The House of Commons Education Select Committee opened its inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils this week, taking evidence from Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza.
Also giving evidence were Rob Williams, Senior Policy Adviser at the National Association of Head Teachers, Alice Wilcock, Head of Education at Centre for Social Justice, and Lucy Nethsingha, Deputy Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People’s Board at Local Government Association.
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.
Chair of the select committee, Robin Walker MP, opened the evidence session by asking how prevalent persistent absence is. Dame Rachel de Souza said that persistent absence is a key issue post-Covid. Referencing figures from her recent Attendance Audit, Dame Rachel said that in the autumn and spring of 2021/22, 818,000 children were persistently absent, meaning that they missed at least 10% of possible school sessions, for reasons other than just illness. She said that there are a range of reasons for t hese absences, such as special educational needs not being adequately met and post-Covid anxieties.
Rob Williams from NAHT said that persistent absences were a real concern for schools, not simply because of the loss of education for those absent students, but also for safeguarding reasons. He argued that it is currently difficult to unpick fully the underlying issues, how ingrained the challenge is, and how to reduce persistent absences. However, he added, the solution would likely require significant investment of time and resources, supported by the best evidence.
Williams doubted that this would just be a post-pandemic blip, and would need long-term solutions. Importantly, he said that the challenges go beyond the reach of schools, and there needed to be meaningful collaboration and funding across sectors.
Alice Wilcock from the Centre for Social Justice emphasised the need to also look at the severely absent, those students who miss over 50% of sessions. The numbers that are severely absent have been increasing steadily since 2013. She said that in Autumn 2020, over 1000 schools had a class worth of children who were severely absent. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are ten times more likely to be severely absent, and one in ten had a diagnosed mental health condition. All witnesses highlighted the fact that students from vulnerable backgrounds who need the most support are impacted the most by persistent absence.
Robin Walker went on to ask what policy levers are available to address the challenge. Dame Rachel said data gathering was essential to identify who and where persistently absent students are, and sharing of that data across different sectors. She highlighted the positive development that more than 75% of schools give daily attendance data to the Department for Education, but criticised the inconsistent approach taken by Local Authorities on data collection.
Lucy Nethsingha from the Local Government Association said that while data collection is important, it doesn’t directly fix the issue. She said it is important to look at the wider system of support and services outside of schools, which has seen significant reductions in funding.
Schools North East has submitted written evidence to the select committee as part of the inquiry, based on feedback from school leaders. Our evidence highlights the long-term challenges of disadvantage in the region, how it impacts on attendance, and the growing concerns since the pandemic.