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Education: How to nurture the no-shows

by
09 February 2024

School absenteeism is now a widespread problem. How should it be addressed, asks Huw Spanner

istock

“WHEN I was a boy,” the actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson once quipped, “I used to spend my days skipping and playing in the woods. Skipping school and playing truant.”

Absenteeism in schools in England is no longer a subject for levity. The Revd Steve Chalke, who founded the charity Oasis, which now runs 54 schools across England, describes the situation, in fact, as “dire”. Before the pandemic, the percentage of pupils who were “persistently absent” — that is, who missed at least one in ten of their lessons in a year — ranged between ten and 13. In 2021-22, the figure, excluding absence due to Covid infection, was 22.5 per cent.

Last year, despite a concerted effort by schools and government to drive it back down, the figure fell by just 0.2 per cent.

Among vulnerable children, the rate of persistent absence is even worse: one child in three who are on free school meals is skipping school. “The numbers are really disturbing,” the Children’s Society’s chief executive, Mark Russell, says.

There is a blizzard of data, and, like any blizzard, it can be bewildering. “No one really knows how many children are persistently absent, or even missing from the system entirely,” Mr Chalke says, “but the reality is that, however it’s measured, you can feel the disconnection between schools and parents, schools and children.”

Missing school “is becoming the norm for an awful lot of children”, says the former Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, who now chairs the Commission on Young Lives. A recent survey by the Centre for Social Justice suggests that one in four parents believe that lockdown demonstrated that it is not essential for children to go to school every day. Mr Russell says that the “contract” between parents and schools broke down during the pandemic, “and has not been restored”.

Missing lessons can have a massive impact on a child’s future, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry, says. In terms of results, the latest data from 2019 show that, whereas 84 per cent of Key Stage 2 pupils who never missed a lesson achieved the expected standard, only 40 per cent of those who had been persistently absent did so.

For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, Mr Russell says, “the implications are even bigger” — for their physical well-being, as well as their mental health. “If one third of children who are entitled to free school meals are not in school, are they eating at all? Also, we know that children who aren’t in school are much more susceptible to being groomed by criminals.”

Most safeguarding issues in a child’s life, he says, are spotted first in their school, if at all. “If they are not in school, essentially we’re losing a line of sight to too many children — and that really scares me.”

 

COVID may have been the proximate cause of this upsurge in absenteeism, but it delivered a huge shock to a system that was already struggling. One underlying factor, Mr Russell says, is the rising levels of child poverty in this country. “One child in three is living in poverty — that is, in a household on 60 per cent or less of median income: about £24,000 a year for a family of four. In some of our inner-city areas, that number rises to one in two.”

A second significant factor is the mental-health crisis among children. It was already bad, he says. Covid made it worse.

Children’s mental health “plummeted” during the pandemic, Ms Longfield says. “One in six children now has a probable mental-health condition.”

The CEO of Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry

Absenteeism is not confined to poor families and disadvantaged children, she says. “Across the land, there are children who have deep, deep anxiety problems that were exacerbated by Covid. Often, these are children who were expected to fly through their GCSEs and A levels and on to university, and now they’ve been out of school for a year, and the whole family has been devastated.”

Mr Russell says that, over the past ten years, early-intervention support for children has fallen “by around a half”. At present, he says, 80 per cent of all spending on children’s services is on crisis interventions. Moreover, frequently, a parent’s or carer’s mental health, too, is stopping children from going to school.

A third factor that he identifies “is the level of unmet additional educational need”. For many pupils, the curriculum and the way in which it is taught work well, but there are increasing numbers of children for whom it does not, and these are not getting adequate support.

Education budgets have been “stripped” over the past 14 years, Mr Chalke says, and one consequence of that has been the disappearance of classroom assistants. “Many children who are atypical learners just can’t keep up; they need help with maintaining attention, and they lack some of the skills to be able to work independently, and teaching assistants provided that support.” Without them, he says, “children are left behind — and then they give up.”

In some more deprived areas of the country, he says, the education system is failing at least half of our children, “because they don’t fit into the straitjacket of rote-learning and memory tests and so on. They learn in different ways, and we’re not creative enough; we don’t excite them, and then they drop out. Even if they do attend school, they don’t fulfil their potential.”

The fourth factor that Mr Russell identifies is that schools are only one part of an ecosystem. “It takes a village to raise a child, and the cuts in youth work and safe spaces for children outside of school over the past decade also have a bearing on children’s well-being and happiness, which we have seen declining, year on year. I have worked with children and young people for 25 years, and I have never known things more difficult than they are now. The need now is huge.”

 

RECENTLY, the Government announced 32 “attendance hubs”, designed to help schools with high attendance levels to share best practice on reducing absence, but they will serve only one tenth of England’s state schools.

In some parts of the country, it is also offering persistent absentees a 12-week course with an “attendance mentor”. Barnardo’s began running one such programme a year ago, initially in Middlesbrough. Last month, the DfE announced a £15-million expansion of the scheme.

