Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils

Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils

Commons Education Committee seeks input on why cases of “persistent and severe absence” have increased in schools

What’s been said?

On 12 January, the Education Committee announced a new inquiry into the increase in the number of pupils not attending schools. This is a complex matter, and readers may be asking what it has to do with elective home education. In times gone by, the answer would have been absolutely nothing, but in recent years there has been an increasing conflation between absence from school and EHE.

In February 2019 the then Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, published a report on HE provocatively called “Skipping School: Invisible Children.” In June that year, when announcing the Timpson review into “school exclusions,” Minister Lord Agnew commented on the need to “reinforce the values that children should learn,” then referred to “the consultation on home education and children who are not in school.” He continued, “All these things conflate and our job is to try to bring together a package of initiatives that will improve the outcomes for these very vulnerable children.” [Emphasis added in both instances]

Subsequent years have seen increased confusion between children being educated within their families and children registered at a school but not attending. It also has to be recognised that, since the Covid-19 lockdowns and for a mixture of reasons, many families have decided that school is not the best place for their children to be educated. This too has added to the confusion in political circles around EHE. We recently commented on events in both England and Wales where addressing ‘pupil absence’ has been intertwined with HE, and the drive to combat the former seems to include the desire to suffocate the latter. It should also be recalled that the two parts of the now abandoned Schools Bill concerning Children Not in School registers were grouped together under the title of “Attendance.”

A growing number of children appear to be needing an individually tailored education, whilst more schools are becoming less able to provide this, whether due to policy, lack of funding or the simple fact that no system could ever provide for the needs of such a wide variety of children. The response from the authorities is one of denial. Their solution to a state-funded school system from which families are exiting at an increasing rate has not been a desire to understand why or how it is adversely affecting children, but to threaten them and their parents with School Attendance Orders and criminal convictions. This Inquiry provides an opportunity for the voices of children who do not fit the school mould and of their parents to be heard.

Why does it matter?

Whilst the state often pays lip service to listening to “the voice of the child,” it regularly demonstrates that it is institutionally deaf to their voices. Faced with such resistance, families can either give up in despair on seeking the best for their children, or they can continue to fight on for their children’s futures. When an opportunity arises for parents and children to raise their voices, it has to be considered seriously, and the positives and negatives weighed up carefully.

This paragraph from the above press release is positive:

“The cross-party Committee of MPs will also examine links between pupil absence and factors such as economic disadvantage, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), ethnic background, and whether a child or a family member is clinically vulnerable to covid-19. Rates of attendance at alternative provision schools, typically for pupils who cannot attend a mainstream school due to behavioural or SEND-related issues, will also be considered.”

This comment from Robin Walker, ex-minister and now Chair of the Committee, is more nuanced:

“Missing school can seriously undermine a child’s education and future life chances. It is imperative that we take a nuanced and sympathetic look at the reasons why absence has become a growing problem.

Not only do children learn and socialise while in school, vulnerable youngsters are also kept out of harm’s way. We must look urgently at ways to reverse this damaging trend that appears to have worsened during the pandemic.”

The Inquiry’s home page invites comment on the solutions being put forward:

“The inquiry aims to examine the issue of persistent and severe absence and the factors causing it and to assess the likely impact and effectiveness of the Department’s proposed reforms on attendance.”

Writing in the Tes on 23 January to draw attention to the Inquiry and the “‘Worrying’ rise in school absence,” Walker highlighted a disturbing piece of recent research:

“Last week we received a timely reminder that illness is just one factor that turns children away from their education.

A report by The Key, which surveyed more than 68,000 pupils, found that one in 10 children missed school in the past six months because they felt ‘unsafe’ around their peers. The survey also found that a higher number of children feel safer online than in school.”

This report is being “carried out as part of The Pupil Safeguarding Review“, and is “England’s largest review into pupil feelings of safety in school and beyond.”

What can I do?

Details of the Inquiry’s Call for Evidence, are found at the start of the response portal, and submissions are invited on the following matters:

  • The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils, in particular:
    • Disadvantaged pupils,
    • Pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds,
    • Pupils with SEND and those who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19,
    • Pupils in alternative provision.

If you have children who are part of one or more of the above groups, and you have found a safe haven for them in home education which has enabled them to flourish after experiencing problems with school attendance, then please consider responding to this Inquiry. Whilst MPs’ minds are no doubt focussed on keeping children in school and at their desks, your experiences of schools not being the best place for all children may help them to see the issues in a different light which actually prioritises the well-being of each and every child as an individual. If your child/children are also motivated to respond, please encourage them to do so in whatever way they would find most helpful.

If you are considering responding, please read both the announcement and the Call for Evidence as soon as possible, whilst keeping in mind that the deadline for submissions is 9 February (less than ten days away at the time of publication).

Online submissions are preferred, but there are no further questions after the first page of the portal. Respondents are asked to submit their responses as a single document less than 25MB in size, in Word, ODT or RTF format. Logos should not be included, but there are no guidelines on scanning a child’s artwork should that be their preferred way of trying to express their experiences of school. (If you wish to look through the submission portal before beginning the process, this PDF file contains screenshots of all the pages involved.)

Besides hearing from the usual collection of children’s professionals, individuals or organisations, it would be very helpful if the Committee received submissions from a good number of parents about experiences of school which had been damaging to their children, be that physically, emotionally or educationally. Therefore, even if your own family has not been adversely affected in this way, please encourage any you know for whom this is a live issue to consider making time over the coming week to engage with this Inquiry. Why not forward them the link to this Byte and encourage them to read it?

Post publication note (Tue 7 Feb)

With just around sixty hours to go before this call for evidence closes anyone struggling to now how to approach their response may find this post on Heidi Mavir’s website helpful, “Request for Evidence around Attendance reforms.” There is a helpful video and a link to to a template to inspire your response, which has be put together by EOTAS Matters, partnering with Square Peg, Not Fine in School and No School Fines. The first part of the is an introductory discussion, with more response specific suggestions being consider from about 28 minutes in. That is the point where the embedded video below starts: