Last year, I launched The Big Ask survey, to hear from England’s children about what matters most to them. Just over half a million children responded to The Big Ask – making it the largest-ever survey of children in the world. What I heard was inspiring, we are dealing with an ambitious group of children who love school!
Returning to school after months of online learning, children told us they had missed school, they missed their teachers, their friends. They also missed activities like sports, clubs and trips that bring joy and excitement into their lives. Hundreds of children were overjoyed to be back in school and getting back to normal.
I truly believe that school is the best place for children to learn, to see their friends and to take part in sports and after school activities. However, even before the pandemic, there have been a group of children who have struggled to attend school regularly and this is only getting worse. With more and more children missing from education or persistently absent I am concerned about the numbers of children falling through gaps in the education system.
Local authorities do not have an accurate figure of how many children there are in their area, let alone the number of children not receiving an education. As outlined in the interim findings report, many councils rely on time lagged population estimates to tell them how many children there are in their area. Migration and other factors mean this information is often inaccurate, meaning there is no way of telling how many children are out of education and in need of support. This is simply not good enough.
That is why, I launched my Attendance Audit earlier this year. I sent a survey to all local authorities across the country and conducted a deep-dive into 10 areas. My team spoke to nearly 500 people, which included over 300 children. This was to find out more about why children are out of school, to understand the barriers that stop children from attending school regularly and to explore the solutions which would help account for every child.
This helped me understand more fully the many reasons for a child to be missing from education or persistently absent. Some parents choose to educate their children at home for philosophical reasons and because they have the ability and resource to do so – and that is wonderful. What worries me are the children that are missing from education because of challenges. These can include bullying, poor mental health, poor physical health, poor local Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) provision, or just feeling unsupported by the education system. To me, these challenges are flags to that the education and care system is not working for every child in England. I am working with government to address these challenges so that schools and children’s services can provide the things that children have asked for. But, in order for children to access improved services, we need to know where they are and get them back into the classroom.
From the Attendance Audit I predicted that 1.8 million children were missing from education or persistently absent. So, I was unsurprised when the school census showed that 1.7 million were persistently absent in autumn 2021 compared to 916,000 children in autumn 2020. That’s 1 in 4 children persistently absent last term. I said at the beginning of this school year that I wanted to find every child that isn’t in education to make sure they are safe, happy, and receiving a good quality education.
For a long time, I have been pushing for a consistent unique identifier for children to help find and track them through the system. The lack of information collected on children, coupled with complicated data sharing practices means children become ‘known unknowns’ – we need to stop this. I believe this unique identifier would facilitate better data matching between organisations responsible for safeguarding and supporting children – but this is just one solution.
My team have been hard at work, with young people, to produce solutions and practical ideas that we think can make a real difference. We have developed six ambitions that, if implemented correctly, can work as a blueprint to get all children back to school. We need to work together as governments national and local, with the police, health, and care agencies, with parents and guardians, and with schools to identify the children missing from education and to provide them with the help they need to get back into the classroom.
In the meantime, I have picked up the mantle with an ambition to get 100% attendance on the first day back in the September term. But I can’t do it alone. Over the next few months, I will be campaigning to get everyone involved in our attendance drive – attendance is everyone’s business. That means schools, parents, politicians, local authority leaders, the NHS, the police, and social workers. We all need to start working now to get children back into a safe and fun environment where they can get a great education, access enriching opportunities, and make lasting friendships. Find out more from my new ‘Back into School’ portal which my team will be adding to throughout the summer, including adding resources for parents and professionals working with children.
So, this is my call to action – lets work together to make sure that the first day back to school after the summer holidays is the beginning of a year of friendships, opportunities and learning for every child in England.