The government should create a school absence code specifically for mental health and review the adequacy of health services struggling with soaring waiting lists, MPs have said.
The Parliamentary education committee has also urged the government to make its daily attendance data collection mandatory for schools as soon as possible as part of a raft of recommendations to tackle soaring absence rates (full list below).
Data from last autumn showed 7.5 per cent of possible sessions were missed that term, and that 24.2 per cent of pupils were “persistently” absent, missing 10 per cent or more sessions.
In pre-pandemic 2019, overall absence was 4.9 per cent and persistent absence was 13.1 per cent.
The committee found “growing demand for mental health services and special educational needs support, as well as cost-of-living pressures and other issues, have compounded a problem that worsened following the covid lockdowns but remains present”.
MPs found mental health-related absences were “not commonly authorised by schools, sometimes due to requirements to provide medical evidence which can often lead to fines or prosecution for families”.
They said introducing an authorised mental health absence code for schools to report “could eliminate the need for medical evidence in cases of known and established mental health difficulties and reduce the need for intervention via prosecution”.
The government should therefore introduce such a code and “set clear thresholds for its use”.
However, schools minister Nick Gibb already poured cold water on the idea during a hearing of the inquiry.
“The more complicated you make filling in these codes for schools, it’s a burden on schools, they have many other things to do. But also you can damage the accuracy of it if you start demanding more precision than the schools actually have,” he said at the time.
Review struggling CAMHS services
The report pointed to “overwhelming evidence indicating a radical increase in mental health difficulties amongst school pupils since the Covid-19 pandemic”. And child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are not keeping up with demand.
Data shows just 19 per cent of children and young people referred to CAMHS in 2021-22 entered treatment within four weeks.
MPs said the DfE should 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.
They said there “then needs to be significant joint working across the government to ensure CAMHS provision is adequate to meet the needs of school age children, in line with the Department’s previous commitment to a 4-week waiting time”.
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”.
“A major cross-government review of how to overcome this challenge is needed and greater resources both inside and outside schools will be required.”
Make attendance data collection mandatory
The report acknowledged improving attendance had been a “priority” for ministers. One intervention has been the pilot of a daily attendance data collection, which scrapes schools’ registered to give ministers real-time intel. Four in five schools now take part.
MPs recommended the department make use of the dashboard mandatory “as soon as possible”. However, this should be “subject to a successful evaluation of the pilot and addressing any remaining concerns about data management”.
Ministers and officials have already hinted that this will happen, as they want the collection to replace existing datasets, but have not given a timeframe.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, warned of a “perfect storm in which more families need support at a time when the government has failed to invest anything like the amount needed in community services like CAMHS and children’s social care”.
“Schools are seeing the impact of this not only through pupil absence, but also in the issues they identify among children who are in school – yet they alone are not equipped to tackle the often deep-rooted causes and are constrained by staffing pressures and the impact of years of funding cuts.”
Walker added that MPs want “quick action … so that we can start to turn the tide on absence”.
A DfE spokesperson said they remained “focused on ensuring no child falls through the cracks”.
“We recently announced an expansion to our attendance hubs and mentors programme and we are also working closely with schools, trusts, governing bodies and local authorities to identify pupils in need of additional support.”
Other recommendations include…
- Introduce a register of children not in school to be fully operational for the 2024-25 academic year
- Implement statutory guidance on attendance to be applicable from September 2024 after revising it in consultation with stakeholders
- Conduct an audit of support provided by local authorities to tackle persistent absence
- Make an assessment of the impact of providing funding for education welfare officers through schools, compared to centrally funding such roles
- Instruct schools and local authorities to explore methods of support for pupils and families before the use of fines or prosecution
- Revise guidance to include a national framework for fines and prosecution, to ensure consistency between local authority use
- Roll out attendance interventions nationally, starting with attendance mentors
- Assess the eligibility criteria for free school meals and adjust it if necessary, ensuring all children in poverty are in receipt
- Require local authorities to report on school attendance levels for pupils who have attended a breakfast club or holiday clu
- Implement an enrichment guarantee for pupils in school including the use of sport, music, drama and art
- Make attendance and engagement key metrics of educational outcomes for SEND pupils in specialist settings, taking specific barriers into account
- Scrutinise use of alternative provision and discourage its use as a means to manage behaviour
- Launch a targeted public information campaign to guide parents on when and when not children who are unwell should attend school