Since becoming children’s commissioner in March 2021, school attendance has been an absolute priority. This year, I am calling on everyone working with children to do the same. Too many are struggling to attend regularly, absences remain at crisis levels, and if we don’t act now we risk failing a generation.
When I first took up my role, the country was emerging from the shadow of the pandemic. I saw huge swathes of children who hadn’t returned to school after lockdown. While attention switched to catch-up plans and lost learning, a worrying number of children disappeared from schools altogether.
They had become the so-called ‘ghost children’ of lockdown. I have never liked the phrase. I have met with hundreds of them and they are real flesh-and-blood children. Children we have a duty to support. Children we are letting down.
Every child has a right to access a brilliant education. Speaking as a former teacher and headteacher, I believe that children are offered the best start to further their ambitions, relationships and learning when in school.
However, last year’s attendance figures paint a damning picture of school absences. Data from the 2022-23 academic year show that 22.5 per cent of children were persistently absent. That’s around one in five pupils, a massive increase from the ten to eleven per cent we were seeing pre-Covid.
Concerningly, children with additional vulnerabilities are more likely to be missing from school. Children known to social care have some of the highest absence rates. In 2022, 43.8 per cent of children in need and 56.2 per cent of children on a protection plan were persistently absent.
I have made it my mission to understand why children haven’t returned to the classrooms. I hear from children that absence from school is rarely because they don’t want to be learning. Often, they are desperate to get back to school but they can’t access the support they need.
Children and parents have told me that if we want to support children back into school, we must tackle the barriers to attendance. Schools have an important role to play in this, but they can’t do it alone. All professionals who support children have a role. Attendance is everyone’s business.
This summer, I conducted roundtables in areas with some of the most challenging attendance rates. I invited professionals from education, health, social care, youth justice and parental groups to interrogate the reasons for increased school absences and to examine how local agencies can work together to improve attendance.
Where there has been success, school leaders said that they obsessed over attendance. Teachers told me how they built relationships with families and children and put in bespoke support to aid their return.
Yet I also heard from schools who are struggling to tackle absences. The government has rolled out attendance hubs, which are promising, but given the scale of the issue we need to go much further and faster with them. We should roll out the attendance mentors programme to ensure every child who is severely absent receives the support they need to re-engage in education.
One of the most common problems that came up was how to respond to children’s mental health issues. Latest NHS data shows that the number of children suffering from a mental health disorder has risen from one in nine pre-pandemic to one in six today. We must see a joined-up approach to tackle this issue. Health and education should outline a comprehensive joint plan for student wellbeing.
My conversations with multi-agency teams highlighted how important it is for all professionals to work together. What struck me was how few agencies outside of education knew about the attendance crisis or understood the role they could play in tackling it. Today I am calling on government to make the new attendance guidance statutory for all agencies before the end of this term.
September is a critical moment. It’s our chance for a system reset and to shift the dial on school attendance. We must be ambitious and aim for 100 per cent attendance. Our children deserve that.