Ms Perry explains: “Our pilot has shown that one of the best ways to improve attendance is working individually with children and listening to their concerns. Our mentors encourage children to talk openly about issues such as family finances, bullying, or mental-health worries — anything they feel may be preventing them from going to school.”

istockThe CEO of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, is worried about whether children who entitled to free school meals and are are not in school are eating at all

The root causes of absence can often be embarrassing or difficult to talk about, she says, and building a relationship of trust allows mentors to work with the school to manage the situation, and look for solutions.

So far, the experience of Barnardo’s in Middlesbrough is that four out of five children mentored in this way have increased their attendance at school, and almost two-thirds have said that their mental health had also improved.

Ms Longfield regards this as “a sticking plaster”. Mentoring is fine, she says, “but in no way is this going to be transformative. It won’t even touch the sides of what needs attention.” She refers to the example of one school that she visited, from which 500 pupils were persistently absent. It had one attendance officer, and “was struggling to recruit a second, because no one was applying for the job. Every one of those 500 children will need at least one visit, and half of them will need someone to work consistently with their families.”

Dealing with “the fundamentals”, she says, takes time and demands resources. Unfortunately, the Treasury is “not good at long-term planning and investment to save [money in the long term]. And children are, by definition, an investment to save in the long term.”

The level of funding going into schools is “pretty much” what it was in 2010, she says. “I don’t think the Treasury understands that this is about building and nurturing a nation that is flourishing — and one that has a prosperous economy.”

For Mr Chalke, the priority is to see children’s needs therapeutically. Oasis is in the process of training all of the staff in its schools in “a therapeutic approach to everything”. One of its London academies has invited students of social work and occupational health to come and work with their children as volunteers, with such success that, in September, Oasis will be extending this scheme into many of its other schools.

 

LAST November, Britain’s five largest children’s charities launched the Children’s Charities Coalition. Mr Russell says that the core of its demands, which have been backed by 130 other charities, is “a joined-up, cross-government strategy that puts children’s flourishing at the front and centre of the Government’s agenda. Every government department that is interfacing with children’s lives needs to line up.”

You cannot address school attendance on its own, he explains. “We need to address child poverty: we need to get more resources into early intervention.” He refers to a statistic that “terrifies” him: there are 79 per cent more children in residential care today than there were 12 years ago. “The reason for that is that we’re not helping children and families early enough.

“We need to reinvest in youth work, so we are helping to build communities that help children thrive, and we must ensure that every child who needs additional educational-needs support gets it.”

He quotes the 19th-century US social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than fix broken men.”

“Four years into my role at the Children’s Society, I’m on my seventh Education Secretary, and my ninth Children’s Minister. There is a lack of consistent leadership in the Cabinet to make the case. I understand that the public purse is under huge pressure, but we need the Government to say, from the Prime Minister down, that children are a priority for this administration.

“They haven’t been a priority for a long time, and we are seeing the impact of that. Frankly, life now is just too difficult for too many children.”

 

MY SON was 13 when the first lockdown happened. He hadn’t been doing particularly well at school — I would say he is more of a hands-on learner, and traditional education didn’t really tick his boxes, or meet his needs. It’s focused on the grades now, isn’t it? Not on the children.

After the second lockdown, he started refusing to get out of bed to go to school. He would get up and potter about doing a bit of woodwork, that sort of thing. Again, hands-on. Lots of his friends didn’t go to school, either.

It was a really tough time; very stressful. We were having arguments all the time, trying to make him conform, which was not the answer. We had to completely change our mindset.

We did go to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services because of his anger; but he told me he wasn’t going again. He ran away a couple of times — only down the road, but we did have to get the police out to find him.

I think he was depressed. He felt that people were bullying him. He’s not the easiest of children, though he’s a lovely lad, very chatty, and we love him to bits. He doesn’t much like being told what to do. He’s never been diagnosed with anything, but he might have some autistic tendencies.

I was in contact with the school all the time, and a youth worker attached to the school from the LEA youth service came out once a week or so, to chat with him. A charity that supports farmers and their families also got involved, and a member of their team still comes to see him every couple of months, although that will end soon.

The school adjusted his timetable, so that he only had to go in three days a fortnight, doing just the core subjects. They asked us to arrange some work experience; so he worked two or three days a week on a farm and, later, also at a garage. That counted as being in education.

The LEA didn’t really get involved, though they did make me do a parenting course. I was a bit miffed about that, but I did it to tick the box.

He took five GCSE exams last summer, in English, maths and science, and got Cs and Ds. He’s now working full-time, as a self-employed farm labourer, at the farm where he did his work experience.

He’s also socialising more, going to the pub. He’s not old enough yet, but they all do it. And he passed his tractor test, which has made him a bit more independent, because he can drive our tractor to work.

Having officially left school, he’s in a much better head space and is pursuing a career of his choice. He didn’t drop out completely, largely because of the creative approach taken by the school and the other agencies involved. Nevertheless, it was a battle and stressful for all of the family.

* Not her real name

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