The Children’s Commissioner’s Attendance Audit set out with an overarching goal that every child should be in school every day, supported and ready to learn. Every child has the right to a fantastic education. To achieve this, every child needs to be identified and supported, no child should be unknown to the system. In January 2022, the Children’s Commissioner's team conducted a survey of all local authorities (LAs) in England to understand the cohort of children who were not attending school regularly, and those who were missing from education altogether. In March, the Commissioner published her interim findings which found that we do not have an accurate real time figure of how many children there are in England, nor where they are – let alone the number of children not receiving education. Our deepdive confirmed this hypothesis. To find out more about these groups of children, and to understand the barriers that stop children from attending school regularly, the team spoke to nearly 500 people, including Directors of Children’s Services, family support workers, parents, and health workers, across 10 LAs throughout February and March 2022. The findings from these deep dives are included in this report. This work has provided a national picture, which didn’t exist before, of where the children missing from education are and the barriers they face. In Autumn 2021, 1 in 4 children were persistently absent compared to 1 in 9 in 2018/19 – that’s more than double1 . Led by what children told us, the Children’s Commissioner has set out six key ambitions to ensure that every child supported to be in school every day, ready to learn, is receiving a fantastic education, and, critically, that we know where they are and that they are safe.
The following is a high-level summary of these ambitions, the findings of the Audit and policy solutions to help reach this goal. Six Ambitions to Account for Every Child:
Ambition 1. Ask, Listen, Communicate: decisions about children’s education need to be made with children, their families and other adults in their lives. Children said that they often feel that things are done to them rather than with them, which can lead to a breakdown of trust and disengagement from their education. Where children do feel listened to, they are able to build relationships with teachers and school staff which they really value. These relationships are often key to making sure children stay engaged in their education, and so many teachers and other staff in school do a wonderful job. We are indebted to them. To make sure all children and families benefit from this, we recommend that:
• All schools create a culture which prioritises and obsesses about attendance and promotes this message amongst children and parents.
• Schools and wider services build trusted and supportive relationships with children, and their families, who are persistently or severely absent.
• All attendance and behaviour policy documents have a version that is accessible and in child friendly language.
• Attendance should be prioritised in the Parent Pledge, announced in the Schools White Paper alongside current proposed topics, such as the quality of teaching, and the focus on reading and writing.
Ambition 2. Meet children where they are: all children receive support in school, through families of schools. Children have told us that they want to receive support in school, be it for mental health, SEND, bullying or safeguarding needs. This is because they value schools as part of their community and life. They trust their teachers. And where support is provided in schools, those children are happier than the overall cohort. We saw some great examples of schools that had developed their own on-site Alternative Provision (AP), so that children who cannot attend mainstream school have somewhere they can continue to learn, to bring together different kinds of targeted support including mental health and behaviour management for children struggling in their mainstream classes. To make sure all children’s needs are met locally, where they are, we recommend that:
• Schools provide, and are supported to provide, a range of early support services, such as in-house counselling. It is easiest to do this through strong families of schools where resources can be used flexibly across the whole family to meet the needs of their whole cohort.
• The SEND Green Paper is implemented fully and in a child-centred way so that we have a SEND system that provides the right support, in the right place, at the right time and is easier to navigate. Children’s voices need to be at the heart of these reviews and our response to the Government’s SEND Green Paper will do just that.
Ambition 3. Exclusion as a trigger for intervention: children should receive a fantastic education, regardless of setting, always and receive targeted support following exclusion or suspension. Exclusions need to be a last resort. However, when they do occur, whether this is an internal exclusion, a fixed-term suspension or permanent exclusion, too often the children we spoke with had not received any intervention or support to prevent further exclusions happening in the future or to make sure that exclusion from school didn’t mean exclusion from education altogether. This can lead to a cycle of continued exclusions and children falling out of school. Where schools saw an exclusion as a moment for intervention and the reasoning behind decisions was explained to the young person and parents, children felt more supported and able to reflect on their behaviour and reengage with their education. We recommend that:
• When a child is removed from the classroom, whether through internal exclusion, suspension, permanent exclusion, a managed move, or implementation of a ‘part time timetable’, an assessment of what support or intervention might be needed is undertaken and that support be implemented quickly to limit the time out of education.
