On 15 June I published the findings from my Attendance Audit, my exploration across 10 local authorities of the experiences of children who are not attending school regularly or who are out of school altogether.
The report, ‘Voices of England’s Missing Children’, details the solutions and practical ideas the young people and my team have identified that can make a real difference.
My team spoke with around 300 children and young people across the country through the Audit and heard a wide variety of reasons for children being out of school. For example, they heard from children who said they found school overwhelming because of other pressures in their lives. School made some children feel anxious, sometimes aggravated by the pandemic. Some children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) felt their needs weren’t met at school and suitable provision wasn’t accessible to them. Others told us about the transition to secondary school or bullying.
But, everyone’s story is different.
I believe that school is the right place for children to be – a safe and fun environment where they can get a great education and access enriching opportunities and make lasting friendships. To achieve my aspiration of seeing 100% attendance on the first day of school in September, we need to listen to what these children told us and learn from them.
Here are just three of the children’s journeys out of school, either told by themselves, or by their parents and carers on their behalf during our Attendance Audit interviews.
Alyssa*, a 16-year-old girl with autism attending a medical alternative provision who had been out of school for one year said:
“Apparently mum’s been trying to get me into a school like this since primary school, but all teachers said I was fine carrying on with a normal day, but they didn’t see the side of me at home. I’m a girl, and girls tend to mask their autism. Then we got to year 7 and the transition days were a lot. […] In year 9 they changed everything around, the staff, the actual layout, the colours of it, and I only attended for one day. And then I was off for a full year.”
The mum of Jake*, a 15-year-old boy with anxiety who disengaged from education during the pandemic told us how his attendance dropped sharply:
“When the pandemic hit he was a top student […] he was very popular […] his attendance was 97%, there was no issue […] when the pandemic hit, the school wasn’t equipped […] Literally from March until July he was left to his own devices […] school became optional [and] I wanted something to get him out of this mindset that school was optional. We got to the next academic year, and he didn’t go to school that day. I wrote to school and said we have got a real problem here, can the head of year contact me, the head of year didn’t contact me for 2 weeks. […] then we went to lockdown again, then after March 2021, he didn’t go to school very much, he went maybe 30%, […] he was missing more and more school. […] I was begging for home visits […] we get to September 2021, he attended the first day but not after that […] I kept asking for help but nothing was being done.”
Despite Jake’s mum writing to the school and the local authority to explain Jake’s diagnosis of anxiety and asking for help to get Jake back into school he is now not attending at all:
“He is at home, he sleeps all day, he doesn’t do any work, he has not been sent any work, he has dropped out of education, he is still on the roll there, I can’t see him being able to go to any school. So that’s the position I am in with [Jake] (sic).”
Hannah*, a 14-year-old girl, who now attends an alternative provision three times a week said:
“My past education experience definitely wasn’t the best, I was bullied since the first day of school, ignored, teachers didn’t talk to me or tried to help and as the years went on, whenever they tried to help, they made it worse […] I went into secondary school and that was great. Before the pandemic, everything was cool, I was getting back into learning, but then the pandemic hit, and everything kind of fell apart. When that did happen, I fell out of school again, because there was the pressure, and it was like, oh my god, this is all happening, this is something from a literal movie, hasn’t happened in a hundred years, it’s insane, so when it all hit, my anxiety, I became super paranoid, I washed my hands the entire day, over and over again, I eventually fell out of school again.”
Hannah told us how with the right support in place and a phased transition, she was able to return to her education:
“I finally came to my brother’s school which is absolutely incredible, and when I went there, they were chill, they took it slow, they were what I wanted my teachers to be. So what they did, they took their time, easing into it, meeting the teachers who I would future be with in the lessons, they also listened, they had monthly calls to see what I wanted […] and I started off with just the afternoons, so at 1 o clock I was there […] I go in afternoons and I go in 3 times a week, 3 afternoons a week.”
These experiences are not isolated to a small number of children, the latest DfE figures show that across the country 1.7 million children were persistently absent in the autumn term 2021 and 98,000 were severely absent, meaning that they missed more than 50% of possible sessions at school.
My ambitions for a system which accounts for, and supports, every child are set out in ‘Voices of England’s Missing Children’. This provides the roadmap for making sure children like Alyssa, Jake and Hannah get the help they need to get back into school.
September is a crucial moment so that children can start the academic year as they mean to go on. That’s why I am working together with Government, local authorities, schools and parents as part of my Back Into School campaign. We must all work together to ensure children are in school, and ready to learn.