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New Education Committee report on tackling school absence crisis

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Tackle school absence crisis with better mental health and SEND support and urgent legislation, says Education Committee

The Education Committee has proposed a range of measures to reverse the worrying trend of children’s absence from school.  

Whilst successive ministers have prioritised getting children back to school since the pandemic, the overall figures, and more concerningly for ‘persistent’ and ‘severe absence’, have failed to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

In its new report the cross-party Committee explores how growing demand for mental health services and special educational needs (SEND) support, as well as cost-of-living pressures and other issues, have compounded a problem that worsened following the COVID lock downs but remains present. 

The most recent full-year statistics (for the 2021/22 academic year) showed an overall absence rate of 7.6%, up from around 4-5% before the pandemic. In that year, 22.5% of pupils were persistently absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of school sessions – around double the pre-pandemic rate. 1.7% of all pupils were severely absent, meaning they missed more than half of sessions, compared to less than 1% pre-pandemic. 

The most recent statistical release from the Department for Education (DfE), relating to the autumn term 2022/23, shows that persistent absence had risen to 24.2% of pupils. 

Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP said:

“Missing school is damaging to children’s education, their development, future prospects, and in some cases it is a safeguarding risk. With nearly a quarter of all children missing 10% or more of their sessions, it is right that ministers have repeatedly said that school absence is a top priority. But as we heard throughout our inquiry, the reasons for this crisis are complex and varied. Many in the sector are greatly concerned, even dismayed, that things aren’t returning to a greater degree of normality, and in the meantime children are missing out.

“What happened during the pandemic is a crucial part of the story of how we got here, and recent research suggests some worrying changes in parental attitudes as a result. But other key factors that interlink with the impacts of covid, such as sky-high waiting lists for children’s mental health services and some children with SEND not getting the right support quickly enough, are also putting incredible pressure on families and schools. While we broadly support the Government’s recent plans to improve SEND support, it will only make the difference needed with sufficient resources and its implementation will be key.

“The increase in children suffering from mental health problems is deeply troubling and it is evident that our health service can’t meet this growing demand, leaving schools to fill the gaps. A major cross-government review of how to overcome this challenge is needed and greater resources both inside and outside schools will be required.

“We also need a consistent policy of issuing fines across the country, not a postcode lottery. The use of fines feels justified to discourage families from taking term-time holidays or where parents refuse to cooperate with reasonable requests, but offering support should nearly always come first.

“My colleagues were impressed by the support offered by attendance mentors in the few areas they are up and running. It was sensible for DfE to pilot this approach, as our predecessor committee recommended, in areas with the highest need. But their success and the scale of the challenge we now face should point the way towards a national rollout.

“We also want to see an evidence-based approach to the support offered via food-based interventions, such as breakfast clubs and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme, and an overall promotion of enrichment activities. More robust evidence is needed, although evidence we heard supports the idea that these initiatives and a strong offer across sport, music and the arts can help improve attendance amongst the most disadvantaged children.

“Lastly, the Government must come good on the long-awaited register of children not in school. There is significant support across the sector and within Parliament to bring this forward. The upcoming King’s Speech must deliver on this.

“My cross-party colleagues and I know the minister will want to take quick action on this report so that we can start to turn the tide on absence, which is doing long-term damage to children’s education every day.”

Mental health absence codes and increased support

An NHS survey revealed 18% of 7-16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2022, up from 12.1% in 2017. Coupled with inadequate children and adolescent mental health services capacity, this had led to much longer waiting times for care. 

Research by Mind suggested only one in four children were able to claim an authorised absence from school when complaining of a mental health-related problem. This is due to families finding it difficult to evidence their child’s illness before being able to get a medical appointment. Their child’s absence is then more likely to be recorded as unauthorised and they are more likely to be fined. The Committee recommends that DfE should introduce a mental health absence code and set clear thresholds for its use. These thresholds should ensure only serious cases of mental health problems necessitate absence. as the consensus remains that the vast majority of children will be better off in school being able to socialise and progress their education alongside their peers. But a new code, in required instances, will eliminate the need to repeatedly provide medical evidence in cases of known mental health difficulties. 

