I started this year setting out a bold plan for what England’s education system should be delivering for children. The Big Ask survey, the largest ever of children with over 550,000 responses demonstrated the extent of the aspirations held by this generation. So this year I have worked to imagine an education system which can meet the level of ambition that children have for themselves. Ambition for all – our vision for a school system that works for all children was the first of my interventions, where I called for:
- Every child to be able to read and write by the end of primary school; and
- Every child to obtain a Level-2 qualification by the end of secondary school.
Key to achieving this is for children to receive the support and encouragement that they need to engage in education. This is why I launched my ‘Attendance Audit’, an investigation into the reasons why children don’t attend school regularly or even fall out of the education system altogether. I also joined the government’s Attendance Action Alliance to represent children’s voices and identify the cross-sector solutions to supporting children’s school attendance.
Throughout my work on attendance, I have championed a 100% attendance target, meaning that all children achieve the maximum level of attendance that is possible for them. This ambition is not about blaming parents or children if the system cannot, at present, support their child to attend school. Achieving this target will need system wide alongside child-level solutions. It will require the system to evaluate the extent to which existing solutions are really providing support to those who need it most.
To support making these ambitions a reality, I have embarked on a groundbreaking programme of research to provide brand-new evidence and insights into the barriers to children’s attendance. Through four reports I have established:
- Local authorities, who are responsible for identifying children not receiving a suitable education, do not even have an accurate picture of how many children there are in their local area, let along the number of children not receiving education.
- As a result, there is a group of children who have become ‘known unknowns’ to the system, including children who have never been on a school roll, children who have gone missing from care, children who have been trafficked into the country and children who dropped out of school and then moved to another local area1.
- The reasons why children disengage from education are varied and complex, often a child becoming habitually absent from school is the result of a combination of things that have gone wrong, either at home or at school, and the system being unable, or unwilling, to provide the appropriate support. Certain groups of children are more vulnerable to low attendance, such as those with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability (SEND), young carers, those who have previously been suspended or excluded and children living in poverty.
- Unique analysis of daily attendance data found that children who missed the first second, third and fourth day or a new term were significantly more likely to be absent than their peers who attended those first few days. Additionally, whilst Fridays are the most common day for children to be absent, it is actually those children who miss mis-weekdays, Tuesday – Thursday, who are more likely to be habitually absent from school.
- Further, understanding a child’s absence history is key to understanding their likelihood of being absent in a new term. Children who were previously persistently or severely absent experienced much more absence in a new term than their peers.
Now, some of these findings may be unsurprising, for instance that children with additional responsibilities, or who have previously been severely absent, would struggle to attend school regularly. However, if this is common sense, we have to ask, why has the system been unable to address these patterns and provide suitable interventions for these children to get them back into school regularly?
The solution is to bring services together around the child, delivering joined-up support that meets the child where they are and taking the time to understand that child’s unique experience. Voices of England’s Missing Children set out the roadmap to achieving this reality.
As well as identifying the high-level policy initiatives and solutions which will address these challenges I have also provided real, practical support to children, schools and families through my Back Into School webpages. These pages bring together information to support children including resources for children living in Kinship Care, young carers and children struggling with their mental health. For schools, I have created brand new guidance for attendance officers, using the evidence from the analysis of daily school attendance data. For parents I have worked with members of the Attendance Action Alliance including DfE to produce a guide to help parents understand how they can work with their school and local authority to support their children to attend school.
I am not stopping here, already I have launched a new data collection using my unique statutory powers to establish how many children in care are missing from education and educated otherwise than in school. This will be the first time anyone has been able to identify the extent of this issue at a national level. My findings from this investigation will be published in Spring 2023. I will also continue working with the Attendance Action Alliance, to champion the voices of children at the highest levels.
The prize of getting this right is enormous, not just in terms of improved experiences for children and families, but in terms of improved life-chances and ambitions realised. This must be the motivation to reform, innovate, integrate, and invest to improve the offer to children. I look forward to continuing my work with partners across local and national government to make these ambitions a reality for all children.
You can find all my work on education and the Attendance Audit here.