Persistent absence is the first barrier Labour will seek to break

Conservative government has broken the relationships that underpin school attendance. Labour will rebuild the ladder to success

Conservative government has broken the relationships that underpin school attendance. Labour will rebuild the ladder to success

23 Feb 2024, 17:00

One of the brilliant parts of being Shadow Schools Minister is being able to travel the length and breadth of the country, hearing from students, teachers and parents about their experiences in our schools, sharing in the positives and listening to what needs to change.

Last month, I spoke to Schools North East Academies Conference about Labour’s vision for our schools, part of our plan for a mission-driven government that will drive high and rising standards for every child, and reset the broken relationship between government, families and schools.

That relationship is crucial to children’s life chances. The unwritten rule is that families, schools and government all have responsibilities and will all play their part in supporting children to thrive at school and throughout life.

Fourteen years of Conservative governments have broken that relationship, seen in soaring pupil absence. In my own local authority, Newcastle, the number of children missing half of their lessons skyrocketed by 282 per cent between 2016 and 2022, and this story is reflected by teachers and schools across the country.

Recent research from the Centre for Social Justice has revealed that one in four parents think sending their children to school every day doesn’t matter, at a time when one in four children are on track to miss school regularly by 2025. Rebuilding this relationship must be a top priority.

Because if children aren’t in school, it doesn’t matter how effective or well-supported teaching and learning is, we will not see better outcomes for young people. That holds back our society, widens social and economic divides and leaves us all worse off.

The Conservatives don’t share our vision or sense of purpose

That’s why Labour brought forward, and voted for, a bill to allow us to introduce a register of children not in school. This would have created a proper record of where children are being educated, because Labour’s view is clear: excellence is for everyone.

Last summer, Keir Starmer set out Labour’s mission to break down the barriers to opportunity, not for some of our children but for all of them. That means knowing where they are being educated. It means knowing that the education they are receiving is setting every child up with the knowledge, skills and abilities to go on to thrive throughout their lives. It means rebuilding relationships and working with families, schools and local authorities to deliver this change.

The Conservatives don’t share our vision or sense of purpose. Despite successive Conservative education secretaries and schools ministers supporting a home school register, they voted down our bill, again showing that our children, their lives and life chances are not a priority.

This has been the case for far too long. We see it in the way education has been sidelined and treated as a peripheral issue. We saw it in the education secretary’s belated claim that reducing absence is her ‘number one priority’ – just as with crumbling schools, only acting once the problem has spiralled out of control.

If Labour is fortunate enough to form the next government, we will bring the urgency needed to tackle this problem. Legislating for a register of children not in school will form part of our long-term plan to tackle persistent absence.

We will roll out breakfast clubs for every primary school, proven to boost attendance and attainment. We’ll pay for this by ending the non-dom tax status, which allows the global super-rich to avoid paying their fair share.

We’ll ensure pupils are able to access mental health support both inside and outside the school gates, with counsellors in schools and hubs in the community, paid for by ending private schools’ tax breaks.

We’ll reform Ofsted and allow it to review absence as part of annual school checks.

We’ll join-up records of children with a new number used across education, social care and wider children’s services, using AI to highlight trends in absence, spot issues early and nip problems in the bud.

We’ll deliver a reformed curriculum and assessment system to engage every child, building from the firm foundations of knowledge and delivering greater opportunities for enrichment in music, art, sport and drama.

It will be Labour’s mission to break down the barriers to opportunity for every child. Persistent absence will be the first barrier we seek to break.

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