27th September 2023

EPI Comment: Education Select Committee report on persistent absence

Commenting on the publication of the report by the Education Select Committee, Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils, Emily Hunt, Associate Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“Today’s report rightly acknowledges that the reasons for absence are complex, and its focus on barriers in relation to mental health, special educational needs (SEND) and cost-of-living pressures strongly aligns with our own absence research. Progress is most likely to be achieved through measures that support families to improve school attendance and tackle its root causes, as opposed to punitive measures, such as fines, which should be used only as a last resort.

“We remain concerned about unmet special needs as a barrier to attendance and our research has revealed a postcode lottery in the “under-identification” of children with SEND and their chances of receiving support. The government’s SEND and Alternative Provision (AP) plan does not provide for adequate training in special needs for all teachers, and we have yet to see how it will tackle the highly variable levels of compliance with legal requirements around inclusion in schools. 

“We have previously called for investment to improve both mental health provision in schools and support for children with SEND, alongside the urgent need for a cross-government child poverty strategy, recognising that schools cannot be left to fill the gap of creaking services for children and their families. We also need higher levels of funding for disadvantaged children, particularly for those on free school meals for the longest durations.  

“The Committee’s recommendation to introduce a new mental health absence code raises questions about the potential burdens of diagnosing mental health difficulties on schools, who may not be qualified to do so. Additionally, it is vital that all children diagnosed as suffering from mental health difficulties are provided with medical care, through properly resourced NHS services.” 

“The report is right to highlight pupil absence as only one dimension of children not being in school and the urgent need for action on the wider group of children who are missing from education altogether.

“This all speaks to a bigger concern that the government’s investment in recovery – at under £5 billion spanning early years to post-16 education – falls well short of what is required, and that the failure to implement the recommendations of the independent review by Sir Kevan Collins are now being felt in schools across the country.”