In The Big Ask, the largest survey of its kind in the world, over 500,000 children told me how much they love school.[i] They love learning. The pandemic re-set the relationship between children and school. After a tough two years of mainly online learning, children missed their teachers, their friends, their activities, and real classroom learning. And children care about the quality of their education, they prize a good education as one of life’s priorities. They aren’t afraid to work hard. Indeed, they value the opportunity that presents.
Vulnerable or disadvantaged children, such as those with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability (SEND) or awarded pupil premium, were even more likely than their peers to say that education was important to their future. I firmly believe that school is the right place for children to be, and the hundreds of children that I have spoken with this year as well as the thousands who responded to ‘The Big Ask’, have only confirmed that.
However, children for whom education can be the most transformational, are the least likely to be attending school regularly. The latest available data from autumn 2021 shows that 34% of pupils receiving Free School Meals (FSM) were persistently absent compared to 20% of pupils not in receipt of FSM. Similarly, 36% of pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) were persistently absent in the term, compared to 31% for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) support and only 22% for pupils with no identified SEN[ii].
So, to make sure that children can get the absolute most out of their education, this year I have made children’s attendance at school a national priority through my ‘Attendance Audit’[iii].
The Audit included a survey of all local authorities on the number of children missing from education, a deep-dive with ten local areas, speaking with over 300 children and professionals directly and collecting daily attendance data on 36,000 children across three Multi-Academy Trusts. Throughout all of this, I have kept children’s voices at the heart of the conversation. From the children who told me that their school saved their life, to the children who told me they felt let down and abandoned by a fractured system. All their experiences matter, and we must listen and learn from them if we are to build an education system that is truly designed for and around the needs of all children.
This is why I was pleased to see the Department for Education (DfE) open a public consultation on how unregistered alternative provision (AP) is commissioned and delivered[iv]. My Audit included speaking with nearly 100 children in different types of AP and I learned from them how AP could provide the tailored support that they really needed to thrive in a mainstream setting and get their education back on track. I also learned however, how unregistered AP could be used indiscriminately by schools to place children in unsuitable education environments for their needs, without oversight or accountability.
This report was submitted to the DfE on behalf of children in England in response to their consultation. It features the voices and experiences of children from across a diverse range of AP settings. I have highlighted what children valued about AP but also the impact that seeking alternative education arrangements had on their families whilst they sought to secure suitable education.
Often, children in AP have an additional addition – some diagnosed and some undiagnosed – and we must create a system that is flexible and ambitious and provides support for children where they are. The way forward from here is a system that views AP holistically as part of the wider education sector, as part of families of schools, where provision is designed around the needs of children locally and integrated with both mainstream and special schools.