What is an Education Welfare Officer?
School attendance is a hot topic at the moment, with term-time holidays, fines and court rulings overturning them in the news almost every day. The occasional day (or few days) off due to illness, holidays or an important family event may not seem a big deal, but, between them, children in full-time education miss over 50 million days of school each year.
For families whose children are generally good at attending school, nothing is likely to happen if they miss a few days over the course of the year. But where children are repeatedly absent from school, a referral to the Education Welfare Officer (EWO) might be made.
What does an EWO do?
EWOs are employed by the local council to work with schools and families to ensure that every school age child is receiving a suitable, full-time education by encouraging regular attendance at school (or ensuring they're being home educated).
Every school has a named EWO. One of their roles is to visit the school regularly and meet with the head teacher or other senior staff to discuss any pupils who are failing to attend school regularly.
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When an EWO visits a school, they also inspect their registers to make sure they’re being filled in properly and to look for patterns in children’s absences that could indicate a problem.
Outside of these regular meetings, schools can refer a child to the Education Welfare Service (EWS). They will make arrangements for an EWO to meet with the family and discuss their child’s attendance issues.
Why might a family be referred to an EWO?
There are a number of reasons why a child’s attendance may fall below acceptable levels, including:
- Parents taking children out of school to go on holiday
- Frequent or persistent illness
- A parent’s ill health that makes it difficult to get the child to school
- Transport problems
- Medical appointments arranged in school time
- Taking days off because the child is ‘tired’ or ‘had a busy weekend’
- Bullying or school phobia
Currently, the Department for Education considers a child as having ‘persistent absence’ (PA) issues if their attendance drops below 90 per cent – the equivalent of missing one day every fortnight. However, there may be interventions below this threshold if worrying patterns are emerging.
Why does good attendance matter?
Children who are persistently absent are affected in a number of ways. Primary-school children who have ongoing absence issues often come from disadvantaged backgrounds. These children may start school behind their peers in terms of their language and social development, and missing lots of school makes it harder for them to catch up.
When a child is allowed to miss primary school on a frequent basis, they develop poor attitudes to school. They’re more likely to truant at secondary level, and this affects their GCSE grades and their chances of finding a job, further education or training.
Attendance is also one of the criteria that Ofsted look at when inspecting schools, so schools are keen to keep improving their statistics.
Taking your child out of school for a holiday may not seem unreasonable, but if they miss one day of school each week (or the equivalent) every year, they’ll have lost an entire two years of schooling by the time they’re 16.
What happens if you’re referred to an EWO?
Firstly, don’t panic – an EWO referral will only happen as a last resort. If the school has concerns about your child’s attendance or punctuality, they should intervene first, and at an early stage. They’ll try to help you find a solution to the problem – for example, if your child is missing school because they’re being bullied, they might suggest some one-to-one support. If you co-operate with the school and are able to improve your child’s attendance, it’s unlikely that further action will be taken at this stage.
If the school does refer you to the EWO, they will meet with you (and possibly your child), usually at the school, to discuss your child’s attendance. This will include setting out the reasons it’s important that your child goes to school, and making you aware of your legal responsibility to make sure they do. They might also request information from other professionals involved with you and your child, such as social services or their GP or health visitor, to build a fuller picture of what’s happening.
The EWO’s main aim is to work with you to get your child to school regularly. They’ll put together a plan, which might include support from other agencies: for example, if you’re unable to get your child to school because you’re ill or disabled, they may be able to arrange transport. Usually, some short-term support is all that’s needed to help families improve their child’s attendance.
EWOs also work with families who are home educating, where there are concerns that a child isn’t receiving a suitable education at home.
What if things don’t improve?
Ultimately, if you’ve been referred to the EWO and your child’s attendance doesn’t improve, the EWS can take legal action under the Education Act 1996 to ensure your child returns to school. This may result in:
- A fine of £60, rising to £120 if you don’t pay within 21 days (the type of fine that is currently being issues over unauthorised holidays)
- A Parenting Order requiring you to go to parenting classes
- An Education Supervision Order, where a supervisor is appointed to help you get your child to school if you’re not cooperating
- A School Attendance Order if the council thinks your child isn’t getting an education: you have 15 days to prove that they’re registered at a school or being home educated. If you don’t, they can make you send your child to a specific school.
If you’re issued with any of the above but don’t comply, you may be taken to court and fined or prosecuted. However, it’s important not to see the EWO as an enemy: their role is to ensure your child is getting the education they need, and by working with them, you can play your part in making sure this happens.