MPs told about the attendance challenges for SEND students

22nd May 2023

The second session of the House of Commons Education Committee’s inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged children took place this week, with questions focussing on the challenges SEND students face.

Giving evidence were Ellie Costello, Director at Square Peg, and Dr Daniel Stavrou, Policy Vice Chair at the Special Educational Consortium. Chair of the Committee, Robin Walker MP, opened the session by asking what the main barriers to attendance for pupils with SEND in mainstream provision.

Dr Stavrou began by outlining the data. Among those who hold an EHCP, 37% were persistently absent (missing 10% or more sessions). For all severely absent students (those missing 50% or more of sessions), 36% had SEND. In a study carried out in 2019, one in six pupils with SEND had experienced at least one ‘unexplained exit’, when a child either moves school, moves from a school to AP, or to an ‘unknown destination’. Dr Stavrou pointed out that these experiences will include some time out of school, and losing sight of these pupils altogether.

These figures demonstrated the level of challenge for SEND students, but there are more complex issues in addition. Dr Stavrou also outlined the challenges of those with unidentified need. The data, he said, showed two leading causes for persistent absences, namely mental health (chiefly anxiety) and unmet need, whether this is need identified too late, or never identified at all.

Unmet need can lead to a ‘self-propelling process of escalation’. Dr Stavrou said, ‘Unmet need translates to internalising—for instance, an increase in anxiety and mental health challenges, externalising behaviours that challenge and the beginning of problems with attendance. That led to poor and at times traumatic experiences in the school environment, increased pressure on home and family life and, ultimately, to further deterioration in attendance, up to the point of non-attendance and placement breakdown.’

Robin Walker went on to ask Ellie Costello to expand on these challenges, specifically looking at how the experience of children with SEND differs between mainstream and specialist provision. Ellie Costello highlighted the low starting point in terms of attendance for specialist and alternative provision. This is driven by the complexity of the cohorts in these provisions, whether it relates to illnesses, or those struggling with severe needs to feel safe in a setting and access the support they need. She also mentioned some of the practical challenges, such as access to reliable transport.

Costello mentioned research currently being undertaken by Durham University, interviewing children around school-related distress and what is the difficulty with attending school. She said common themes emerged from the pupil voice about reasons for non-attendance, such as staff not being able to respond adequately to mental health challenges. Children and young people had said smaller classes, adequate mental health support, and safe spaces to go and regulate, would help in attendance.

In response to the Education Committee’s inquiry, Schools North East submitted written evidence, which can be read here. Based on feedback from our regular roundtables with school leaders, it highlights the challenges across the sector, both the perennial and those exacerbated by the pandemic.

Yesterday, the DfE announced new expanded support to help schools with persistent absences, including nine new attendance hubs. Alongside this announcement, DfE also published research on the factors that cause persistent absence, a consultation on improving support for children missing education, and pupil attendance data for the Autumn term 22/23. Absence rates vary across regions from 7.0% in Outer London to 7.9% in the North East and South West. Persistent absence also varies across regions from 23.1% in Outer London to 25.6% in the North East.

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