Children’s commissioner for England Dame Rachel De Souza recently gave a speech to the Confederation of School Trusts conference. I and the members I represent would agree with much of it, not least its call for a national focus on improving school attendance.
However, our members – and particularly the members of our education and children’s services group – will have been extremely disheartened to hear Dame De Souza say in that speech that it can “often feel like LAs have let you down with their oversight over attendance in your schools”. The group represents more than 2,000 professionals working in advisory roles supporting schools and children across local authorities, multi-academy trusts and in self-employed consultancies. At best, this unhelpful comment will have felt to them as out of keeping with the spirit of the DfE’s new guidance, ‘Working together to improve school attendance’. At worst, like a pointed insult.
More concerningly still, words like this neglect the very real challenges local authorities have faced since 2010 in providing specialist attendance services. A combination of cuts to funding, increasing school autonomy and the fragmentation of the education system are only the obvious ones. The idea that any of our members have let schools and their pupils down allows those who have created that context and failed to mitigate it off the hook.
Worst of all, the comment reinforces the opinions of those who do not wish to work collaboratively as part of a connected education system. We are looking beyond the impact of the past 12 years on our members and broadly welcomed the schools white paper, especially its proposals for more clearly defined roles and responsibilities for LAs and schools, including on attendance.
We’ve been in touch with minister for school standards Robin Walker and continue to engage with the DfE on the white paper. Throughout, our guiding principle is that funding for statutory services ought to be sufficient to meet the responsibilities set out by governments. For example, the DfE’s recent ‘new burdens’ assessment concluded that LAs have sufficient funding to deliver their duties despite an increase in those duties. Who do schools feel is letting them down?
A recent DfE consultation on LA attendance services for schools found that the majority provided statutory services or a statutory service with a wider traded service, and only 14 per cent provided a free universal service to all schools.
Wider attendance work undertaken by LAs includes services such as supporting schools with advice and guidance on keeping registers and pre-legal intervention work around persistent and severely absent pupils; holding meetings with parents/carers in school; carrying out home visits; and speaking to families and pupils at the school gate who are late for school.
The funding for such services through grants has been cut in different ways since 2010, and as a result, funding models for supporting attendance in LAs varies considerably. We have concerns that there are some with technically zero funding allocated for attendance and others limiting work to legal intervention work funded by penalty notice income.
In addition, LAs face new requirements to work with independent schools. As of January, there were just over 16,200 independent schools and 2,800 non-maintained special schools in England. This is a significant additional burden for all LAs, and considerably worse for some than others.
Prospect supports an appropriately funded education system that provides all children with the necessary support to help them thrive. That is a vision the children’s commissioner surely shares. So in the spirit of collaboration, we have invited Dame De Souza to meet with some of our members to tell them about her priorities and hear about their work and some of the challenges they face.
In the meantime, building collaboration across the system won’t be helped by careless accusations of letting each other down. We speak to fragmented audiences at disparate conferences, but the education system is in a precarious state, and everyone is listening for solutions.