Learning hours consultation – my concerns – The Additional Support Needs Blog

Response to Consultation on Prescribing the minimum annual number of learning hours

The Scottish Government are seeking views on the prescribed minimum learning hours for primary and secondary pupils in local authority schools in Scotland.

Sadly, for many pupils the number of hours prescribed will be largely irrelevant as the statutory exemptions provided will allow education authorities to provide reduced learning hours based on broad criteria at their say-so alone.

The concerns outlined below were discussed with Scottish Government officials over a period from the passing of the Education (Scotland) Act 2016 to August 2018.

The Law

As the consultation points out, there is a long-established and near universal practice of schools providing 25 hours per week of school education and 27.5 hours per week in secondary schools.

As there is currently no legal requirement that this be the case, or legal entitlement to those specific number of hours, what is to stop individual pupils from missing out on their full entitlement to school education?

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the laws regulating the use of exclusion from school which provide those safeguards.

If a child or young person is a pupil at a school, they are entitled to attend that school during the school day. For a child or young person to be prevented from attending their school when school is on requires a formal exclusion – with all of the requirements that go with that (specified grounds for exclusion, a right of appeal, a duty to provide alternative means of education). Legally, it is also possible for the parents or young person to agree with the school that the pupil should not attend school (although this is not regarded as good practice).

Schools and education authorities have long used all kinds of linguistic gymnastics to get around the exclusion rules. Such attempts are almost always described as being in the best interests of the child or young person being excluded.

Fortunately, the courts[1], Tribunal[2] and official guidance[3] have been consistently clear that this is not an acceptable approach.

The exclusions guidance does recognise “flexible packages” may be a suitable approach for some pupils. However, this is qualified. It should be following “an appropriate assessment”. And it should “ensure that children and young people attend school or another learning environment for the recommended 25 hours in primary schools and 27.5 hours for secondary schools.”[4]

The exclusions guidance also does recognise a reduction in hours may be possible – although again in highly restricted circumstances. There should be an agreement that this best meets the needs of the child that should be “carefully negotiated” – i.e. agreed with parent and child. The arrangements should also be “for a limited period” and carefully “recorded and monitored”.[5]

The Tribunal takes a similar view: “All children in Scotland have a right to education and authorities have a duty to provide this. All children need to be included, engaged and involved in their education.”

 “The provision of a part time timetable would not be unfavourable if the claimant could not benefit from full time education but there was no evidence to suggest this.”[6]

One of the key expectations of inclusive education in Scotland is that “All children and young people should receive a full time education including flexible approaches to meet their needs.”[7]

National statistics demonstrate that disabled pupils and looked after pupils are disproportionately subject to exclusion: both formal and informal exclusions.[8]

As the 2018 report “Not included, not engaged, not involved: A report on the experiences of autistic children missing school.” notes, informal exclusions are a particular problem:

“As well as through formal exclusions from school, instances have been reported of autistic children being excluded from their education in other ways. This includes the use of part-time timetables, children missing school due to anxiety or other health needs, and a lack of suitable school placement or support meaning a child is unable to be in school. There are also concerns that many families are being asked to pick their child up from school early on a regular basis, without the child having been formally excluded – a practice which is unlawful.”[9]

The Promise commits Scotland to ending the exclusion of looked after children: “The formal and informal exclusion of care experienced children from education will end.” Plan 21-24 states that this will happen by 31 March 2024 – less than a year away.[10]

As The Promise Oversight Board’s Report ONE (May 2022) notes: “We do not know the extent of informal exclusion. [Formal exclusions] data does not tell us anything meaningful. There are differing reporting practices across local authorities, meaning this figure is only indicative.”[11]

The Proposal

Section 2ZA of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (as amended) requires education authorities to ensure that no fewer than the prescribed number of learning hours are made available during each school year to each pupil for whose school education they are responsible.

Subsection (3) provides that an education authority may provide fewer than the prescribed hours in certain specified circumstances.

Those relevant circumstances include:

(4)(b) that the authority is satisfied that the pupil’s wellbeing would be adversely affected if the prescribed hours were to be made available to the pupil..

