The latest attendance marks a worrying pattern – school absences are getting worse rather than better and children’s engagement with school has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The most recent figures suggest that around one in five children were persistently absent last year, up from one in ten in 2019.
I wanted to understand what was driving the increase in school absences and so in 2021, I embarked upon the Attendance Audit. My office spoke to around 300 children who were struggling to attend school, many because of poor mental health and a lack of Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND) support.
These children told me that they desperately wanted to be in school but often faced barriers to attendance. All too often, these children shared their stories of how they asked for help but could not get the support they needed. They reported long waiting times for mental health support and challenges their families faced in getting the right SEND provision.
This is not good enough. Children should be able to access the support they need to engage in education. When children are supported well, it can transform their approach to education. In the Big Ask, we heard how children who received timely additional support in school are happier than the overall cohort of children.
We heard how being in school can improve children’s wellbeing. School days provide a consistent routine and structure. Also, being in school provides children with the opportunities to see friends and to try new extra-curricular activities.
I want to see all children receive the support they need in school, through families of schools. This is one of my key ambitions for children. Families of schools should seek to provide specialist mental health provision where needed. I also would like to see all schools adopt a Whole School Approach to mental health.
However, schools cannot be expected to provide all support for children’s mental health alone. We need to improve access to support for mental health conditions. While some schools have access to Mental Health Support Teams, this provision is not yet universal. I am therefore calling on the government to expedite their roll out of Mental Health Support Teams, so all children can access the support they need to engage in learning.
We also must reform the SEND system. The government has introduced an ambitious plan of reform in the SEND and AP Implementation Plan. This is a welcome first step, but I am concerned that the SEND reforms will take years to implement. We need a swifter response, to support children with special educational needs to attend school.
We need a relentless collective focus on attendance and getting those that need additional support what they need so they feel confident to return in September. I believe that failures in the system and lack of support should not be the reason any child should be missing school.