This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
Date Published: 27 September 2023
Government statistics have shown that covid-19 and its aftermath has had a damaging effect on school attendance, which has lasted longer than originally anticipated, so we decided to investigate the causes and possible solutions to the growing issue of children’s absence from school. We launched our inquiry into Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils in January 2023.
The rate of absence in schools in England has increased significantly since the pandemic. The most recent full-year statistics (which cover the 2021/22 academic year) showed an overall absence rate of 7.6%, up from around 4–5% pre-pandemic. Within this, 5.5% of missed sessions were authorised absences and 2.1% were unauthorised. Authorised illness was the main driver, at 4.4%, (whilst unauthorised holiday absences sat at 0.4%). 22.5% of pupils were persistently absent, which is around double the pre-pandemic rate, and 1.7% of all pupils were severely absent compared to less than 1% pre-pandemic.
Prior to the impact of the pandemic, absence and persistent absence had been gradually declining since 2010, but there is no sign of a return to this trajectory. Given the time that was lost to education during the pandemic, it is of great concern that absence rates have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and there has been no significant improvement in the speed and scale of rate reduction which is needed to prevent long-term harm to pupils.
The Department has recently established a data pilot via an interactive dashboard, known as the Pupil Attendance Dashboard. We welcome the daily attendance data pilot, and note the Department’s intention to mandate schools’ participation and to replace the School Census. Given that around 80% of schools have been successfully using the dashboard over the last academic year, for consistency, we recommend the Department make use of the dashboard mandatory as soon as possible, subject to a successful evaluation of the pilot and addressing any concerns.
Further monitoring is needed to identify and support those children not receiving a formal education. This Committee has repeatedly called for a register of children not in school. The Secretary of State, the Minister for Schools and the Prime Minister have committed to bringing forward a register, but timescales are yet to be announced. We urge the Government to deliver on its commitment to introduce a register of children not in school to be fully operational for the 2024/25 academic year.
We heard mixed reactions to the guidance, Working together to improve school attendance. Whilst witnesses agreed statutory guidance is needed to improve attendance, the guidance in its current form may require revisions before implementation on a statutory footing, which the Department had planned to do. We recommend that the Department should implement statutory guidance to be applicable from September 2024, having consulted the relevant stakeholders on revisions. We also examined local authority support for school attendance, and we heard that levels of support can vary significantly. We recommended that the Department should conduct an audit of local authority support, including an assessment on funding Education Welfare Officers.
There is evidence that prior to the pandemic, fines played a role in reducing unauthorised absence. However, it is less clear if they are an effective deterrent for families who are facing some of the current barriers to attendance we have outlined. We heard that fines do not address the barriers that low-income families face and can be counterproductive by adding to difficult financial circumstances. Families are struggling with high school costs, and in some cases, fining is not an appropriate, compassionate, or helpful response. Also, the Department does not monitor or regulate the use of fines and prosecution and what methods of support have been offered before they are applied, and we heard that they are used inconsistently due to local authority discretion. We are disappointed by the lack of action in the Department’s response to its consultation on setting national thresholds for legal intervention. We recommend the Department should instruct schools and local authorities to explore methods of support for pupils and families before the use of fines or prosecution, ensuring legal intervention is a last resort only, and introduce a national framework for fines and prosecution as part of revisions to the guidance Working together to improve school attendance.
The Department has introduced a number of interventions to improve attendance, such as attendance mentors and attendance hubs, and we welcome the expansion of these in recent months. But we heard that the expansion does not go far enough, and we are persuaded that measures need to be rolled out nationally to support persistent and severely absent pupils effectively. Given the success of the pilots of the Attendance Mentors Programme, the Department should start by implementing a national roll out of attendance mentors, with whole-family support at the forefront of the programme for effectual support.
Given a major driver of low attendance is low income, it follows that measures to tackle child poverty should be considered in the Department’s approach to improving attendance. The Department should make an assessment of the eligibility criteria for Free School Meals and adjust if necessary, ensuring all children in poverty are in receipt. We heard that the Government are also supporting other initiatives through food and enrichment, which have helped to improve school attendance. Breakfast clubs and the Holiday Activities and Food programme are measures that can be used further to improve school attendance, but there is a lack of evidence as the Department does not require schools or local authorities to measure return rates in school attendance, following attendance at breakfast or holiday clubs. We recommend the Department require local authorities to report on school attendance levels for pupils who have attended a breakfast club or holiday club.
