From the perspective of the marginalised: challenging punitive policies on school withdrawal

From the perspective of the marginalised: challenging punitive policies on school withdrawal


Written by: Jessica Perera


The withdrawal of children from education is a consequence of neoliberalism 

Will Labour offer a new approach to issues of school attendance, or will it continue, like the Conservatives, to feign ignorance on the real issues why school absence is increasing, and further punish parents? Now could be the time to re-set the agenda so that the experiences of marginalised working-class communities are placed at the forefront of debate.

School absences – a new moral panic

For those working in schools and for parents, the current debate around children’s absence from school must be maddening, but for reasons wildly different from those of conservative presenter Nick Ferrari. He argued earlier this year on his LBC show that children absent from school ‘have got lazy, irresponsible parents who don’t know the value of education … who need to just stop and think, and possibly pick up a book if they’ve ever even seen one in their life and read about how, in other parts of the world, parents are crying out for some kind of education, something we take completely for granted here.’

School absence is now generally regarded as a national crisis, but again, rather than the issue being investigated meaningfully, it is being pathologised and discussed as a symptom of moral crisis and as a sign of a broken social contract, and impending breakdown of ‘law and order’. Of course, turning school absenteeism into a moral panic is easy when you see parents’ behaviour as irrational and, like Ferrari, describe them in ‘undeserving’ terms.

Not to be left out of this new culture war, the press and civil society organisations, as well as government, are producing analyses on the issue on an almost weekly basis, attributing declining school attendance to a complex interplay of factors. These include unmet social emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs, undiagnosed and untreated special educational (SEND) needs, caring responsibilities and housing issues, among other things, experienced by pupils and parents alike. But whilst the needs of children and their families may appear ‘complex’, and they may well need support from multiple agencies and professionals, a large part of the solution is simple. The government needs to inject funding and resources into schools, adjunct services and welfare immediately to reduce the severity of these needs. (Though given the enduring political climate, a larger part of the solution will likely come from grassroots community action and parents’ participation.)

What we have instead is schools in some areas sending police officers to the homes of absent pupils, and parents being threatened with fines and prosecution. Worryingly, rather than this being a shocking anomaly, the DfE guidance on school attendance, which was recently amended and comes into force this August 2024, enshrines this punitive approach (see below for discussion). And, with Labour pledging to crack down on anti-social behaviour, which school absence might be considered akin to, there is a very real possibility that the DfE guidance could be used more often by Local Authorities swept up in a political culture that criminalises individual conduct, behaviours and habits, while leaving wider questions about the impact of neoliberalism and the perspectives of marginalised communities out of the frame.

Image: The Prime Minister Keir Starmer at Number 10 Downing Street Credit: Flickr

The irony, however, is that many of the transgressive or seemingly inexplicable behaviours that people are presenting in society, like absenteeism in schools, have been influenced by austerity measures the state introduced. We know that ‘austerity kills’ and austerity induces mental distress, but changes brought about by psychological suffering can also prompt long term changes in behaviour. Far from being irrational, school absenteeism is a (socio)logical response to enormous structural violence unleashed upon the multiracial poor. It should go without saying, that simply installing mental health counsellors in schools, as Labour promises, further entrenches the over-psychologisation of social problems – that can only be solved through systemic structural support across all areas of society including the introduction of Universal Basic Income.

Regulating, monitoring and arraigning society fraying at the seams

It is useful to revisit the suite of legislative proposals made by the Conservative government to tacke school absenteeism in recent years. These include the Schools Bill, which was criticised by the No To Schools Bill collective, the School Attendance Bill, the Children Not in School Bill, the School Attendance (Pupil Registration) Regulations, as well as amending DfE guidance on school attendance. And, not to mention, the three-year Watchtower Project, a pilot delivered by Barnardo’s on behalf of the Department for Education, which inducts specialist ‘attendance mentors’ to identify problem families in areas across the country with high numbers of children persistently absent from school, which the government has costed at an estimated £15m if the project is rolled out elsewhere.

