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Stronger measures launched to drive up attendance across schools

Driving up attendance and tackling persistent absence is at the centre of new stronger measures launched today as pupils return to school, according to the government.   

More than one million children and young people will be supported into regular education as part of a major expansion of the attendance hubs, which provide a range of tailored support to families and pupils to boost time in school.  There will be 18 new attendance hubs across six regions, bringing the total to 32 and will see nearly 2,000 schools helped to tackle persistent absence. 

Hubs are run by schools with excellent attendance that share practical ideas with other primary, secondary, alternative provision and special schools in England who need help to boost their attendance. From direct pupil engagement initiatives like breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities, to improving their processes and analysis of attendance data, lead hub schools provide a range of support to schools that they can tailor to their pupils and families.   

The government said it is also increasing the direct support offered to children and their families with the expansion of the attendance mentor pilot programme. With an investment of up to £15million, over three years, this programme will provide direct intensive support to more than 10,000 persistent and severely absent pupils and their families.  The programme will see trained attendance mentors working in 10 further areas from September 2024. These areas are in addition to the existing pilot programme with Barnardo’s which is already operating in Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Knowsley, Salford, and Stoke on Trent.   

The programme provides intensive one-to-one support to pupils who are persistently absent, working with them and their families to find out why the child is skipping school. The government said this can lead to extra support, more intensive work with teachers or in some cases bridge-building between school and family. 

Education secretary, Gillian Keegan, said:  “The benefits of our success in raising education standards can only be when all children are in school. 

“Tackling attendance is my number one priority. We want all our children to have the best start in life because we know that attending school is vital to a child’s wellbeing, development, and attainment as well as impact future career success. 

“I am hugely grateful to all our brilliant teachers, heads, and everyone whose worked with us to make the progress we’ve already made with 380,000 fewer children persistently absent.” 

Children’s Commissioner Rachel De Souza said: “As Children’s Commissioner, I have made school attendance one of my top priorities because children tell me how much they value their education and want to be in school. Every day counts: when children miss school, it’s not just about missing lessons, it’s also about losing valuable moments spent with their friends and teachers. 

“I very much welcome the government’s announcements today which include the recommendations made last year in my report on school attendance. 

“I am hopeful that these measures will arm local authorities and schools with real-time information about school absence rates and provide vital support for children who face barriers to attending school.” 

Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry MBE, said: “Our Attendance Mentoring pilot scheme shows that one of the best ways to improve attendance is working individually with children, building trust 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. 

“In Middlesbrough, 82% of the children we have worked with improved their attendance through one-on-one support from an attendance mentor, with almost two-thirds of the children saying their mental health also improved.” 

Rob Tarn CBE, Chief Executive of Northern Education Trust said: “We are delighted that the hard work around attendance at North Shore Academy has led to significant impact for our students and their outcomes.  

“The fact that this work was recognised as a best practice model meant we felt compelled to share what we are doing with other schools and academies in similar contexts and help where we could. This was, in essence, the beginning of the attendance hub programme. Seeing this work extended, with more hubs supporting more schools, is a source of great pride for the trust.” 

A national communications campaign on the importance of attendance is also launching today [Monday 8 Jan], targeting parents and carers. Under the strapline ‘Moments Matter, Attendance Counts’, the government said it outlines the importance of attendance for attainment, wellbeing, and development as well as signposting to advice for further support.   

Key advice includes a recent letter from the Chief Medical Officer that outlines best practice when it comes to attendance and illness. The intention is to ensure that parents have the guidance they need when it comes to making decisions when deciding to send their child to school or when to keep them home.  

The government said it has also committed to further legislation in the coming months that will mean all schools will be required to share their daily school registers. This, together with reforming pupil registration practice, will modernise how schools record and share data on attendance and support them to understand what is driving absence in their school and provide early support and intervention where pupils are displaying worrying trends of absence. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, commented on the news today, saying: “Government is right to prioritise tackling this issue. The data on attendance remains a real concern and too many pupils are still not attending school on a regular or frequent basis. Poor attendance has a negative impact on pupil outcomes and so intensive and urgent action is clearly required. 

“But, whilst there is nothing wrong with the expansion of attendance hubs, schools need more than advice. Over the last decade we have seen the crucial support services that used to step in and tackle persistent absence eroded and it is immensely frustrating that the government is only now slowly beginning to realise the impact that has had. 

“What we need to see is a much stronger commitment to restoring those services so that every family and child that needs support gets it quickly. This cannot be done on the cheap.” 

Responding to the Department for Education’s newly announced plans to support pupil attendance, Professor Becky Francis CBE, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), said: “This renewed focus and investment around improving attendance is welcome – we know that tackling pupil absence is a pressing issue for our schools, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“It’s also crucial to closing the socio-economic attainment gap. Our analysis shows that three quarters of schools see attendance as one of the main barriers to achievement for Pupil Premium eligible children.

“The evidence on how to support pupil attendance is limited – something the EEF is working to rectify through current research projects testing the effectiveness of a range of approaches, co-funded by the Youth Endowment Fund.

“But what it does show, is that the interventions schools choose to deploy should be responsive, and tailored to meet individual pupils’ needs.”

In addition to today’s news, the Labour Party has also vowed to reset the “broken relationship between schools and families”.  

Tomorrow (9 January), Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, is set to make a keynote speech about the ‘generational challenges’ facing England’s schools and is expected to lay out a plan for tackling high rates of persistent absence. 

She is also set to speak about how the Conservatives are handing the issue, and how Labour’s plans include more mental health counsellors for secondary schools, and universal free breakfast clubs for every primary school pupil. 

Responding to Labour’s plans to address issues with school attendance if the party wins the next general election, Paul Whiteman said: “Labour is right to prioritise tackling this issue.  

“There is no doubt that data on attendance remains a real concern and too many pupils are still not attending school on a regular or frequent enough basis.  

“Over the last decade, a combination of austerity and neglect has led to the disappearance of many of the crucial local attendance services that schools used to rely on. It is also clear that growing levels of poverty have exacerbated the issue. 

“Should Labour win the next election, then this really should be a high priority. The promise of greater support for mental health is welcome, but we would urge Labour to go further and commit to tackling the underlying issues and rebuilding the support services that have been eroded.  

“There is no escaping the reality here that proper investment will be required if we are to get to the heart of this issue.” 

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