A Westminster Hall Debate on School Attendance
- Councils have a statutory duty, working with schools, communities and families, to ensure that all children of compulsory school age receive a suitable, full-time education. They are committed to supporting children who are missing out on school, tackling the disadvantage gap in educational attainment, and ensuring every child has the support they need to achieve their potential.
- The LGA supports the introduction of a register of children who are out of school (elective home education (EHE)) to improve data and visibility of these children, combined with powers for councils to meet face-to-face with children. This measure is vital to allow councils to verify that children are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment. However, concerns remain over whether councils can verify if a child is receiving a suitable education.
- The LGA has long raised with Government that there are significant omissions in the current powers local authorities have to exercise their statutory duties, which means that it is possible for children who are missing school to slip through the net.
- There is an urgent need for a cross-government, child centred-strategy to tackle rising disadvantage and the wider factors that are contributing toward causing persistent absence and for children to miss out on school. This must include reforming the SEND system; expanding access to mental health support and youth services; connecting with hard-to-reach communities; and ensuring schools are resourced, supported and incentivised.
Under Section 19 of the Education Act 1996 councils have a duty to make arrangements for the provision of a suitable education for all children of compulsory school age. The LGA has long-raised concerns that councils do not have the powers to fulfil this duty. This is primarily because councils have no powers to meet face-to-face with children who are out of school to identify whether they are receiving an effective education or where the family may benefit from additional support. Under the current arrangements, many children who are not attending school are invisible to local authorities and the services that are designed to keep them safe.
LGA-commissioned research includes a number of case studies which highlight the considerable best-practice in the system and different approaches that are in place across the country. These include early intervention approaches to identify children who are at risk of missing out on formal, full-time education and offer targeted, multi-agency support; managing pupil movement and working with schools to ensure a school place for all children; working with schools to broaden their understanding of how to identify children’s underlying needs and how to support them effectively and re-engaging pupils who are out of education; and putting in place robust processes for tracking children who are not in formal, full-time education or are at risk of missing out.
Local education systems are seeing increasing numbers of children in the mainstream school system with additional needs that can cause barriers to school attendance. These can relate to deprivation and poverty, poor mental health, trauma, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and communication and interaction needs.
LGA commissioned research on children missing mainstream education concluded that there are three main factors which explain the rise in the number of children who are persistently absent, or not receiving a suitable formal, full-time education:
- The changing nature of the needs and experiences that children are bringing into school;
- Pressures and incentives on schools’ capacity to meet those needs; and
- The capacity of the system to ensure appropriate oversight of decisions taken regarding children’s entry to and exit from schools.
Local education systems are seeing increasing numbers of children in the mainstream school system with types and combinations of needs. Broadly, these needs can be grouped into three categories, but often children do not present with one type of need exclusively, but have a combination of these needs:
- Needs related to experiences of deprivation and poverty, including access to and support for learning at home, basic needs like food and hygiene not being met, and disrupted living arrangements where children may have experienced multiple re-locations and consequently multiple school moves and disruption to their education;
- Needs related to adverse childhood experiences, including poor mental health, high levels of anxiety, attachment issues, and the after-effects of trauma, abuse or neglect; and,
- Special educational needs and disabilities and communication and interaction needs, specifically relating to children with neurodevelopmental conditions or delays in developing language and communication skills.
We have long highlighted that there is a need for a cross-government child centred-strategy, backed by concerted action, to improve outcomes for children and young people across all services. This would help to tackle rising disadvantage and the wider socio-economic factors that are contributing to children and young people’s persistent absence from school. This must include reforming the SEND system so that it delivers the support all children need to thrive; improving access to mental health support and youth services; and ensuring schools are resourced, supported and incentivised to create inclusive learning environments that enable every young person to reach their potential.
The current accountability framework, and particularly the focus of current measures of school performance, is also creating pressures within schools that impact how the education system is responding to the needs of pupils. The current accountability system places greatest weight on specific measures of performance and achievement, which places the focus on the highest achieving pupils rather than holding schools accountable for the support that is available to ensure all pupils reach their potential. In some cases, it has been reported that some schools have managed these pressures by practices to influence which students are admitted or practices designed to manage children out of the school, such as the inappropriate use of attendance codes, part-time timetables, informal exclusions, off-rolling, and inappropriate use of permanent exclusion.
Councils are concerned about the growing use of school exclusions. Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that there is an increasing trend of children and young people missing out on access to mainstream schools as a result of permanent exclusion and suspension. Moreover, research commissioned by the LGA found that there had been a 67 per cent increase in the number of children permanently excluded from school between 2014 and 2018. These figures demonstrate decreasing inclusion in mainstream schools, which is driven by shortfalls in school and high-needs funding and pressure from school league tables.
Capacity and funding
Schools are facing a range of pressures which can impact their ability to identify and support children with these needs. School leaders and local authority officers report that financial pressures compound challenges around maintaining a broad-based curriculum and additional options for more vulnerable, disengaged or at-risk pupils.
Schools have also been forced to make savings by reducing non-teaching staff capacity, such as pastoral support, which can impact the support available to keep vulnerable children in formal, full-time education. Councils want to work with schools to develop a preventative approach to ensure that these children can remain in the mainstream school system, but they need to be adequately resourced by the Department for Education for this to happen.
Elective home education register
The LGA supports the introduction of a register of children who are out of school (elective home education (EHE)) to improve data and visibility of these children, combined with powers for councils to meet face-to-face with children. This measure is vital to allow councils to verify that children are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment.
However, we are concerned that the information that parents would be required to provide for registering children that are receiving EHE, in and of itself, will not be sufficient to enable councils to verify whether a child is receiving a suitable education, identify where they may benefit from further support, or help to safeguard vulnerable children. Further consideration should be given to how councils will identify children who are out of school if their parents do not come forward to register them – particularly those who have never been on a school roll.