The DfE guidance is particularly worth digging into, as it sets out the powers Local Authorities, (LA) at the behest of schools, have at their disposal to tackle school absence. Although much of the contents of the guidance has existed for decades, given the current preoccupation with monitoring, regulating and arraigning parents, it seems likely it will be consulted more frequently. The guidance lists a range of legal tools to “enforce school attendance” which include: (1) attendance contracts[1], (2) Education Supervision Orders (ESO)[2], (3) School Attendance Orders (SAO)[3], (4) Parenting Orders (PO)[4] and (5) Penalty Notices (fines)[5].

According to the guidance, “schools should take into consideration the sensitivity of some of the reasons for absence and understand the importance of school as a place of safety and support rather than reaching immediately for punitive approaches”. The Research Action Coalition for Race Equality (RACE) in its critique of the Schools Bill, argued that poverty, racism and discriminatory practices and procedures which can result in exclusion from school, low grades and mental health problems are just some of the barriers parents and children face that can affect school attendance. Whilst I agree with RACE, our analysis of school absence should not stop there. Many of the barriers families face which contribute to school absenteeism have not occurred in a vacuum. As discussed already, poverty induced by austerity has likely contributed towards the issue. But we must also consider the long-term effects of post-Fordism and the concomitant project of neoliberalism on more children being absent from school, truanting and more parents opting to electively home educate their children (which I refer to collectively as ‘school withdrawal’).

Neoliberalism and meritocracy: What is the point of education if you can’t get a decent job?

Because of changes in the political economy, much of the working and workless poor have been untethered from the wage-labour of old capitalism, and many more have been abandoned by the labour market and welfare state altogether. Historically, in the post-war period and before the advent of neoliberalism, schools were the state apparatus that institutionalised the working classes, and where the proletariat ‘learned to labour’ for their prospective roles in society. But since 1979, significant structural changes in the labour market have been introduced, and there has been an increase in both temporary employment contracts and poverty-wages, and families are more aware that simply attending school does not necessarily lead to securing a stable well-paid job, as even with all the necessary grades this is increasingly not realised. Over the past forty years, there have been seismic shifts in employment types and availability. The change has seen the end of decently-paid stable manufacturing jobs that created a sense of pride in the working classes, and a move to education-intensive jobs accessed primarily by the university-finished middle classes and a few working-class people who ‘make it’ on the one side, and on the other, ‘low-skilled’ jobs in the service sector, which pay next to nothing and are geared towards the new precariat. Because employment has become that much more precarious, extractive and meaningless for so many, there is now more awareness that gainful employment is much harder to come by, leading working-class families to question the point of education and schools. And this is especially true when social mobility is presented by politicians as achievable via higher education. Neoliberalism has reordered schools (alongside other state infrastructure) to incorporate market rules of competition, risk and strategy and restructured them through deregulation, privatisation and austerity. This has created a meritocratic culture in schools whereby high-stake tests (SATS, GCSEs and A-Levels) sort the winners from the losers, with winners regarded as fulfilling the necessary requirements to go on and become consumers in the economy, and losers being regulated by a professional class. On a relational level, neoliberalism has resocialised working-class people away from community to individualism, which has radically shifted community politics, hindering the formation of grassroots community and parent-led collectives which could challenge and fight back against practices such as criminalising school absenteeism.

The withdrawal of children from the education system is largely a consequence of changes brought about by the neoliberal turn and austerity. That’s why it’s so wrong to point the finger at parents to highlight their personal failings to keep their children in the school system. We need to think through the ways in which the relationship between parents, children, schools and education has undergone a significant transformation over the past forty years, and school withdrawal is symptomatic of this shift. Now, not only are parents contending with myriad personal problems (some of which have already been discussed), but also their confidence in accessing support via schools is in sharp decline, as indicated by the government’s 2023 white paper on SEND and SEMH needs.

Did the pandemic change things?

