Ministers are set to trial local attendance “action alliances” made up of schools, councils, and doctors as part of their push to improve stubborn absence rates.
The plan is to bring leaders from education, children’s social and health services together to come up with regional solutions, mirroring the national attendance action alliance (AAA) which has been meeting for nearly two years.
Gillian Keegan, education secretary, is also meeting with health leaders to discuss better data sharing arrangements between her department and the NHS.
Figures published this week show attendance at the start of this academic year has barely improved on last year.
A major report by the education committee, published on Wednesday, also called for mental health absence codes for schools and a review of mental health services for children with some waiting years for help.
Minutes for a meeting of the national action attendance alliance this month revealed the Department for Education is working on “local AAA pilots over the next six months” to “test effective cross workforce local operating models”.
The DfE told Schools Week “the local alliances are testing whether the national alliance model, i.e. bringing different service leaders together to reduce absence, can work across regions”.
They hope to develop this further over the course of the academic year and “establish proof of concept”. But they would not say where the pilots are taking place or who is on them.
‘The first time agencies came together’
Experts from schools, councils, doctors’ and police bodies sit on the national group, alongside DfE officials and Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector.
The pilot follows three roundtables held by the children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza in Birmingham, London and Hull and North Lincolnshire bringing together leaders from key services.
She told Schools Week it was “was the first time all agencies had come together to discuss attendance, and I was struck by how few of them outside the education sector knew about the attendance crisis or understood the role they could play in getting children back to school”.
Julie McCulloch, policy director at school leaders’ union ASCL, said factors leading to low attendance do vary between areas, so “cross-disciplinary working groups could potentially be very helpful in identifying and helping to address them”.
The minutes also reveal Keegan will meet health officials to “discuss data sharing arrangements between DfE and the NHS”.
De Souza wants to see the NHS number adopted as the “consistent unique identifier” to better track pupils in education and children’s services.
In a policy paper in July, DfE said it will map national IT systems, including in education, to gain a “deeper understanding of challenges”.
However, planned regional pilots to trial the NHS number as a regional identifier are only for “children’s health, social care, safeguarding and promotion of welfare purposes” – suggesting schools are not included.
DfE ‘exploring’ information sharing
The DfE would only say it is “exploring the possibility of whether we can improve information sharing between all multi-agency safeguarding partners which includes schools”.
Government figures show absence in the second week of term was five per cent, only slightly down on 5.4 per cent at the same point last year.
Meanwhile, the education committee has urged ministers to bring in an authorised mental health absence code and set clear thresholds for its use.
In their report on absence, MPs said the DfE should also lead a “cross-government assessment of the scale of mental health difficulties amongst pupils, and review the current provision of support available in schools and outside of them”. Findings should be reported by next summer.
Former schools minister Robin Walker, who now chairs the education committee, said the increase in children suffering from mental health problems was “deeply troubling and it is evident that our health service can’t meet this growing demand, leaving schools to fill the gaps”.
Four more attendance hubs were also announced this week, taking the total up to 14. These schools will give tips on how to drive down absence.
McCulloch welcomed the hubs, but said they “do not feel that this comes anywhere close to addressing the scale of the problem”.
It comes as the Education Endowment Foundation published research suggesting three quarters of schools in England reported that poor attendance and low-reading levels were the biggest challenges affecting disadvantaged pupils’ achievement.