As Children’s Commissioner, I am deeply concerned about the endemic levels of school absence which means that thousands of children are missing out on their right to education.
The latest statistics from the Department for Education, show that 20.1% of children were persistently absent in Autumn 2023. While this is a welcome improvement compared to the previous year, where 24.2% of pupils were persistently absent, however, I remain extremely concerned that a fifth of children are regularly absent from school.
We all still need to do much more to ensure that all children can attend school and engage in education.
The figures show that between Autumn 2022 and Autumn 2023, overall absence rates fell by 0.7 percentage points from 7.5% in 2022 to 6.8% in 2023.
Most of this fall can be attributed to a decrease in authorised illness absences which fell from 4.5% to 3.5%, 1.0 percentage points. Unauthorised absences remained at similar levels across both periods.
I am very troubled about the children in need of additional support who continue to have higher rates of school absences.
The statistics published today show that children who are eligible for free school meals and those with identified special educational needs (SEN) have much higher rates of persistent absence, relative to their peers.
In Autumn 2023, a third (33.0%) of children eligible for free school meals were persistently absent, compared to 15.7% of children who were not eligible.
The persistent absence rates for children with an Education, Health and Care Plan and those in receipt of SEN Support were 34.7% and 29.9% respectively. 18.2% of children with no identified SEN were persistently absent over the same period.
If we want to give children the best start in life, it must begin with ensuring that children can access their right to education. We must all make school attendance and engagement with education our absolute priority.
Last year I published research evidencing the clear link between regular school attendance and academic success. In 2021/22, only 5% of children who were severely absent in both Years 10 and 11 achieved at least 5 GCSEs, including English and maths. This compares to 78% of children who were rarely absent in both years who achieved the same standard.
Not only do schools equip children with the knowledge and qualifications they need for later life, but they are also places where children make friends, learn new hobbies, and build on their ambitions for the future. If we want to offer every child the best chance in life, it must start with ensuring that they can regularly attend school.
My office has spoken to hundreds of children who struggle to attend regularly, as part of our ongoing work on attendance. I have seen clearly that children aren’t absent from school because they don’t want to learn.
On the contrary, they are desperate to learn but everyday thousands of children find themselves without the support that they need to engage in education and attend school.
One of the key findings from my Attendance Audit was that many children who are severely absent are often stuck on waiting lists for special educational needs provision or mental health support.
These children are no less ambitious than their peers and they are no less entitled to a brilliant education.
I am today repeating my call for the government to invest in additional support to get children back to school. We need to see much stronger pastoral teams and greater investment in teams of multi-agency professionals around the school, to help children reintegrate who have missed significant chunks of their education.
However, it is not solely down to schools to stem the tide of this absence crisis.
Attendance is everyone’s business. I am clear that if we are to improve attendance rates, all services who work with children must make attendance their responsibility.
Where children need access to specialist services, we need local authorities to be held accountable to government for managing their waiting lists and providing timely support.
Too many children continue to fall through the cracks and fail to secure the help they need because data about children is not shared in a timely manner. A complex web of different data sources from education, health, social care, and others can make it hard for local authorities to identify children who need extra support.
In 2024, we should not be reliant on out-of-date information systems, set up in silos, ill-equipped to the task of data sharing. I have long called for a unique identifier for all children, built on the NHS number, which would enable records to be brought together more readily.
A unique identifier would pave the way for a new school system, with fewer children falling between the gaps.
I have made it my mission to ensure persistently, and severely absent children get the support they need to return to school and to be ready to learn every single day. We can only achieve this goal if we all work together. This year I want everyone to share my resolution and to make attendance their top priority for 2024 as well as every other year until we get this epidemic under control so children get the access to education they want and deserve.