The Problems

This innocuous sounding exemption raises several difficulties which will impact the most vulnerable children most severely:

The decision to provide a child with less than their full entitlement to education can be made by the education authority alone. There is no requirement (as there is elsewhere in education law) to seek the views of the child or their parents, still less to secure their consent. The consultation document says that the exception “would give the education authority flexibility to deliver an individualised number of learning hours to a pupil if it is agreed that this is appropriate to meet the needs of that pupil and respects their right to an education.” This is inaccurate and misleading as no agreement is legally required to implement the exception. This wording in the consultation document is likely to mean that this issue is not properly understood or addressed by consultees. It will provide Scottish Ministers with an inadequate basis on which to decide what action to take as a result.

That sentence would more accurately read “This would give the education authority legal authority to deliver a lower number of learning hours to a pupil even if others (the child, parents, social work, health, vol orgs etc) do not agree that this is appropriate to meet the needs of the pupil and respects their right to an education.”

It presupposes that where a child’s wellbeing is being affected by their attendance at school, that the correct approach is to reduce their attendance at school, rather than to look at e.g. reasonable adjustments that can be made for the pupil, or whether an alternative school placement would be more appropriate.

Far from being a justification for reduced attendance, the mainstreaming guidance cites, in particular, the wellbeing indicators of “Included” and “Achieving” as underlining the importance of full-time attendance at school.

It also notes the importance of supporting pupils’ inclusion and participation at school. Key expectations include: “All children and young people should be supported to participate in all parts of school life” and “All children and young people should be supported to overcome barriers to learning and achieve their full potential”.[12]

Scottish Government guidance on attendance also recognises: “Schools should recognise that poor attendance can often be related to, or be an indication of, an additional support need and they should use their staged intervention processes to ensure that any barriers to learning are identified and appropriate support is provided.”[13]

The grounds on which an education authority can rely on the exemption to justify providing less than a child’s full entitlement to learning hours are framed in extremely broad terms.

As detailed above, the repeated experience of children subject to informal exclusion, part-time timetables, sending home etc. is that they (or their parents) will be told that it is for the child’s benefit, in their best interests, in order to support their wellbeing. The child, or their parents frequently do not share that view.

Attendance at school is important and is closely monitored and enforced. A parent’s duty to ensure their child attends school cannot be overridden because they are satisfied that the child is being insufficiently “Nurtured” at school. Indeed, even where parents have legitimate concerns about whether their child is “Safe” at school (e.g. due to bullying) the Courts have been reluctant to accept that as a reasonable excuse for non-attendance[14].

Why would an education authority be empowered to effectively prevent a child from attending school, in circumstances where a parent (who is likely to know and understand their child’s wellbeing better) is forbidden from doing so?

This exemption would allow education authorities to reduce children’s attendance at school in circumstances which fall well below the legal threshold of “reasonable excuse” for non-attendance. As even formal exclusion from school is not regarded as a reasonable excuse for non-attendance[15], this could potentially  leave parents open to enforcement proceedings by way of referral to the children’s panel or even criminal prosecution in the Sheriff Court.

By structuring this as an exemption from the duty (in terms of subsections (3) and (4)) rather than circumstances in which different provision can be made for different purposes (or different types of pupil) (in terms of subsection (9)(b)&(c)), there is not even the ability for Scottish Ministers to set a minimum number of learning hours as a lower threshold, or to specify alternative types of provision which could be considered learning hours in circumstances where school attendance was not suitable.

 The introduction of a prescribed number of annual learning hours follows a similar pattern to the mandatory amount of early learning and childcare. Sections 47 & 48 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 requires education authorities to secure the mandatory amount of early learning and childcare is made available for eligible pre-school children in their area. The mandatory amount is currently prescribed as 1140 hours annually. It is not subject to exemptions as Section 2ZA is. There is no ability for the education authority to depart from their duty to make the provision available of the grounds of their view of the child’s wellbeing.

The only circumstance in which an exemption applies is in relation to looked after two year olds (s49) – in which case a specific duty to make alternative arrangements applies. The exemption cannot be used for older children.

Indeed, the exclusions guidance states explicitly that the annual hours entitlement for early learning and childcare applies even where a child has been excluded by their nursery provider – “the child still has a legal right to receive the hours they might miss due to having been excluded.”[16]

Why should it be the case that an annual entitlement hours for nursery education is secure and guaranteed for children with additional support needs, but the equivalent entitlement to learning hours in primary or secondary education is subject to a broad, discretionary and unregulated exemption? Why are children’s rights to primary and secondary education being treated as lesser than their rights to nursery education?