But who is particularly at risk? Interestingly, data by Nesta shows that since the pandemic, all children and young people, regardless of disadvantage (class), ethnic group (race) and additional needs (SEND and SEMH), have experienced a significant increase in school withdrawal. For wealthier families, this is partly explained by changes in lifestyle habits brought about by the Covid 19 pandemic. In a sense the pandemic provided a trial pilot scheme for some families – mainly those with secure and spacious housing, and jobs that allow them to work from home – to re-evaluate their lives in relation to school and work, with many now continuing with a less structured and conventional approach to school and education. However, for the vast majority of multiracial working and workless poor households, the pandemic merely compounded their disadvantages. Household overcrowding and digital exclusion, for example, experienced during the pandemic have had a detrimental impact on the learning outcomes and socialisation of poorer children and young people.

Unsurprisingly, it was the most disadvantaged pupils (defined by the DfE as those eligible for free school meals) and those with special educational needs who were at a much higher risk of school absence prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and this has remained the case in the years following. Children in Alternative Provision (AP) settings, including Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are arguably the most likely to be persistently absent, with new data analysis by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies showing that across the Autumn 2023 term, 80 percent were persistently absent. In an article for the TES, the CEO of an academy trust in Dartmoor describes many of his poorer year 11 pupils as unable to prioritise revising for their GCSEs as household poverty was forcing them to work a job to support their families. And new crucial research by Citizens UK has revealed the devastating impact that inadequate housing has on the educational experiences, including school absence, of children in Newham, London. For example, damp and mould which causes respiratory problems such as asthma, has a direct impact on children’s health which frequently results in sickness and absence from school. Therefore, to attribute school withdrawal solely to changes in behaviour and lifestyle habits caused by the pandemic is to miss the point. The pandemic may well have precipitated school withdrawal, but it is various structural changes, brought about by austerity and neoliberalism that existed prior to Covid, that best explain why school withdrawal is on the rise.

Disinvestment from community

Materially, life has been made remarkably hard under the auspices of austerity and neoliberalism, and working-class people are finding it harder to get on and get by. The things needed to make life liveable, like actually affordable housing (read: council housing), secure employment contracts, and properly funded hospitals and schools, have been eviscerated. Not to mention that schools now need to operate as a fourth emergency service according to research by the University of Bristol, as one in five run a foodbank and are now the largest source of food and household aid for poor families. The upshot has been the development of a panoply of legitimate and real SEMH and SEND issues in children and parents. This begs the question,  how much longer will we expect schools, with limited and overstretched staff and resources, to regulate and treat[6] social and economic problems the government has created, all while funding for public services continues to be divested.

The situation in schools may be absurd, but the government, whatever its political persuasion, will continue to act with impunity if parents, teachers and other relevant organisations do not form a progressive alliance and make demands. That is not to say this will be easy. The neoliberalisation of schools and various legislative changes over the past forty years has significantly reduced opportunities for parental involvement and influence in matters related to education and schools, which veteran educational campaigner, Gus John, told me in conversation this has ‘shifted the emphasis from what we can collectively do to bring about change in the schooling system, to what is my responsibility to my own child’. Since the neoliberal turn, families have been forced to focus on their individual survival as they navigate a society lacking in social provision and community, which has worked in tandem to depoliticise parents. And this is also the context in which we need to understand school withdrawal. It is a silent response to a political culture lacking in care and community. But as we retreat into our homes, we break up bonds and atomise, and we become more alienated, more isolated and more cynical about sharing social responsibility and protecting the public good.

Fighting back and learning from the past

Times may well have changed, but communities under pressure have become communities of resistance in other difficult circumstances, and we can learn from these historic alliances. From the mid 1960s into the 1970s black Caribbean parents formed various organisations, such as the Black Parents Movement, the North London West Indian Association (NLWIA) and the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA) as a loosely linked-up, though tightly organised political response to the racism and discrimination their children experienced in the school system and streets, particularly when they came into contact with the police. By the late 1970s, they were supported by various organisations opposed to racism in education such as the National Association for Multiracial Education (NAME) and All London Teachers Against Racism and Fascism (ALTARF), and the National Union of Teachers (NUT).[7] Gus John, a founding member of CECWA and the BPM, said ‘this was a period of organised political agitation for rights and for justice against racism in education from London to Birmingham to Manchester’. The Black Parents Movement was formed ‘in order to empower parents to organise themselves independently of schools, in order to equip themselves with the knowledge and information, and organisational skills to hold schools to account for what they were doing to our children’.


