A guide to working with partner agencies

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In this article, Ben Whitney discusses how tackling absenteeism may require schools to work in partnership with a number of outside agencies – including health services, child protection agencies or specialist programmes.

Summary

  • Absences from school sometimes require a ‘joined-up’ approach across schools and other agencies.
  • A range of professional skills will sometimes be needed to address the needs of both children and parents.
  • A process of careful assessment is necessary to make sure that the correct response is made.
  • Local inter-agency arrangements should take the contribution of schools seriously and make full use of the staff’s knowledge of the child and the family.

When to involve partner agencies

All schools have children who are sometimes absent for complex reasons. Once low-key incentives and general pastoral care have failed to resolve the problems, or from a very early stage in some cases, there may be a need to involve a range of other professionals. The impact of non-attendance may be felt in areas of the child’s life well beyond the school and may require simultaneous action on a number of fronts, rather than being seen as an ‘educational’ problem only.

If the reasons for the absence are medical, emotional or psychological, that makes it a ‘health’ problem. If the absence is due to parental indifference, that makes it a ‘parenting’ problem. If the child is caring for a sick relative, that makes it a ‘young carer’ problem. If the family has broken up through domestic violence or had to move because of some other crisis, it may become a ‘housing’ problem. If the child is at risk of harm to their health and development, that makes it a ‘child protection’ problem. If the child commits offences when not at school, it becomes a ‘youth offending’ problem – and so on.

Defining our terms

The appropriate response to a child’s absence depends to a large extent on the nature of the problems involved. So a thorough process of assessment is absolutely essential before attempts are made to address it. The nature of the absence needs to be analysed carefully in order to know who else should be involved.

‘Truancy’

This term is best applied to those children who are absent without the support or encouragement of their parents. This is largely a pastoral or disciplinary matter, not a question of law enforcement, and is best resolved with the parents and the pupil as soon as it begins to happen.

‘Parent-condoned absence’

If parents are condoning, colluding with or even actively initiating the absence, this should not be described as ‘truancy’. This is a legal matter and persistent failure by the parents to act responsibly may be the subject of proceedings by local authority (LA) officers, although only in cases where the absences remain unauthorised.

‘Emotionally-based school refusal’

These children do not attend at all or only very occasionally, sometimes even at alternative provision. Such refusal is usually an indicator of a deeper problem that requires specialist intervention, including child abuse and psychological or mental health problems, such as depression and anxieties, as well as major emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties.

‘Parentally-based social or emotional difficulties’

Parents may need help with their own mental health or drug and alcohol issues; those with learning difficulties, or those whose personal domestic situations are unstable, will all find the routines of daily attendance difficult. Threats of enforcement alone are unlikely to make them more able to respond positively.

Key partners in addressing non-attendance

These include:

  • Specialists from among the school’s own team, such as counsellors, the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) or home-school liaison workers.
  • Education welfare officers, educational psychologists, behaviour support teams and other LA or school-based services.
  • Health workers, such as school nurses, health visitors, general practitioners, child and adolescent mental health teams and adult community mental health workers.
  • Youth workers, careers advisors and others who work with young people in the local community, including police officers and Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs).
  • Family support workers and social workers from the LA’s Children’s Service, who may be able to intervene where there are significant concerns for the child’s safety and welfare, or a breakdown in their family relationships and the arrangements for their day-to-day care.
  • The Troubled Families Programme (http://bit.ly/1hKZz7V), which works very intensively with a small number of families where anti-social behaviour, rent arrears, youth offending etc., have identified them as needing targeted interventions.
  • Voluntary agencies such as the NSPCC, or those working with drug and alcohol abuse, or organisations that provide help and advice to children and families, including, for example, young carers and children with specific medical conditions.

School staff should seek to develop local contacts with as many colleagues as possible in order to maximise communication and the effective resourcing of support. Teachers often say that they are not social workers and cannot be expected to spend their time sorting out family problems. This is true, and therefore makes it all the more necessary to build an effective network with others to enable the school, hopefully with the support of the child’s parents, to make efficient referrals.

The Common Assessment Framework

However, making a referral may not be the end of the story. The Common Assessment Framework (CAF; http://bit.ly/1mcdEdM) or local equivalent provides a set of shared tools which professionals can use to work with families in order to promote better outcomes for vulnerable children. The CAF creates an opportunity for working together to produce an initial assessment of the child’s needs and the identification of any more specialist services that may be needed, co-ordinated by a ‘lead professional’. This could be someone from any relevant agency, including the school. This process should result in more informed referrals and less of a sense that social workers, for example, are the repository of all those children that no-one else knows what to do with! This is the joint responsibility of all those who currently have any knowledge of the child.

Making it work

It is not easy to make these arrangements work, especially in a climate of rapidly reducing local services. School staff may feel frustrated that their concerns do not meet the ‘threshold’, or that parents will not co-operate. This is entirely understandable, but we need to develop both our resilience and our creativity, rather than abandon the agreed procedures. That will rarely create a better outcome. If the system isn’t working where you are, make sure that those views are communicated to managers at a senior level. We cannot always make people, parents or professionals do what we want them to do and they may have a different set of priorities. Schools are entitled to support, but we have to move away from the idea that it will be in the child’s best interests for them be passed around like an unwanted parcel.

The available partners

The following lists show the partners to work with on each type of absence.

Truancy

  • Pastoral or disciplinary procedures within the school
  • Behaviour support staff/counsellors
  • Other agencies, such as Youth Justice, who may know the pupil
  • Youth workers; Police Community Officers
  • Close liason with parents
  • Intervention plans.

Parent-condoned absence

  • LA officers/EWOs with the power to enforce attendance, provided the school has left the absences unauthorised
  • Warnings, Penalty Notices and prosecution of parents
  • Welfare-based interventions under s.36 of the Children Act 1989 (http://bit.ly/1fX0vWJ)

Emotionally-based school refusal

  • Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
  • Educational psychologists and behaviour support staff
  • Social workers, foster carers, residential care workers and others working with or looking after the pupil.

Parentally-based social or emotional difficulties

  • Family support and parenting workers
  • The Troubled Family Intensive Intervention Programme
  • Child protection procedures where the pupil is at risk of emotional harm or neglect.

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He has written several books, his latest being Just Ticking the Box? Refocusing school attendance. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.

First published on this website in June 2014.

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About Author

Ben Whitney

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.

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