HUNDREDS of vulnerable children have been asked to attend school part-time despite their right to a full-time education.

Concerns have been raised that Oxfordshire schools are struggling to cope with certain pupils, after a 'disproportionate' number with special needs were temporarily taught on a reduced timetable.

While all school-age children are entitled to full-time education, schools can offer a 'reintegration timetable' in 'rare' circumstances.

This must be to meet needs of the child, not the school, for example due to illness or to help them settle after exclusion, and parental consent must be gained.

However, speaking at a meeting yesterday, Oxfordshire County Council officer Deborah Bell said: "The practice is used reasonably commonly across all types and phases of school within the county.

"There is disproportionate usage, in the use we are aware of, with children with special educational needs."

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Reduced timetables differ from child to child, but examples include only attending morning lessons, or just lessons on certain days.

Council guidance states their use should be in exceptional circumstances for a maximum of six weeks, but it has no power to enforce that.

According to new figures, the number of reintegration timetables at Oxfordshire schools in 2018-19 was 490, up from 432 the previous year.

More than 70 per cent were for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, and almost half had been introduced following exclusion.

About 22 per cent were for children with a 'team around the family,' meaning authorities had intervened to help with family difficulties.

A report prepared by Ms Bell, the council's head of learner engagement, said: "The use of reintegration timetables appears to be more widespread in Oxfordshire than elsewhere.

"The Children’s Trust and Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children’s Board are concerned about the use of reintegration timetables, and receive regularly reports on reported numbers.

"The practice is most frequently reported by schools as being used to prevent exclusion, most frequently with pupils with special educational needs, particularly social, emotional and mental health needs."

Addressing the county council's education scrutiny committee at County Hall yesterday, she stressed the practice is ‘not unlawful.'

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Schools are also under no obligation to inform the council about their use of reduced timetables, meaning the figures could only be a snapshot of the reality.

Councillors viewed a confidential breakdown of statistics for individual schools, showing fluctuation from place to place.

The committee's chairman Michael Waine said: "It does lead one to think there might be a policy issue within a school as to how they deal with certain children, rather than a strategy to be used sparingly.

"It is different from school to school, even those of very similar socioeconomic areas and similar sizes."

While some councillors said part-time schooling was a better alternative to exclusions, councillor John Howson said he was concerned that their use is rising at the same time as exclusions.

Carole Thomson, chair of Oxfordshire Governors' Association, highlighted a lack of funding to help schools teach high-needs children.

She added there can be ‘good use’ for reduced timetables, and Ms Bell agreed they should be in the ‘best interests of the child.’

Councillor Emma Turnbull added: "I’ve heard from parents who don’t necessarily realise there’s a choice [to accept the reduced timetable] - there’s a perception that they have to go along with it."

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Pupils on a reduced timetable are recorded with an authorised absence when they are not in school, the committee heard.

Council guidance about the practice states: "There is no statutory basis upon which to establish a reintegration timetable.

"With the agreement of parents and carers, however, in exceptional circumstances, a short-fixed term period of part-time education may, in very rare circumstances, be judged to be in the interests of young people who are finding full-time education very challenging."

The parent or carer is responsible for the child when they are not in school, and the pupil does not get any additional tutoring nor professional supervision.

Schools continue to receive full-time funding, even when the pupil is attending part-time.

The council has issued new reintegration timetable guidance for schools, and Ofsted is expected to scrutinise the practice when it rolls out its new inspection framework from this month.