We heard selected, but compelling evidence from third sector organisations who were providing sports-based interventions in localised areas to improve attendance. But the position of these interventions is often unsecure and unsustainable due to the lack of direct support from the Government. We recommend the Department commission research to test the link between sports-based interventions and improved attendance.
We also heard concerns about a decline in enrichment activities with £1 billion less spent on youth services in the last decade, but that measures such as arts, drama and music could too be used to improve school attendance. We recommend the Department should implement an enrichment guarantee for pupils in school, looking to the youth sector for best practice. This guarantee should have KPIs focusing on improving school attendance, and the Department should provide options for schools to incorporate this via an extended school day, should they wish to implement one.
There are specific barriers to attendance for pupils with health difficulties. Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) have significantly higher rates of absence than their peers, and the rate of absence in special schools is also higher than mainstream schools. Witnesses told us that pupils who have unmet SEND needs face issues with attendance, due to the lack of resource available in mainstream schools. We also heard that some pupils with SEND are being placed in alternative provision without a proper understanding or assessment of their needs. We urge the Department to prioritise resource for the inclusion and assessment of SEND pupils in mainstream schools, and recommend that alternative provision should only be used as a time-limited intervention with clear structures to ensure each pupil’s needs are being effectively supported.
We also heard that most absences for pupils with SEND tend to be authorised absences, particularly in special schools. We understand pupils with SEND have higher absences for legitimate and unavoidable reasons, thus distorting comparisons with other cohorts. We recommend the Department take greater care when reporting these statistics to avoid unhelpful comparisons. We also recommend the Department should use attendance and engagement as key metrics of educational outcomes for SEND pupils, whilst taking the specific barriers they face into account.
More pupils have experienced mental health challenges since the pandemic, and this has had a negative impact on their school attendance. The Department should lead a cross-government assessment of the scale of mental-health difficulties. Pupils are struggling to access support for mental health, via the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), due to extremely long waiting lists. The current capacity of mental health services to support pupils is clearly grossly inadequate, and the Department must review the current provision of support available. The Department should as a minimum, resource any required funding needed to ensure it reaches its aim of providing senior mental health lead training for every 11+ educational setting in England, by 2025. The Department should work with the Department for Health and Social Care to report the findings of its review on the scale of mental health challenges and the support available, by summer 2024.
Whilst the Department has issued non-statutory guidance on mental health in schools, it needs to do more to improve its offer for these pupils. We heard that the Department does not separately record absences for pupils with mental health difficulties, and therefore mental health-related absences are not commonly authorised by schools due to requirement to provide medical evidence, which can often lead to fines or prosecution for families. We recommend the introduction of an authorised mental health absence code with clear thresholds for its use, which could eliminate the need for medical evidence in cases of known mental health difficulties and reduce the need for intervention via prosecution.
Illness was the primary reason for pupil absence before covid-19 and remains so. But parental attitudes to illness and attendance have shifted and we have heard some evidence that Government messaging has been inconsistent. As a result, the illness absence rate is considerably higher now than it was pre-pandemic. We recommend the Department should launch a targeted public information campaign to guide parents on when and when not children who are unwell should attend school.
Transport and uniform costs were identified as barriers to school attendance, especially with recent pressure on the cost of living. Although the Department provides extra support to low-income families, such as help with transport costs, it is clear from our evidence that families are not widely taking up these programmes, and therefore, they are not acting as a solution to these barriers. We recommend the Department review its framework for supporting low-income families in meeting the costs of school attendance. We also recommend that the Department should implement better signposting to ensure local authorities, schools and families are aware of these measures.
We heard evidence that pupils with English as an additional language, or migrant pupils, face some specific barriers to attendance. Although we asked if pupils from other ethnic minority groups faced barriers to attendance, we found little research or evidence on the topic. There is clear evidence to suggest pupils from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community face significant barriers to attendance. Whilst the Department is aware of this, not enough is being done to support this pupil cohort, and community interventions appear to be filling the gap in localised areas. We recommend the Department continue to work with stakeholders from the GRT community and using examples of best practice, roll out measures on a national scale to support this pupil cohort.