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Pupil with mental health needs left without education for 9 months

The body responsible for investigating complaints against local authorities and councils, the Local Government Ombudsman (the Ombudsman) found that Leeds City Council had failed multiple times to ensure that a girl with anxiety, Y, received a suitable education.

In early 2018, Y, a primary school pupil started becoming anxious about going to school. Her anxiety became worse and she did not return to school in the summer term. The school initially agreed to authorise the absence due to sickness and send work home for Y to complete with her mother. Y wasn't offered any services or support but the school did try to implement a plan to get her back to school.

In May 2018, Y's mother contacted the Council and explained that Y had been out of education for ten weeks and was unable to complete the work that was being sent home. The Council held a meeting and agreed to refer Y for counselling, but said she wouldn't be able to access it until November 2018 because of a long waiting list.

In June 2018, the council's medical needs home tuition service refused to provide Y home tuition because there was no plan to get Y back into mainstream education.

Over the next few months, Y met with a range of professionals, including an educational psychologist and was eventually referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). However in September 2018, Y's school notified her mother that they would begin recording her absence as unauthorised because they had not received any evidence to say that Y was unable to attend school.

Y's mother complained to the council about their failure to provide Y with suitable education. The council said there had been no failure because there was no medical evidence that Y was unable to access education because of her anxiety

Y's mother sent a further letter of complaint but the council said that the school has taken numerous steps to support Y and again repeated that there was no evidence that Y could not attend her school.

In December 2018, Y began to engage with CAMHS and they were able to provide a sick note which confirmed she was unable to attend school because of panic and anxiety. In February 2019, she began to receive council funded home tuition. Y had been out of education for 9 months by this point.

The Ombudsman made a range of findings including:

  • The council didn't have a policy for children missing education because of ill-health, despite the Department for Education saying all councils needed to have one
  • The council had a duty to provide education to pupils that were out of school due to exclusion, illness or other reasons. The council had tried to delegate this duty to other organisations, which it wasn't allowed to do.
  • The council had misunderstood some of its legal duties. It had a right to ask for medical evidence but a lack of medical evidence did not mean they had no duty to provide suitable education. They could consider other types of evidence, including evidence from the school and Y's mother.
  • Even where there was no evidence, the council still had a duty to provide suitable education where a pupil wasn't in school because of other reasons.
  • Sending school work home was not the same as providing a suitable education. What was suitable required the council to consider Y's age and abilities but they had failed to assess her educational needs so could not say that what she was receiving was suitable.

The Ombudsman told the council to reimburse Y's mother for money she had spent on paying for private educational services for Y and recommended that the council reviewed how it discharged its duties to provide a suitable education.

Our thoughts

This decision demonstrates how difficult it can be for pupils with mental health problems to get the right support when they're not able to attend school.

Children and young person's mental health services often have high thresholds and waiting times can be many months. If schools and councils insist on having medical evidence before they authorise absences due to sickness or start providing suitable education, young people will be put at a double disadvantage. They are not receiving the support they need with their mental health and they're not getting the education they need to keep up with their peers, which can make going back to school even more difficult. There's also a risk that the family will be financially or criminally sanctioned for the young person's absence from school.

It's absolutely crucial that council and schools are clear on exactly what the law and guidance says to make sure they give children and young people the educational support they are entitled to.

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