A county council has been criticised for failing to ensure a pupil could continue her studies when severe social anxiety meant she could no longer attend classes.
West Sussex County Council attempted to prosecute the 15-year-old’s parents after she failed to attend school before being diagnosed with mental health difficulties and school phobia.
The council said it stopped the prosecution of the pupil’s parents immediately when evidence relating to her mental health problems was disclosed by her GP.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) said the pupil’s school began to manage her attendance when it fell below 60% and that council bosses pursued a “fast-track” prosecution, even when a doctor certified she had physical health problems.
While the LGO did not criticise West Sussex for its attempt to prosecute the girl’s parents, it said bosses refused their request to suspend proceedings while they sought help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
It was found that the authority could and should have done more to help the girl take lessons at home through “blended” methods, including homework, while her health was assessed.
Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “The Education Act specifically states that councils have a duty to provide education for children who ‘by reason of illness, exclusion or otherwise may not receive suitable education’.
“In this case, while I appreciate the parents could have explained sooner their daughter’s non-attendance, officers should have considered offering the family a learning package at an earlier stage, rather than continuing to focus on prosecuting the parents.
“I hope the recommendations I have made to make staff aware of their duties to children out of school, will ensure children in similar circumstances receive the education they are entitled to.”
A West Sussex County Council spokesperson said the authority “does not accept” the LGO’s finding that it should have provided alternative education before it received the pupil’s diagnosis.
They added: “We are always keen to review our internal processes and communications to ensure that we can provide the best and most appropriate support to students. In making this ruling, we believe that the LGO runs the risk of setting an inappropriate and unmanageable precedent for the future in requiring local authorities to provide alternative education without professional evidence of need.
“We fully support the school’s position in this case, and their willingness to provide an education to meet the child’s needs. We firmly believe that all children should receive an excellent standard of education which, in the main, is best delivered in school.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.
CLARIFICATION: On 14 December 2018 we added additional information to clarify the fact the council’s prosecution of the parents was stopped when medical evidence of the pupil’s mental health was disclosed.