It’s been a frenetic few months in the education policy arena. The release of a Schools Bill was announced, then shelved; new attendance guidance emerged, alongside a consultation around behaviour policy in school. Square Peg and Not Fine in School sought to collate evidence around the impact of current school attendance policies on families where young people face barriers to attendance. These organisations support families when children are struggling to attend school or are at risk of persistent absence. 1,960 parents responded to the survey from all around the UK.

An astonishing 94% reported that school has had a very negative or negative impact on their child’s mental health. Importantly, the vast majority of did not feel that the formal support offered by school or the local authority helped their child to increase their attendance. The survey does not capture the views of all English parents; families who responded are likely those who are experiencing difficulties around school attendance. That said, most families do not have children with special educational needs, for whom navigating the education system can be a monumental war of attrition. 

The findings mirror the experience of Educational Psychologists (EP); we spend much of our time working with young people and families who struggle to cope with the school environment. An inflexible, narrow curriculum, school competition, discriminatory assessment practices and explicit efforts to ‘remove  the  bias  towards  inclusive education’ have pressaged an era where school policies are increasingly less accepting of difference and neurodiversity. Combined, these factors create a climate where more and more children cannot cope, stop attending school and are met with growing suspicion and threat of punishment. At the same time, attendance policing has ratcheted up exponentially. As if forcing someone to do something that harms them is an educational tool. 

Solutions posited by parents were the need for a ‘flexible curriculum’, ‘reasonable adjustments’ and ‘prioritising student wellbeing’. The British Psychological society, in a response to the behaviour consultation, are united with parents around the need to consider these factors, alongside relational approaches and viewing behaviour as a form of communication; we don’t need to look far to find a national intention to implement these as convention; across the border in Scotland these approaches are enshrined in their ‘Relationships, Learning and Behaviour’ policy.  

At Square Peg we hear from desperate parents who have been blamed, shamed and disbelieved. Most of my practice is in the youth justice sector and in a Pupil referral / mental health unit and the same themes are endlessly repeated. Schooling, for some young people and families, is a significant cause of psychological distress; a trigger for mental health challenges that can persist. This is an unassailable fact. 

As a society, we can either accept this, listen in good faith and think together about how to change things, or engage in legislative gaslighting as the government are currently doing. In its current form, schooling is not a valid conceptualisation of education for all. It is no accident that the most common challenge described by parents on the Square Peg survey was ‘school environment’. An excellent podcast by Missing the Mark illuminates this issue and sheds light on the experience of families who are told their child must attend school, regardless of the consequences to their mental health. For those who cannot comply with its demands, the school system operates like a gigantic scapegoating machine.

Implications of this harsh reality have been presented by parents in consecutive government consultations over many years. The response has been absolute denial that schooling does not work for everyone and a litany of documents codifying an increasingly aggressive system of threats, fixed penalty notices, criminalisation and imprisonment. No evidence has been presented, ever, demonstrating the efficacy of terrifying parents into forcing their child to attend school. Doing so can lead to catastrophic consequences, including an escalation of distress and lifelong mental health difficulties for those who struggle to cope in a system that cannot adapt to their individual needs.

The proposed Schools Bill represents the most pernicious power grab attempted by the government since the 1980s. Whilst it has been delayed for now, the ideologies and approaches might emerge in more pernicious ways, through ‘guidance’ documents that are not subject to democratic oversight. Even Lord Baker, who presided over the introduction of the national curriculum as Education Secretary; an epoch of vastly expanded government control over schooling, has objected. Baker criticised the proposals for increasing “the powers of the secretary of state and the DfE in a way unprecedented since 1870”. Ironically, Lord Baker seems to have forgotten that his reign involved the last ‘unprecedented’ attack on school, teacher and family autonomy. The 1988 Education Reform Act resulted in an imposed, inflexible national curriculum, the encroachment of school privatisation, school competition and sweeping power for the secretary of state over policies. Recent proposals go even further and have the potential to rob young people and families of agency to an astonishing extent and will create a climate of us vs them and systemic distrust never-before-witnessed. 

It contains legislation that would compel parents to sign ‘voluntary’ parenting contracts which may be used as evidence to fine, prosecute or subject families to ‘parenting orders’. A distorted conception of ‘Children’s Rights’ is being weaponised to coerce families into sending children to a school named by a local authority, regardless of the child and family’s perception as to whether the provision is appropriate. Families who refuse to accept ‘formal support’ offered by a school or local authority can be accused of ‘non-compliance’, regardless of the context. In addition, detailed information on young people will be collated and held for 66 years, without consent. 

We are sleep-walking into an age of educational tyranny, a place where the state’s right to enforce its version of schooling trumps a young person and family’s right to health. A place where a parent refusing ‘formal support’ can be construed as ‘neglectful’, regardless of the consequences and where attendance is deemed essential even if a child is being traumatised daily and is not learning. A government does not have rights, citizens do. Democracy requires that all have a stake in what and how children are educated; this latest wave of oppressive legislation undermines individual liberty and the right to family life. 

At issue here is not a lack of evidence around what works, but political ideologies that are not subject to rational challenge, alongside an assumed right for the government to enforce its will whatever the cost. We must resist.

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