• AP needs to be to consistently be an integral part of the wider education system so that children can transition smoothly into and out of this provision. All AP should be high quality with a focus on outcomes – we need a race to the top rather than minimum standards, building on some of the great practice already out there.
• The Department for Education (DfE) should consider issuing further guidance on support for children post exclusion, setting out the duties on schools and local authorities to assess their needs and provide appropriate support.
• Where a child with a social worker is excluded, be it temporarily or permanently, they should be in AP from the first day, so that no child where there is aa safeguarding vulnerability is not in school. we should consider naming schools within CiN plans.
Ambition 4. Letting children be children: no child should feel that they need to miss school to support or care for their family. Children with additional responsibilities at home, such as young carers, can find it particularly difficult to attend school regularly. Young carers attending schools who understood their needs and put in place additional support such as a young carers champion felt more positive about their education and found it easier to balance their home and school lives. So that every child receives this same support, we recommend that:
• All services identify young carers consistently and share data effectively to provide these children and their families with support, particularly between phases.
• Young carers should be assessed under section 17 of the Children Act and provided with targeted support, including priority in school admissions and support from the Virtual School Head (VSH).
• All schools should implement a young carers policy, co-written with the young carers at the school to set expectations and ensure there is a codified offer for support for young carers within the school.
Ambition 5. Attendance is everyone’s business: school leaders have a relentless focus on attendance and work together with LAs to ensure children are supported to be in school and to attend regularly. We need better join up between services that support children, especially those at risk of becoming missing from education or who are otherwise vulnerable. Attendance needs to be everyone’s business, with all services responsible for safeguarding children taking ownership and contributing to solutions. Multi-agency panels which convene schools, the LA, health, police and others on a regular basis help to ensure that children are known to services and introduce accountability across areas of responsibility. To make this a reality we recommend that:
• Schools and colleges should become full statutory members of Local Safeguarding Partnerships alongside the LA, police, and the NHS.
• LAs should form cross-cutting partnership panels, or include in existing multi-agency arrangements, to discuss individual children’s attendance and progress.
• Ofsted should make attendance a top priority in its inspection framework.
• LAs should convene partnerships working across schools and wider support services in their local area to create a ‘team around the school’ – this needs to include support from children’s services, supporting family’s teams, family hubs, SEND services, mental health teams, youth offending teams and police.
Ambition 6. No more ‘known unknowns’: lack of information should no longer be the reason why children are not receiving a suitable education. We need to address the lack of data collected about children in school and find more effective ways of doing this. Children sometimes fall through the gaps in the system and out of sight simply because the LA is not even aware that they are living in the area. The lack of information collected on children, coupled with complicated data sharing practices means that children become ‘known unknowns’ and therefore cannot be provided with support. To make sure no child is lost in the system, we recommend that:
• A consistent unique identifier for children should be implemented to facilitate better data matching between organisations responsible for safeguarding and supporting children to ensure children do not fall through the cracks between information systems.
• The Office for National Statistics (ONS) should prioritise developing an accurate assessment of the child population as part of its new population estimates.
• There should be clear expectations regarding data sharing between organisations responsible for safeguarding children – the legislation exists to make sure all data can be shared where it is in the best interests of children and we need practice to support that aim.
• A census of independent and unregistered schools should be introduced to match the school census completed by most education providers.
• The plethora of Management Information Systems (MIS) used to support attendance needs to be rationalised to facilitate and support data sharing across agencies and services.
The way forward: These ambitions outline my long-term blueprint for getting all children back into school. In the immediate future, we must start looking forward to September and have a plan in place for every child who has not yet returned to school or is attending inconsistently. If a child doesn’t attend on the first day of term it is much harder for them to reengage. We need to start acting now to ensure that children have what they need to feel confident and prepared for their new year. We also need to make sure that professionals working with children know what they can do to help, from supporting families to identify a suitable school place, to using available funds to purchase uniforms. Now, after the pandemic, there is a unique opportunity to listen to children and families, to remove barriers to attending school, and to make school a place where each child consistently attends and thrives. The Children’s Commissioner will be running a campaign of engagement over the summer to ensure that children are confident to return to school in September. It is paramount that we work together as an alliance to ensure that the whole system is working at pace to prepare for the start of autumn term so that every child is supported to start, and stay in, school. Following our research and methodology, this report outlines these six key ambitions to make this goal a reality – and the steps children, families and professionals have recommended to help get there.