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Persistent Absence from School

Volume 736: debated on Monday 17 July 2023

School attendance is important for not just a child’s education but their wellbeing and life chances, and it is a personal priority. We have: rolled out the daily attendance data tool; launched the attendance action alliance group of system leaders, which includes representatives from health, policing and social care; expanded the attendance hub support; and, deployed expert advice to work with local authorities. Termly persistent absence fell by a fifth from summer last year to spring this year, with 350,000 fewer persistently absent pupils, but we know we still have more to do, and it is a top priority for me.

Does the Secretary of State agree that shutting schools during covid lockdowns was a disaster for children and their mental health and has led to an explosion in severely absent rates? Will she make sure that cannot happen again by classifying all education settings, including schools, colleges and universities, as essential infrastructure, to ensure they remain open during national emergencies?

Schools were not shut during lockdown. Many of our fantastic teachers were still teaching key cohorts, supporting our NHS and the most vulnerable, such as those with special educational needs, but I fully share my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the impact that the pandemic has had on attainment, attendance and mental health. She knows we are working hard to recover, making almost £5 billion available for recovery. I can assure her that we will always seek to minimise the disruption to education in emergency situations. We all have a lot to learn from the experience during the pandemic, including the impact on children of all the decisions that we took, which were led by medical advice.

It is good to hear the Secretary of State prioritising getting children into school. Alongside her welcome funded pay offer, which will hopefully see an end to disruptive strikes, a real drive to reduce persistent absence and increase attendance would be welcome. A long-standing recommendation of the Education Committee is a statutory register of children not in school, which she is well aware of and has told us is a priority. May I therefore urge her to rapidly adopt the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) so that we can get on with delivering on that priority?

I thank my hon. Friend for his Committee’s work on this issue, which really is important. We have a world-class education system, but we need children in school to be able to take advantage of that. As he knows, my Department remains committed to legislating for statutory local authority registers of children not in school and will do so at the next suitable legislative opportunity when parliamentary time allows. I will work closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) on how we can best introduce that.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for her responses. It is obvious that she is committed to making things better. In the light of the covid home-schooling period during which parents may have forgotten the importance of socialisation as well as academic education, many may need reminding of the legal obligation to educate children. Has the Department considered tidying up the intervention period to allow early intervention and discussion with parents where possible before any action is taken?

We are very much taking a supportive approach. We know that there are complex reasons why some children are missing school—some have lost their confidence and are anxious about school and how far they are behind—so we are taking a focused approach. We have leads in local authorities working closely with schools, and we are measuring the impact of all the things we are doing, which includes attendance hubs, as well as looking to support parents to get their children back into school, where we know their outcomes will be so much better.