The DfE should also lead a cross-government assessment of the scale of mental health difficulties amongst pupils, and review the current support available. The Committee says the Government should report its findings from this review by Summer 2024. There then needs to be significant cross-departmental working to ensure service levels are adequate to meet its previous commitment to a four-week waiting time. 

Attendance mentors and hubs

The Committee supports the Government’s promotion of attendance hubs – a previous recommendation from this Committee – and its rollout of attendance mentors, and believes the latter should be expanded nationally, beyond the current pilot schemes in areas with high levels of deprivation. The Committee heard that the support mentors offer directly to children and their parents helps to overcome their unique issues that discourage attendance, but DfE should ensure the whole family-style of support becomes a central part of the programme, as recommended by School Home Support. 

Support for pupils with SEND

Absence rates are significantly higher among pupils with SEND, as are rates in special schools compared with mainstream schools. Witnesses told the Committee that failure to meet the needs of children with SEND is the main cause of their absence. This increases their risk of experiencing stress and anxiety, potentially leading to traumatic experiences. 

DfE recently published its SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan with measures to train more educational psychologists; joint workforce planning with the Department of Health and Social Care; and improved training for teaching assistants.  

The Committee supports the SEND and AP improvement Plan but says it is evident that unmet need prevails as a very significant barrier to attendance. DfE should prioritise resources for inclusion and assessment in mainstream schools to ensure they can adequately support pupils with SEND, and keep that level of resource under review. Successful implementation of the SEND and AP improvement plan will be key. 

Fines for missing school

There is a lack of consistency between England’s local authorities in their approach to issuing fines. Schools Minister Nick Gibb recently told the Committee fines can be suitable, “if families are not prepared to engage” with support. 

The Committee heard arguments that in some cases fining families lacks support and compassion and should only be a last resort. DfE should produce a national framework and new statutory guidance for the use of fines and prosecution to ensure consistency across the country. 

Register of children not in school

The Committee has repeatedly called for legislation that would enable the implementation of a national register of children in elective home education. This was originally intended to be part of the Schools Bill, which was subsequently withdrawn despite ministers, including the Secretary of State, making clear this was a top legislative priority for the Department. There has since been no progress in moving forward legislation. It must now be included in the King’s Speech so that it can be operational for the 2024/25 academic year. 

Cost-of-living pressures

MPs heard that rising costs of transport and uniform can be major barriers to attendance, particularly affecting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Whilst low-income families can apply for extra support for costs like transport, anecdotal evidence suggests take-up is low.

The report recommends that DfE review its framework for supporting low-income families with school costs, and its guidance on how much is charged for uniforms. It should then issue supplementary guidance highlighting best practice, so schools and local authorities can make informed decisions on how best to support low-income families.   

Physical illness

Illness was the primary reason for absence before covid-19 and remains so. The Centre for Social Justice said a cultural shift has seen parents become more likely to keep children at home for minor illnesses, such as coughs and colds, than before the pandemic. They also argued that the Government’s messaging has been confusing for parents. Meanwhile, long covid remains a barrier to attendance for 59,000 children, according to the Office for National Statistics. 

MPs recommend that DfE and the Department for Health jointly launch a targeted public information campaign to guide parents on when children who are unwell should still attend school, and when not.  

Food and enrichment-based interventions

The report calls on DfE to assess the eligibility criteria for free school meals and to adjust it if necessary, ensuring all children in poverty are in receipt. Witnesses told us significant numbers of children living in poverty do not receive free meals. 

MPs heard strong evidence that sports and enrichment activities drive attendance by helping children develop positive relationships and improving their wellbeing. Witnesses spoke of “untapped potential” for charities and community sports clubs to help run activities in schools rather than just evenings and weekends, which would help encourage attendance. DfE should commission research into links between sports-based interventions and attendance, and look to the third sector for effective examples. The Committee supports the concept of an enrichment guarantee to ensure that more pupils benefit from extra-curricular activities.  

Other recommendations in this report

  • The Government should ensure that pupils with SEND are only placed in alternative provision for a limited time and as a way to address issues affecting their attendance in mainstream schools. DfE should discourage their use as a means to manage behaviour.  
  • DfE should make it mandatory for all schools provide daily absence data that it now publishes on its Pupil Attendance Dashboard. 
  • The Department should conduct further research on the barriers to attendance for migrant pupils, and those with above average rates of absence. 

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