My first task as Children’s Commissioner was to listen to England’s children as we emerged from the Covid pandemic, to hear their views about life today and their aspirations for the future. The Big Ask was the largest ever consultation with children, with over half a million children responding. They told me that they liked school, and that they missed school during lockdown. They cared about their progress in education and about the opportunities and friendships that school brings.
I want to help all children to succeed in education and School is a core pillar of my work as Children’s Commissioner. But, there are some children that haven’t returned to the classroom after the pandemic – children who have fallen through the gaps and are either missing the majority of lessons or are out of education altogether. This was a problem before lockdown, but has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
I believe that school is the right place for children to be, both because it is what children have told me, as well as having worked in school for over 30 years. It’s a place to learn, to be with their friends, to take part in sports and other enrichment activities and to have a safe place where support for children and families can be built around. That’s why, I launched my Attendance Audit to understand more about the cohort of children who are not attending school regularly, and those who are missing from education altogether. I wanted to understand which groups of children are out of school and establish where they are. I believe it is important that we identify the barriers that these children face which prevent them re-engaging with their education, and to explore what support they need to get back to school.
My office wrote to all local authorities to find out what information they hold on the children falling through the gaps in the system. This unique research found that many councils do not even know how many children there are in their areas, and many more do not even know how many children in their area are missing school, being educated at home or are out of education altogether. My team then conducted a deep dive audit of 10 local authorities to find these children and understand their experiences.
Over the course of just 6 weeks in February and March, the team spoke to nearly 500 people in these 10 local areas, including over 300 children and over 40 parents and carers and conducted over 100 interviews with professionals in local authorities, health, schools, and Family Hubs. Over half the children who call my advocacy helpline, Help at Hand, are out of school and these children’s experiences have also fed into my research.
I wanted to make sure that I heard from children from all backgrounds and with a wide range of experiences including children in care or with a social worker, children with SEND, and young carers, children who had been bullied and those with mental health problems. The team asked children what they like about going to school, what makes it difficult for them to attend school regularly, and what help and support they need to go to lessons or get back into school altogether.
I could not hope to convey all of the complexity and nuance of the full range of these children’s experiences. We cannot underestimate the importance of schools and teachers in children’s lives. One girl said that without her school: “I don’t believe I would have been here [alive], if I’m honest”. My team has also sadly spoken to some children who could find nothing positive in their education experience.
Last week, I presented initial findings to the Secretary of State for Education’s Attendance Action Alliance, which brings together education, health and care services to raise school attendance. Informed by my Attendance Audit, I set out several ambitions to help us ensure that every child is supported to be in school:
- Ask, listen, communicate: We need to put children’s voices at the heart of our work to improve attendance so that we really understand what is holding them back from engaging in education. Decisions about children’s education need to be made with children, their families, and other adults in their lives, and we need to make sure information, guidance and policies are communicated in a way that is accessible to children.
- Schools as a ‘nexus of support’: all children should have access to support through school, whether this is for a mental health problem, to deal with bullying or to address their special educational needs. This means each school needs to be part of a strong family of schools, to share expertise and best practice and access to specialist support.
- Exclusions are ‘teachable moments’: children should be in good quality education provision at all times and should never be excluded to no education at all. Exclusion or suspension should be a ‘teachable moment’ where a child’s needs are better understood and targeted support is provided.
- Letting children be children: no child should feel that they need to miss school to support their family. Young carers in particular need to be identified and supported so that their education does not suffer.
- Clear roles and responsibilities: school leaders need to have a relentless focus on attendance. Roles and responsibilities across the system need to be clear so that attendance is everyone’s businesses and schools facilitated to work together with local authorities to ensure children are supported to be in school and to attend regularly.
We will be publishing our findings in June, including a summary of what children and health and care leaders told us, and setting out our proposed solutions to help achieve these ambitions.