Whilst we do have several brilliant organisations, like BLAM, No More Exclusions and Communities Empowerment Network that provide much needed intervention services for parents who need legal representation in schools, particularly as regards school exclusions, for example, Gus John warns that parents should not become so reliant on these types of organisations that they neglect their own power to form collectives and push back. By the looks of it, we also cannot wait for a new government to wake up, right the wrongs of the past forty years and set an agenda than uplifts the working and workless poor. The only way will be grassroot community action which understands parenting is always political.

[1] Attendance contracts are not legally binding but allow a more formal route to secure engagement with support where a voluntary early help plan has not worked or is not deemed appropriate. An attendance contract is not a punitive tool, it is intended to provide support and offer an alternative to prosecution. Parents cannot be compelled to enter an attendance contract, and they cannot be agreed in a parent’s absence.

[2] ESOs are issued by the courts to parents if a LA thinks they need support getting their child to go to school but they’re seen to not be co-operating with previous support offered. Failure to comply with the ESO is an offence for which parents, upon conviction in court, can be fined up to £1,000.

[3] SAOs are issued by LAs if they deem a child is not receiving suitable education either by regular attendance at school or otherwise. Failure to comply with an SAO is an offence for which parents can be prosecuted in court and receive fines between £1,000 and £2,500 and/or a community order or imprisonment of up to 3 months.

[4] Parenting Orders are imposed by the court following conviction for non-attendance alongside a fine and/or community order. They may be appropriate where the parent has not engaged in support to improve their child’s attendance and where compulsion to do so would help change parental behaviour. Any breach of the order could lead to a fine of up to £1,000.

[5] Penalty Notices are issued to parents as an alternative to prosecution where they have failed to ensure that their child regularly attends the school where they are registered or, in certain cases, at a place where alternative provision is provided. A penalty notice is an out of court settlement which is intended to change behaviour without the need for criminal prosecution. If repeated penalty notices are being issued and they are not working to change behaviour they are unlikely to be the most appropriate tool. The first penalty notice issued to a parent in respect of a particular pupil will be charged at £160 if paid within 28 days. This will be reduced to £80 if paid within 21 days.

[6] With an array of family support workers, educational psychologists, family psychotherapists to name just a few.

[7] Troyna, B and Williams, J, (1986), p. 35; Grosvenor, (1997), p. 68

Image: Empty chair in a classroom. Credit: MChe Lee via Unsplash

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “From the perspective of the marginalised: challenging punitive policies on school withdrawal

  1. What’s truly maddening is the lack of accountability that schools have when they deny children their right to an education. My bi-racial children have faced severe discrimination and injustice. After my daughter experienced sexual assault, harassment, hate crimes, and stalking, the school’s response was hostile and denied her a safe educational environment. Despite following the proper complaint processes twice with the school and following up with the DfE, TRA, and Ofsted, she was wrongfully blamed for her own absence, which they labelled as ‘school-based avoidance.’ This led to her losing the final two years of her education, all unauthorised absence.

    In my efforts to hold the school accountable, by legal action, my son is now experiencing direct discrimination. Recently, a staff member told him that the discrimination he faces is due to my actions in seeking justice. This has forced me to keep him out of school due to the negative impact on his well-being. The school’s refusal to document these issues in writing, out of fear of repercussions, leaves me demanding proper assurances that these matters will be addressed officially.

    I often wonder if I could fine each staff member for failing to safeguard my children’s education. I am exhausted by the constant victim blaming and ongoing victimisation simply for formally addressing serious issues. It’s time for schools to be held accountable and for the systemic problems highlighted in this article to be addressed.

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