8th January 2024

EPI comments on proposals to improve school attendance

Commenting following the government’s announcement of a ‘major national drive’ to improve school attendance and ahead of a speech by the Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, on the Labour Party’s plans to tackle school absenceEmily Hunt, Associate Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: 

“It is positive to see both the government and the Labour Party bringing forward measures which seek to address the worrying increase in school absences. With more than one in five children persistently absent, and vulnerable children most likely to be missing out on education, tackling this must be a top priority for any government. 

“Progress on pupil absence is most likely to be achieved through measures that tackle its root causes, and doing so in an evidence-based way. Both the government and opposition are right to recognise that any approach to improving school attendance must be based on a model of partnership between central and local government, schools, and families. 

“The expansion of attendance hubs targeting areas with high levels of persistent absence, as well as more attendance mentors, is a welcome first step, with these initiatives having the potential to share practical ideas across schools and provide tailored support to families and pupils. 

“However we have previously highlighted that the barriers to attendance are multifaceted and go well beyond schools, including rising child poverty, worsening mental health and crumbling support services.

“Measures suggested by Labour to reduce the cost of school uniform and provide free food through primary school breakfast clubs need to be considered as part of a more fundamental approach to tackling rising levels of poverty through a cross-government child poverty strategy. 

“We have also previously called for investment to improve mental health provision in schools and support for children with Special Educational Needs (SEND). Labour’s commitment to improve mental health support through dedicated counsellors in every secondary school and community mental health hubs, as well as the ambition to invest in expanding the teaching workforce, would be a step in the right direction.

“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.

“Pupil absence is only one dimension of children missing out on education and we therefore welcome the cross-party consensus for creating a long-awaited register of children not in school, though have concerns around its urgency given its failure to feature in the recent King’s Speech.”