The number of kids not going regularly to school is high and it’s hugely stressful for many of their parents. So what can we do about it?
Labour is reported to be considering introducing legislation to place a legal duty on councils in England to keep a register of all children who are not in school and on parents to provide information about their child’s education at home after a rise in absence levels post Covid. It is also said to be planning other actions, including making Ofsted review absence levels as part of annual safeguarding checks and increasing mental health support to help boost attendance. From the news reports, it seems that its plans for breakfast clubs for primary schools are also part of the strategy, ensuring kids start the day with a good meal. It comes at the same time as a Government announcement on an advertising campaign on why attendance matters and a doubling of ‘attendance hubs’ to 32.
School absence hovered around 4.7 per cent in the years before the pandemic struck, rising to 7.5 per cent last year, according to Department for Education data. But persistent absenteeism – where pupils miss 10 per cent or more classes – has more than doubled, rising from 10.9 per cent in 2018-19, to 22.5 per cent last year. Clearly, something has to be done because once children fall behind it is very difficult to catch up.
To start with we need to know what the cause is of the increase in absence levels – the real cause, not the reason given to schools on absence phone lines or the kneejerk tendency to blame all ills on working from home. That requires close liaison between parents and schools, which means building trust – it’s easy to say, but less easy to do in an era of parent-school ‘contracts’, league tables and the like. It also requires investment in local oversight, not using broad-based national data.
It’s no good throwing all sorts of ‘solutions’ at problems if you don’t actually know what the problems are or what works to address them. Labour is also said to be thinking about sharing best practice between schools, but that needs to involve a range of different schools so people can compare what works in like conditions [with like resources]. What works in one setting may not work in another.
I withdrew my daughter from school a few years ago – before Covid. She was having bad panic attacks because of bullying, which was linked to previous problems at primary school. Her secondary school was not very understanding and dealt with it badly, in my opinion. They talked to the bullies who then, naturally, cornered my daughter. They suggested she come in early to be with pastoral support who would then escort her to class, potentially making her even more of a target. When I asked if they had any actual practical support for her, they said it was my duty to get her into school. Having been bullied at work myself and had no useful institutional support, I have always sworn that, if it happened again, I would leave immediately. The long-term damage is worse the longer you leave it. Why should it be any different for my daughter? We tried the working with the school route at primary school. They too made her feel she was the problem. That went on for months and months and it took the full two years at the school we eventually moved her to to rebuild her confidence.
So she had a break for a term. I researched the homeschooling resources in the area. It’s not straightforward where we live. To be honest, I was surprised by the fact that all I needed to do was write a letter to the school saying I wanted to homeschool her and, hey presto, she was off the educational radar. There was no contact with anyone official after that, no attempt to understand things from the parental point of view or even to have a conversation.
So we went to the library. We set up a timetable, keeping as close to the school one as possible. That was possible because I was working from home, but working from home was not the cause of the problem. I know of parents who have gone part time or left their jobs due to children not wanting to go to school. I have also done some teaching in the past [if only teaching English abroad and giving private classes in Spanish and French], but I was only able to check in with my daughter every few hours because I had a full-time job. For half a term she did internet school [they had an introductory offer on] and felt she understood her studies better as a result. But she was lonely. So she went back to another school.
None of this was easy and, apart from Facebook groups of other parents, there was very little support – and in part this is probably so that parents are not encouraged to withdraw their kids. But I know from the Facebook groups that there are so many parents in similar positions. This probably doesn’t explain all of the rise in absence levels, but I know there are parents up and down the country trying to do the right thing, trying to get their kids into school, but finding it very, very hard.
Having a legal duty on schools to report kids who are out of school is important in that it means there will be an evidence trail. I’m not so sure about putting a legal duty on parents to provide information on education at home in the absence of proper support to stop kids not wanting to go in in the first place. It is ridiculous that parents can just withdraw their child and there is no follow-up or support, but who is going to check up on that and is it going to be done in a supportive or an accusatory way? Clearly, it is vital that children’s schooling continues. I hope that those putting policies in place talk to everyone involved – not just schools, who may not always be the most sympathetic towards parents, in my experience.
Maybe my experience is not characteristic of what is happening. Maybe there are all sorts of other reasons besides mental health, lack of special needs support, bullying and so forth that kids don’t want to go in. Everyone talks about investing in mental health these days, but the proof is in what that actually delivers to individual students and whether the support delivered makes things worse. Each case will be different.
On the other hand, I spoke to one head teacher a while ago [before Covid] who said some of her middle class parents were campaigning for part-time school because they were working part time and could take them to the museum, etc. The head teacher was worried about the impact on other kids whose parents wouldn’t be able to supervise them at home during the day or take them to museums and on trips. I’m reading a book which talks about the ‘luxury beliefs’ of some in the middle class which have real, damaging consequences for those who don’t have the benefit of money or security.
A good education is vital preparation for work and for life. But we need to understand why so many kids don’t want to go to school and what, practically, we can do to address that. Education is undergoing all sorts of changes, like everything, due to technology and various other factors. Maybe this could be an opportunity to think more deeply about what education we need for the future to ensure every child can thrive.