There is no good, accessible or direct means of challenging a decision of the education authority to provide fewer than a pupil’s full entitlement of learning hours on these grounds. There is no specific procedure that the education authority require to take, nor any obligation on them to inform the child or their parents of their rights (such as they are) or sources of advice and support.

The lack of safeguards (procedural or substantive) in the use of this exemption is of particular concern in the context that the application of an exemption engages fundamental rights, including the right to education under Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In Summary

The exemption found in Section 2ZA(4)(a) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980:

  • directly contradicts the Scottish Government guidance on the presumption of mainstreaming, exclusion and attendance;
  • undermines the commitment in The Promise to end formal and informal exclusion for care experienced pupils;
  • can be relied on unilaterally with no procedural or substantive safeguards or protections for children affected.

It provides a legal justification for failing to provide Scotland’s most vulnerable children with their full entitlement of education and is likely to make an existing problem much, much worse.

How to fix this…

The implementation of this exemption should be delayed. This should be possible by way of regulation, as a “transitional or transitory” measure, in terms of Section 2ZA(9)(a).

A full Equality Impact Assessment and Children’s Rights Impact Assessment requires to be undertaken, as well as a fresh consultation which highlights and centres this issue to allow it to be properly considered.

Significant amendment to / partial repeal of Section 2ZA is likely to be required in due course.

If the implementation absolutely has to go ahead in the meantime, Section 2ZA(10) allows for the list at subsection (7) to be amended. Consideration should be given to adding the four key feature of inclusion: present, participating, achieving, and supported.

Consideration should be given to adding the use of this exemption where it is not appropriate and / or does not respect the child’s right to education to the list of decisions which may be referred to the First-tier Tribunal in Section 18(3) of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004.

Failing which, consideration should be given to adding the use of this exemption where is it not appropriate and / or does not respect the child’s right to education to the list of specified matters in the Schedule to the Additional Support for Learning Dispute Resolution (Scotland) Regulations 2005.

These matters could be effected by way of subordinate legislation (Section 16 and 20 of the 2004 Act, respectively).

[1] Proudfoot v. Glasgow City Council 2003 SLT (Sh Ct) 23 – “benefit of a fresh start” was found not to be a legitimate ground for exclusion

[2] ASN/D/22/01/2021 – “The responsible body deny that their decision to stop the claimant from attending classes in the school, which included moving all of her learning opportunities outwith the school building (R106, para 23), amounted to an exclusion. We are not clear what the responsible body think the difference is between their decision and an exclusion. The decision had the purpose and effect of bringing the claimant’s attendance at the school to an end. ..  There was a clear intention that the claimant should not attend school and not access any classes. On any reasonable interpretation this amounts to exclusion.”

[3] Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2: A Positive Approach to Preventing and Managing School Exclusions: “Sending home without excluding – All exclusions from school must be formally recorded. Children and young people must not be sent home on an ‘informal exclusion’ or sent home to ‘cool-off’

[4] Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2, pg 25

[5] Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2, pg 25

[6] ASN/D/22/01/2021, supra

[7] “Guidance on the presumption to provide education in a mainstream setting” March 2019, at pg 6

[8] Cf. https://www.gov.scot/publications/summary-statistics-schools-scotland/pages/8/ and https://www.gov.scot/publications/education-outcomes-looked-children-2020-21/pages/6/#:~:text=In%202020%2F21%2C%20the%20rate,1%2C000%20pupils%20for%20all%20pupils.

[9] https://www.notengaged.com/download/SA-Out-Of-School-Report.pdf at pg 3

[10] https://thepromise.scot/resources/2021/plan-21-24.pdf at pg 22

[11] https://thepromise.scot/resources/2022/promise-oversight-board-report-one.pdf at pg 29

[12] At pg 10 “Supported”

[13] “Included, Engaged and Involved Part 1: A Positive Approach to the Promotion and Management of Attendance in Scottish Schools”

[14] Cf. Montgomery v Cumming, High Court of Justiciary, unreported, 17 December 1998 – https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/search-judgments/judgment?id=634c87a6-8980-69d2-b500-ff0000d74aa7

[15] Cf. D. v. Kennedy 1988 SLT 55

[16] Included Engaged and Involved Part 2, at pg 32