15th August 2022

School – the Children’s Commissioner’s view

All children deserve an education system that matches their ambitions for the future, no matter what support they need and where they are in the country.

What children say about School

“People don’t realise how much education is important for life in general. […] if they don’t learn in school, they might not be able to enjoy life to the fullest” – Girl, 14.

In The Big Ask, the largest ever survey of children, which the Children’s Commissioner ran last year, children said that they like school, and being out of the classroom during lockdown crystallised this. They missed their lessons, clubs and sports, school trips and classroom friendships. They wrote about the teachers they love, and the vast majority wrote that they find schools nurturing and supportive. And where children require additional support, and they receive it in school, they are happier than their peers. The Children’s Commissioner has set out her goal that every child should be in school every day, supported and ready to learn. Every child has the right to a fantastic education and, in order to achieve this, every child needs to be identified and supported: no child should be unknown to the system. 

Leaving school with a good education was a priority for most children – just over half of 9-17 year olds (52%) said that a good education was one of their most important future priorities. This was even higher among children from the most deprived areas, those from an ethnic minority background, or those facing additional challenges such as children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, young carers and children in care. 

What progress we have made to deliver for children on the area of schools

In May, the results of the Commissioner’s Attendance Audit were published. The Voices of England’s Missing Children includes a survey of all local authorities and a deep dive with 10 areas to understand the cohort of children who are not attending school regularly, and those who are missing from education altogether. The team spoke to almost 500 people, including nearly 400 children, as well as Directors of Children’s Services, family support workers, parents, and health workers.  The report outlined six ambitions which, if implemented correctly, will support all children to attend school regularly.  In July, the office published the initial findings from analysis of attendance data from 3 Multi Academy Trusts. This ground-breaking new analysis looked at patterns of individual attendance data and found, for example, that children who do not attend school in the first week of September are much more likely to miss large chunks of their schooling across the whole term. This demonstrates the power of data to show where staff should focus their attention in encouraging children back into the classroom. The Commissioner also launched a Back into School campaign with support from the Department for Education. This included web pages –with resources for parents, teachers, and children to feel confident for the return to school in September and an attendance assembly for primary schools so they could prepare their year 6’s for their transition into secondary school.  

Since The Big Ask, the Children’s Commissioner and her team have been tirelessly working to improve educational standards and outcomes for all children across England.  In March 2022, in response to the School’s White Paper, the Commissioner published her ambition for a school system that works for all children.  This included evidence that children feel that their ambitions are not always matched by those around them. The Commissioner called for the Government to go further for all children, to provide them with excellent educational provision no matter their needs or where they are in the country. This includes children with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND). To understand the struggles that children with SEN or additional needs face, the team spoke to over 50 children in various different settings, from mainstream schools to special schools and AP.  Children pinpointed three key areas on which they feel more progress needs to be made, and these priorities have formed the basis of the Commissioner’s response to the government consultation on SEND reform, which will be published later this summer. The Commissioner has also worked hard to ensure that children’s voices are listened to as part of the reforms on the Schools Bill. 

The office has also conducted a nationally representative survey of children’s attitudes to PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education. The Commissioner has been commissioned by the Department of Education to understand children’s experience of relationships and sex education (RSE). To inform her response the office has planned qualitative research with children to understand what works in RSE lessons, and how they could be improved. Children want to be prepared for life and not just exams. They know how valuable it is to be taught well about life skills, careers and finances, and relationships. Alongside the Commission on RSE, the team will also investigate children’s views on these wider aspects of PHSE lessons. 

The vision for children

The Commissioner will continue her focus on aiming for 100% attendance in school. This will include further analysis of the attendance data collected from 3 MATs, to be published later this year. This will be a useful tool for schools, school leaders and school attendance officers to spot the warning signs of a child who is at risk of becoming persistently absent or dropping out of school altogether. The aim is to empower these professionals to intervene early and put the support in place for these children to keep them in school. The Commissioner will also be publishing easy-to-use guides for attendance officers and for children so there are resources to help them if they are struggling to engage.  

One group of children that need a particular focus are those who are in care but not receiving a suitable education. To get to the bottom of the issue, the office will be collecting data on looked after children to understand which schools they were in on 31st March 2022. The data will show, for the first time how many looked after children are: in a mainstream or special school, out of education entirely, receiving tuition at home, being electively home educated in part-time unregistered provision or being educated in an independent school. The Commissioner will publish the findings early next year alongside recommendations for how we can ensure that all looked after children are receiving an appropriate education. 

Alongside continued work on the SEND reforms, the office will focus on how we can make sure that all children leave school able to read and write. This will include exploring opportunities to identify, intervene and support children before school, so that all children can begin education ready and able to engage and working with schools, parents and civil society to encourage and promote a love of reading from an early age. This work will link with our wider work on support for families to ensure all children are supported to thrive from the earliest years. 

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