engage with their education diminishes. Other facets of their life suffer as well, with some in the worst cases unable to leave their home or even their bedroom for however long the trauma lasts.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North

Does the hon. Lady agree that in the 21st century, bullying does not take place only in school and that children may be at risk from bullies in their own bedroom? In the worst cases, they do not even feel safe at home.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point about cyber-bullying. I have heard children say that they no longer feel safe in their own home or even their own bedroom. That point is well made.

Those children will inevitably fall behind in their studies. To negate that impact as much as possible, we must make every effort to ensure that they receive support while they are away from school, as well as address any mental health needs they may have.

Bullying is not the only reason why a child or young person may be out of school for a protracted period. Psychological problems may manifest themselves in self-exclusion for any number of causes, particularly the trauma caused by the death of a family member or being the victim of violence or abuse. There may be a problem with the school or the local authority, or even the parents. While I have been in this job, parents from around the country have e-mailed me to say that their children have not been able to attend school, either because a school has refused to host the child because of their special educational needs, or the local authority has tried to place the child in a school that the parents believe—rightly or wrongly—is inappropriate. The situation  may go on and on for months and even years, during which time no provision is made for the child or young person, so they fall even further behind.

Children and young people may need to be out of school because they are receiving treatment for serious illness, such as cancer. I do a lot of work with the Teenage Cancer Trust on ticket touting—understandably, the charity wants to prevent shysters from profiting on the back of its hard work in putting on fundraising shows at the Royal Albert Hall. The Minister may want to have a word with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, because it does not seem to be as moved by this as I am.

The Teenage Cancer Trust’s main purpose is to advocate for teenagers with cancer, as is CLIC Sargent’s, and I pay tribute to both charities for all their excellent work. Their joint briefing on the new clause highlights the fact that there are 3,600 new cancer diagnoses in children and young people every year. The number is thankfully low, but it means that schools have very little experience in helping to provide continuous education during the process of the child’s arduous treatment.

A survey by the Teenage Cancer Trust with responses from more than 200 young people with cancer showed that it can be extremely obstructive to education: a large majority missed a substantial amount of their education, with the result that many found it difficult to return to education. That may be a relatively small cohort and therefore a relatively small problem, but it is a real problem. The Government have an opportunity in the Bill to give a clear commitment to work to ensure that, as far as possible, those children do not miss out on their education. During the debate on clause 69, in the context of young offenders, I referred to web-based learning, and I think that could be the answer to some of these problems, too. I hope that the Minister will meet the Nisai Virtual Academy to explore that.

Whatever the solutions are case-by-case, we must ensure that means are put in place to ensure as far as possible that we support all children, including that small cohort, to achieve their full potential. If the Minister cannot accept the new clause, I hope that he understands the reasons for it and will tell the Committee what the Government will do to ensure that the ends the new clause is designed to achieve are achieved in other ways.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent speech, and assure her that I have also given considerable thought to many of the issues that she touched on. As is often the case, as luck would have it, I met CLIC Sargent only yesterday and also spoke at the meeting of the all-party group on disability to discuss precisely these issues. They are very much in the forefront of my mind. She is right to say that we should strive for a good education for all pupils regardless of their circumstances or their setting. That is very much the driving force behind the Government’s work in this area.

I got the opportunity yesterday to re-emphasise the importance that the Government attach to sending out the message that any form of bullying is completely unacceptable. We should look at every possible way to stamp it out, both working with those who already do excellent work in this area, such as Mencap and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and learning from those who  have experienced it. Only yesterday at the all-party group meeting, there was a young man who is deaf and who told us about the bullying he suffered in mainstream education. It was only through the close working of all those who were there to support him and his family that he was able to find a setting where he was free of that bullying and start to thrive in education. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving us an opportunity today to highlight many of those issues.

Local authorities have a duty under section 19 of the Education Act 1996 to arrange suitable full-time education for any child who is of compulsory school age and who cannot attend school, whether because of illness, exclusion from school or any other reason. Similarly, under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, there is sufficient existing legislation to cover the provision of social care services for children with education, health and care plans, whether they are in school or unable to attend school. We have also published statutory guidance specifically about pupils who cannot attend school because of health needs. This makes it clear that good provision should be made to enable pupils to achieve educational attainment on a par with their mainstream peers, and that the specific personal, social and academic needs of pupils should be properly identified and met to help pupils overcome any barriers.

We will continue to work with the sector—the hon. Lady and I both mentioned CLIC Sargent, with whom I discussed this matter only yesterday—to ensure that statutory guidance provides the right level of advice. The feedback we have received shows that the guidance documents have been well received. I believe that this is because we have so clearly set out our high expectations for pupils with health needs. We also made clear in the Adjournment debate on support for children with cancer on 10 January, which was secured by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), whom I also met yesterday in connection with my meeting with CLIC Sargent and who has a personal story behind his interest in this area, that we will amend the guidance further to emphasise that the social and emotional needs of these children should also be taken into account. That is an important recognition of how these issues can affect children and manifest in many different ways.

I take this opportunity to reassure the hon. Lady that we will continue to work closely with the voluntary organisations, to which I pay tribute as she did, which have a particular interest in this area, as well as local authorities, schools and providers of alternative provision to ensure that all pupils achieve the best outcomes. I hope that on the basis the hon. Lady will not press her new clause.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

I am greatly encouraged that the Minister is already cognisant of the issues that the new clause is designed to address. Notwithstanding how busy he is on this Committee, he found time to meet with a number of people only yesterday to discuss these very matters. With the assurances that he has given me and the fact that it is him—I trust him on this by this stage of the Committee—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.