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Schools: Persistent Absenteeism

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of persistent absenteeism in English schools; and what steps they are taking to address it.

My Lords, tackling attendance and persistent absence is a top priority for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and all her ministerial team. We have a team of specialist attendance advisers, are increasing the number of attendance mentors to support vulnerable students, are expanding our attendance hubs—supporting over 1,000 additional schools—and have launched a campaign to emphasise the importance of school for learning, wellbeing and friendships. We also now expect schools to meet termly with local authorities to agree plans for at-risk children, and our attendance data tools give schools the information they need to allow earlier intervention and avoid absences becoming entrenched.

My Lords, there is a link between levels of deprivation, poor mental health in children and persistent absence. The children’s mental health charity Place2Be has told me that, for every £1 invested in mental health interventions in schools, there is a social benefit of £8. What assessment have the Government made of the financial benefit of mental health interventions in schools? How are they targeting the most disadvantaged children in tackling mental health-related persistent absence?

The Government look at both the impact of mental health support on students and the financial impacts. As the noble Baroness knows, we are working with the Department of Health and Social Care to have mental health support teams, which are now covering 35% of pupils in schools and further education. This will increase to around 50% by March 2025.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in disadvantaged areas of the country, absenteeism could be as high as 20%, where you cannot expect parents to get their children to go to school every day of the week? The reason why they are not going is that, when they go to school, they have to study just eight academic subjects, which is the curriculum that the Government have imposed upon schools. They do not believe that they are learning anything that will get them a job. Will the Minister accept the recommendations of the Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee of this House, which recommended that technical, practical and useful subjects, and also computer studies, should be introduced immediately into the curriculum?

I cannot accept entirely my noble friend’s assertion, because persistent absence, which the noble Baroness’s Question points to, has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic and the curriculum has not significantly changed.

My Lords, when the Minister kindly replied to my Written Question tabled on 11 January, she said that there were

“335 state-funded alternative provision schools”.

But in terms of unregistered alternative schools or settings, she said that because they are unregistered, they

“do not meet the criteria to register as a school”.

So local authorities are sending children to these unregistered provision settings, yet we do not know whether a record is taken of their attendance or whether they are safeguarded. This is not a satisfactory state, is it? Can the Minister look into this to make sure that these children are safeguarded, properly educated and recorded for attendance?

My Lords, we know that mental and emotional distress has increased hugely since the pandemic, that children who are distressed cannot learn, and that children who are not learning but failing at school will stay away from school. I think the Minister said that, by 2025, 50% of schools would have good mental health support, but I cannot see 50% as being enough. Can the Minister comment?

I think we have to be careful: without question, mental health and anxiety have increased from the pandemic and the disruption that children experienced but, equally, a prolonged period of absence is also likely to heighten a child’s anxiety about attending in the future. I say to the noble Baroness, and to the House, that there are schools doing remarkable things, particularly in relation to children on education, health and care plans and children with special educational needs. I was in two schools in Birmingham on Friday: Lea Forest primary and Four Dwellings secondary. Those schools have a remarkable attendance level, particularly for the vulnerable children to whom she refers.

My Lords, I know that the Government have looked carefully at areas where there is deprivation. In the light of the questions we have already heard, have the Government made any correlation geographically between areas that are recognised as being disadvantaged, as opposed to other areas which are better off?

Disadvantage has always been, and sadly continues to be, a major element in whether a child attends. However, we really need to look at those schools in areas of particular disadvantage or with particular challenges—for example, in coastal communities—to see which schools are beginning to break the back of this attendance and persistent absence challenge. We should listen and learn from them, which is where our attendance hubs come in. Those are schools which are having greater success in addressing attendance and sharing that insight with their neighbours.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell us about some of the data analysis that the ministry has managed to work on over the last few years and how that relates to school attendance?

I thank my noble friend for his question. The data that the department is now collecting daily from about 88% of schools in the country—we are shortly going to make that mandatory, so that it will be 100%—gives us a real opportunity to have a more granular insight. Understandably, and rightly, there is much emphasis and attention on children who are described as severely absent, who are missing more than 50% of school. However, about a third of children, nationally, have between 6% and 15% absence. That is around the persistence absence threshold, and focusing on those children could make a real difference not only to them but to their teachers, their parents and their peers at school.

My Lords, when a parent goes into prison, no one is notified if they have a child. The charity Children Heard and Seen, which works with children who have a parent in prison, has shown that, with its support, those children’s attendance has significantly improved. Will the Government put in place a statutory mechanism to identify and support children with a parent in prison, as this would significantly reduce school absenteeism for those families?

I am interested by the right reverend Prelate’s suggestion and the suggestion from the charity she refers to. One of the things I hear a lot in schools is the importance of a child feeling that they belong—the relationship they have with staff and their friends. I hope we would not need a statutory duty and that a school would know a child well enough, but if it would help, I am happy to meet with the charity and discuss this further.

My Lords, I am somewhat concerned by the fact that we have now been talking about this fairly consistently for some time. In the north-east, the difference between now and pre-Covid is marked; there are many children with whom schools have now lost contact, but they are also enormously under pressure financially. There are circles to be joined, which schools and local authorities are finding incredibly difficult. There are still too many school exclusions, and the Government have not come down hard enough on places that are still excluding children, because then the perpetrators of bad things know where to find them and know where to pick them up. Will the Government seriously look much more at how they support those areas of disadvantage, where children look as if they are having their lives blighted for the next generation?

I think the essence of the noble Baroness’s question is about funding for schools; I remind her that funding for schools is the highest it has been in real terms per pupil in 2024-25. I am not saying there are not challenges, but there are also things every school can do that do not cost money that would mean more children were there, and we want to support them to be able to do that.