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Schools: Absenteeism

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 20 July 2023


Asked by

My Lords, the latest data show improvements in attendance across all phases, with 350,000 fewer pupils being persistently absent in spring 2023 compared with summer 2022. Our new expectations ask schools to appoint a senior attendance champion and meet termly with local authorities to agree individual plans for at-risk children, as well as using our attendance data to identify where to intervene early. We have launched the attendance action alliance for system leaders and have expanded attendance hubs and mentoring support.

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend’s voice has recovered.

Last autumn, two years after the lockdown ended, a quarter of children were persistently absent from school—double the rate before lockdown. That means that 2 million children are persistently absent from school, falling behind on education, missing out on social education with their friends and running the risk of falling prey to drugs and criminal gangs. There is something seriously wrong here. What research has my noble friend’s department done to find out the reasons for this worrying increase, which shows little signs of diminishing?

As ever, my noble friend asks a very important question. If we look at the reasons underpinning persistent absence, the majority of persistent absence is authorised, with higher than normal levels of sickness particularly in the last autumn term. We are also aware of suggestions that parental attitudes towards sickness have changed, with parents keeping children home when previously they might have sent them into school and, of course, high levels of reported anxiety. However, we are also actively exploring the matter of those children who perhaps missed so much education during the pandemic that their level of reading, for example, is not sufficient to engage properly with the curriculum. That is also something that we are keen to address as quickly as possible.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young, and to support his Question. I think the answer just given by the Minister is very insightful. I want to ask her a question that might be from the side. Could we get a message across to parents, particularly those who have started to believe that working from home is the norm, that when they get up, they have to get their children to school?

I know that the noble Lord will know that the relationship with parents is incredibly important. He is right: it seems clearer, now more than ever, that there needs to be great communication with parents and a high level of trust. We have prepared materials to support parents getting their children into school. The Secretary of State has just written to all responsible bodies, local authorities and trusts about this importance, including highlighting really good, clear communication with parents.

My Lords, can the Minister give us some guidance on what progress has been made in making sure that mainstream schools are identifying reasons why children are failing? Often this is because of neurodiversity and special educational needs. What are we doing to improve the awareness of these? I remind the House of my interest in this area.

The noble Lord knows we are working extremely hard, and in our latest publications—both in relation to the commissioning of schools and our description of what a really strong trust looks like—there was a very big emphasis on inclusivity and making sure children with special educational needs are well supported in mainstream education. To give the noble Lord a specific example, we are aware that in some areas children with education, health and care plans have high attendance as a specific objective on that plan. That is not the case in all, and many schools have suggested to me that it should be.

My Lords, children with some form of special educational needs and disabilities accounted for 24.9% of all persistently absent children in the year to 2022. Having 100% attendance may not be possible for them, yet some schools offer awards and prizes to children who have a full attendance record. Does the Minister agree this is discriminatory? It not only impacts their well-being but perhaps impacts their longer-term view of how they will be valued in the workplace. What are Government doing to ensure schools tailor their approach to take into account the needs of young people who cannot be there all the time?

I understand where the noble Baroness’s concern comes from. Obviously, the children I meet tend to be hand-picked for perfection, but when I talk to children and suggest to them that not all their friends are in every day, they tell me they need incentives to come in, whether that is fun at the end of the day such as extracurricular enrichment activities or reward schemes. Some of the best reward schemes I have seen are run on a weekly basis, which addresses the point the noble Baroness raises: no child feels they have fallen behind so far they can never catch up.

My Lords, I declare an interest here as somebody who, as a schoolboy, regularly bunked off school. Noble Lords will be happy to know that I went straight to the library and studied medieval poetry—so that was helpful. I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister if she could give us some good practice examples and models of schools or academy trusts that have brought children back to school.

I find it hard to believe that my noble friend bunked off school—although, obviously, medieval poetry was the first thing that came to mind. In terms of examples of good practice, there is a lot going on around the country. One of the trusts we work particularly closely with is the Northern Education Trust, which runs schools in places such as Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Stockton. I went to visit its North Shore Academy in Stockton, where they are identifying children for whom reading is a particular barrier to engagement. They then communicate when children start to catch up with their reading to the parents, so parents are getting a good news story about their child at school and encouraging the child to go back to school. That, in turn, helps behaviour in the classroom because those children are no longer bored and potentially disruptive. That is the kind of thing on which we are encouraging schools to get together and share best practice.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the National Society and thank the Minister for visiting the north-east recently. The Church of England has just published a flourishing schools document, which I know she has. Absenteeism appears to also be connected to mental health and well-being; there are particular issues around special educational needs. Could the Minister comment on the work that is being done to note the connection with mental health and well-being and improve that to help with absenteeism?

The right reverend Prelate will be aware that we are rolling out senior mental health leads in schools. I think it is really important—and this potentially relates to my noble friend Lord Sewell’s question as well—that we are clear where mental health is a genuine barrier for a child to be in school, and where a child’s mental health would improve if they were in school. When I talk to school leaders, they say it is absolutely the exception that a child would not be better off in school, even if they are experiencing anxiety or depression.

My Lords, three times as many children receiving free school meals are severely absent from school compared to those who are not eligible. This puts the UK’s poorest children at yet another disadvantage compared to their peers. What steps are the Government taking to support these pupils? The Government outlined plans to tackle absence rates two months ago. How long will these take to fully implement? When will we get the first feedback from these programmes?

The noble Baroness is right, and it is an area of real concern for us. She may also be aware that there is quite a lot of variation, including between schools in very deprived areas. That is why bringing schools together in attendance hubs, so that those with a very similar demographic can share their good practice with those who are finding it harder to turn this, is something we are keen to do.