From education to employment

Government to tackle stubborn post-pandemic absence rates with targeted support for school

students walking through gate
  • Government expands successful attendance programmes to get more children into school.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children in England to benefit from expansion of nine new attendance hubs reaching 600 schools.
  • Government calls for evidence from schools and local authorities on how to improve support for children missing education.

New plans to support pupils to drive up attendance rates in schools to improve pupils’ attainment and welfare have been announced by the Government today.

These plans include the expansion of the successful sector-led Attendance Hubs programme with nine new lead hub schools, alongside the expansion of Attendance Mentors in areas of the country with the highest levels of pupil absence.

The nine new attendance hub leads will support up to 600 primary, secondary and alternative provision schools in England to improve their attendance by sharing effective practice and practical resources.

Practice shared by hubs may include rolling out automatic text messaging to parents where pupils do not attend school and using data effectively to identify children at risk of poor attendance and in order to intervene early.

The expansion of the attendance mentors programme, delivered by children’s charity Barnardo’s, will see trained mentors work directly with 1,665 persistently and severely absent children and their families across Knowsley, Doncaster, Stoke-on-Trent and Salford to understand and overcome the barriers to attendance and support them back into school.

These new measures build on the Government’s existing attendance strategy which includes: new expectations set out in guidance for schools, trusts and local authorities, a national attendance data dashboard providing more up-to-date attendance data so schools can target the most vulnerable, and the work of the national Attendance Action Alliance.

Improving attendance is key to boosting attainment and evidence shows pupils with higher attendance tend to have higher attainment across all key stages. Education and the social connection that comes with it can also have a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. It lays the foundation for growing a strong economy in the future, one of the Prime Minister’s priorities.

Today the Department is also publishing a call for evidence on children missing education – those neither on a school roll nor being suitably home educated. Receiving evidence from local authorities, schools and other agencies on what works to support children missing education and the challenges they face, will play a vital role in allowing the Department to identify existing best practice and inform future policy. The call for evidence is open until 20 July.

Schools Minister, Nick Gibb said:

“We know that the best place for children to learn is in the classroom, and the vast majority of children are currently in school and learning.

“Though pupil attendance is continuing to recover, the pandemic has still had a real impact on pupil absence in school.

“That is why we’re expanding some of our most important attendance measures today – including the attendance hubs and mentoring programmes, to ensure children have the best chance of receiving a high-quality education.”

Emma Ramsay, Assistant Director of Barnardo’s North, said:

“We are very excited to have confirmation from the Department for Education that Attendance Mentor pilot is being expanded into the four new areas after our pilot in Middlesbrough.

“We are looking forward to working with schools, local authorities, families and pupils who face challenges with school attendance in Doncaster, Salford, Stoke on Trent, and Knowsley.

“We are passionate about helping pupils overcome the barriers they face, and are sure these areas will benefit significantly from the service.”

CEO of Northern Education Trust, Rob Tarn said:

“It has been wonderful to see the positive professional conversations generated following the creation of the North Shore attendance hub. Securing better attendance always has been, and continues to be, a day to day challenge for schools across the country.

“The increase in the number of attendance hubs and the number of schools involved in collaborative work will mean that many organisations need no longer feel alone and will have the ability to share their best practice whilst receiving ideas from others.”

The new Attendance Hubs will start supporting other schools from June and mentors will begin working with children and families in the new areas from September.

Findings from the expansion of the attendance hubs will determine whether the approach has the potential to be rolled out to other areas across the country.

The first Attendance Hub was established by Rob Tarn, CEO of Northern Education Trust and member of the Attendance Action Alliance, to provide other schools with techniques, resources and advice on how to improve attendance, as successfully trialled in Northern Education Trust’s North Shore Academy.

North Shore Academy has significantly improved its own pupil attendance rates despite having almost three times more disadvantaged pupils than the national average. Last year the national absence rate in schools was 9% whereas North Shore Academy was 8.2%. As part of the hub, it is extending its work to headteachers running schools in similar circumstances. A number of schools who have participated in the hub have seen significant improvements in their attendance.

As part of the expansion, nine additional schools will join North Shore Academy to lead new hubs to share methods that keep pupils in school.

Sector Response

James Bowen, assistant general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“School attendance has not yet returned to pre-Covid levels, so there’s no doubt that we need to continue to focus on this issue.

“Attendance hubs can be a useful way to share best practice between schools, and can be helpful in developing whole-school strategies to encourage good attendance. However, if the government is truly committed to tackling this issue, it needs to invest more widely in specialist teams which work directly with children and families at a local level. This is particularly true for pupils that miss the most school.

“The decimation of services like education welfare officers over the last decade means schools no longer have access to the support they need to address this problem head-on. If the government is serious about solving this issue it will need to match this ambition with the investment needed.”

Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“We agree with the Schools Minister that the pandemic has had a real, and ongoing, impact on pupil attendance. School and college leaders tell us that absence levels are significantly higher than they were pre-pandemic.

“Expanding attendance hubs and mentors may be helpful, but this barely scratches the surface of this problem. We think that it is driven largely by a rising tide of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, which are exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis. The government needs to provide solutions that address the root causes of absence. As ever, this is likely to take investment in terms of staffing and specialist mental health support, and the government’s record on providing the necessary resources is sorely lacking.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“Government intentions to support schools further around attendance are welcome but the plans for attendance hubs do not go far enough in tackling the real issues that school leaders and SENCOs tell us prevent many young people from attending school. A large percentage of the young people who are regularly missing school have undiagnosed SEND or mental health conditions, are awaiting diagnosis or are on waiting lists for further support from specialist professionals.

“Schools do take early intervention measures but when issues escalate, and specialist input is needed the current wait times are too long to prevent young people reaching a crisis point which in many cases prevents them accessing school. Until this issue is resolved no number of fines imposed on parents will improve school attendance. For most of the young people experiencing anxiety and mental health breakdown the school environment itself is the problem. It is not that they won’t attend school but that in psychological terms they cannot attend. It is therefore, fundamentally, the issues of curriculum, assessment and timely access to specialist support which need to be addressed.

“Measures such as an absence code for mental ill-health and for students awaiting external support are badly needed. They should be introduced, alongside the encouragement of an inclusive approach to well-being which promotes belonging across the school community. Fines and punitive approaches to behaviour are not the answer: there is no evidence to prove they are successful in reintegrating students.”

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