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Ofsted: Pupil Absence Rates

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 13 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to empower Ofsted to review pupil absence rates as part of their school inspections.

My Lords, improving attendance is a top priority for this Government, because it is vital for children’s learning, well-being and long-term development. As part of its existing framework, Ofsted expects schools to do all they reasonably can to achieve the highest possible attendance. Inspectors will check that schools have a clear understanding of the causes of absence in their school and that the necessary strategies are in place to improve attendance.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. She knows that a child is deemed to be persistently absent if they have missed 10% or more of lessons. Across the two school terms prior to the current one, around one in five children were persistently absent from primary and secondary schools, which is more than double the figure five years ago. So there is an existential crisis and a safeguarding issue, because the link between absenteeism—children missing from school—and children taken into home education is strong. Ofsted and the Children’s Commissioner want to see a register of children not in schools, which the Government have said they support, so why was that measure not included in the King’s Speech, which was not exactly overloaded with legislation?

The Government remain committed to legislating to set up a register of children not in school. The noble Lord may be aware that the honourable Member for Meon Valley has introduced a Private Member’s Bill, and we will be working hard with her as she progresses that.

My Lords, when children of 14 decide to leave their school and go to a university technical college, their absence rate falls dramatically compared to that at their previous school. They like going to a UTC because they can work in workshops as well as classrooms, they can learn by their hands as well as their brains, and they visit companies looking for jobs. I assure your Lordships that, unless that sort of education is deeply embedded, the absence rates of disadvantaged students will not fall, because they are told all the time by the Department for Education that they must study eight academic subjects. We need a curriculum fitted to this century.

My noble friend needs to consider also the patterns of attendance before the pandemic. The curriculum was the same before the pandemic as post-pandemic, but attendance rates are very different. Linking absence entirely to the curriculum may require further consideration.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that in the Children’s Commissioner’s latest report, on absenteeism, she says:

“For some, the pandemic has led to disengagement. Schools and families have said that they feel like the social contract between parents and schools has been broken”.

Could we be assured that an Ofsted report will consider also the positive and creative engagement of parents in school life?

The noble Lord makes a good point. We need not wait just for Ofsted in order to look at the positive engagement of parents. Many of the schools I visit are focused substantially on that and on making sure that parents get positive feedback about their children in school—not just a call when their child is not there.

My Lords, what are the Government doing about people who attend unregistered —effectively illegal—schools, often of a very dubious religious nature? What are they doing to eradicate this and to make sure that children receive an education that enables them to stand on their own two feet outside closed communities?

The noble Lord will be aware that Ofsted has been involved in a number of prosecutions of illegal schools. We remain very concerned about those—indeed, the Private Member’s Bill to which I referred earlier will go some way to addressing this issue.

My Lords, I express gratitude to the Minister for the way in which the data has been produced; I understand that more is to come, and that will be examined in great detail. As an unrepentant pedant, though, I am as interested in the adverbs as the nouns—in how the data is to be applied. How do we get more children across the line in terms of the culture of school? Some years ago, the Children’s Society’s Young Commissioners looked deeply into child poverty in school and how children are identified as those, for instance, receiving free school meals or who are not able to purchase the very expensive school uniforms from the agreed seller. How is school culture being encouraged by government further to change in order to get children across the line? How, indeed, do we expect Ofsted to become the “office of encouragement”?

As the right reverend Prelate knows, Ofsted is about to start its Big Listen exercise, so maybe that is one of the questions that could be asked. He asks an important question about how the data will be used. There is more we can do within the department on analysing and breaking down the data into more actionable insight for schools, and we will start engaging with trusts and local authorities on that very shortly. We need to be careful to make sure that children who really have major barriers to coming to school and whose attendance is very poor are not conflated with those who are in school nine or nine and a half days out of 10. It is about how we get those ones, too, over the line.

We have a crisis of attendance in our schools. Research from the Centre for Social Justice reveals that more than one in four parents think that school is not essential every day. It is essential. What can the Government do to repair the relationship between schools and families, which has deteriorated greatly in recent years?

Again, we have to be very careful not to make sweeping generalisations. We are seeing lots of green shoots in terms of attendance and higher-level attendance, particularly in transition year groups such as year seven, when children go from primary to secondary school. There are important things we can build on, such as having open, honest, regular communication with parents, pointing out if a child has not been coming into school and trying to understand why. But more importantly, celebrating with a parent a child’s attendance or performance in school is to be encouraged.

My Lords, it is absolutely right to tackle school absence, but as we approach Rare Disease Day, I draw attention to the huge pressures faced by children and families with rare and undiagnosed conditions in trying to remain in education. The lack of specialist resources and awareness act as barriers. Understandably, in these complex situations it is not always possible to avoid absence. Will the Minister meet with charities and family representatives to see how we can design these policies without increasing the pressures on those families?

I would be delighted to meet with the charities and families to which my noble friend refers. She makes an important point, and it goes back to the point made earlier by the noble Baroness—that parents need to feel that the response they are getting from their school is about their child. To every parent, their child is very special.

My Lords, we know that children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, physical disabilities and social, emotional and mental health special educational primary needs have the highest rates of school absence. In spring 2023, 384,202 children with some form of identified special educational need were persistently absent. Given what we know about the link between persistent absenteeism and life chances, does the Minister agree that this risks widening the gap between the more advantaged and the less advantaged in our society? What are the Government doing to support children with special educational needs and disabilities to succeed in school?

The Government are doing a great deal, starting with their investment in a dramatic increase in the number of specialist places for children with the kinds of special needs and disabilities the noble Baroness refers to, through our attendance hubs programme in particular. I met a group of chief executives of specialist multi-academy trusts which are working with children with special educational needs and those in alternative provision. We are seeking to identify best practice and making sure it is a shared peer to peer.