Commenting on Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils, a report from the House of Commons Education Committee, Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:
“The select committee has demonstrated that it has listened to evidence from educators and school leaders on the many reasons for persistent absence. While it has put forward some good recommendations, the scale of the challenge means that others fall short.
“We have to see a prioritisation of support in mainstream schools for SEND students and those with mental ill-health. The committee recognises this, but SENCOs and school leaders know that what is also needed is additional funding and support for external specialist services working with schools. We agree that the current capacity of mental health services is 'grossly inadequate' and that is why the NEU supports the introduction of an authorised absence code for mental health which means schools no longer have to seek medical evidence from families who are already under great strain. A review of mental health provision is long overdue.
“For many young people alternative provision (AP) is the most appropriate placement. Setting up large schools with a revolving door approach to AP will be detrimental and not beneficial to their attendance or progress.
“The scale of the impact of poverty on persistent absence cannot be underestimated. The committee was presented with a wealth of evidence, which has clearly compelled them to recommend funding for breakfast and after-school clubs. They also make the case for all children in poverty being in receipt of free school meals. The Government must also urgently heed our calls to help bring down the costs of school uniforms.
“As a safeguarding measure we support the introduction of a register of children not in school, but this must operate alongside evidenced good practice support measures. National attendance intervention measures should follow only the best practice measures, and enjoy the support of schools and families.
“We would support the rollout of further national support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students and families regarding absence but have concerns about the overall weakness of the report on race as a factor in persistent absence. More work is needed from the Department for Education in this area.
“We know that the problems of attendance have social causes. A report last week from Policy First said that the pandemic had had profound effects on the relationship between families and schools, adding to the issues arising from poverty and austerity. Policymakers must do all they can to support schools in becoming places where students feel safe and welcomed and can be engaged in their learning.
“Nor can the issues surrounding persistent absence in school be divorced from the current education funding crisis. Without addressing the elephant in the room, the recommended 'support' measures will be substituted for more draconian parent fines. These are proven to be less successful at tackling absence. Children’s education is vital but adopting a common-sense approach would ensure that unnecessary tensions between schools and parents/carers do not arise. Fines, suspensions and exclusions do not provide secure and lasting answers to the difficulties that families and schools are facing.”