Two parent groups are to challenge school-attendance laws that they claim unfairly penalise children who are unable to attend school.
The groups will launch a crowd-funded legal case, claiming that parents of these children often face unfair criminal prosecution and fines because of existing laws.
Children who are unable to attend school are often referred to as “school refusers”, though their difficulties can be complex. These can include undiagnosed special educational needs, mental and physical health problems, trauma or bullying.
Often, they are absent while waiting for assessment, diagnosis or therapy. These absences can be recorded as unauthorised by schools.
Campaigners from the two parent-led organisations, Square Peg and Not Fine in School, are concerned that this group of children does not have the same legal rights and access to specialist support as other children. They say that schools often refuse to send work home with these children, as it is seen as condoning their absence.
Fran Morgan, founder of Square Peg and the parent of a child who struggled with school attendance, said school refusal was identified as being distinct from truancy by psychiatrists more than 80 years ago, but both are still categorised under the heading “persistent absence”.
“The inflexibility of the current education system fails to recognise that one size does not fit all,” she said.
“We have to find better ways to support school refusers and their families without compromising either their wellbeing or their education, and without adding further misery to families already in crisis.”
The groups are crowdfunding to pay for lawyers to investigate whether there are grounds to bring a legal challenge against the education secretary for his failure to ensure that school-attendance laws meet the needs of school refusers.
They have instructed Polly Sweeney, a human-rights solicitor with Irwin Mitchell LLP, who said: “This is an important issue affecting thousands of children and their families across the country.”
She added that the school-funding crisis meant that more and more children with disabilities or mental health issues were waiting months or years for a clear diagnosis of their needs.
“There is a need for a review of Department for Education attendance policy so that these children and their families can be supported until such time as their education and health needs can be met,” Ms Sweeney said.
“Marking them as unauthorised or forcing parents to bring their children into school in distressed states, for fear of prosecution, cannot be the answer.”