Tuesday 23rd January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered school attendance.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to discuss school attendance in this Chamber. I note that a very similar debate is happening in the main Chamber—excuse me for having run from there to here. I understand that that is an extremely unusual occurrence, and Mr Deputy Speaker could not reflect on a time in 21 years when two debates on an identical issue had been tabled in both Chambers at once. Mine was tabled first!

A great deal has been written about school attendance recently. People are right to be concerned, with the number of severely absent or persistently absent pupils having soared since the pandemic. Last spring, nearly 1.5 million children were persistently absent from school, which means that nearly one in five children is missing 10% or more of their school time—the equivalent to an afternoon or more of every week of school. Education is key to giving young people access to skills and opportunities in their future, and the sudden surge in persistent and severe absences risks a profound impact on educational attainment and longer-term outcomes. That is why, before Christmas, I tabled a Bill to tackle the issue.

We should be extraordinarily proud of our nation’s young people. Children in England now rank 11th in the world for maths and 13th for reading. Back in 2010, when today’s school leavers were just starting out in reception, the same league tables placed that cohort of children 27th for maths and 25th for reading. There has been phenomenal progress in children’s school journeys over those 14 years, and we must not let that slip.

The reasons for increased levels of pupil absence are multiple and complex. They include issues such as support for those with special educational needs and disabilities, anxiety and mental health. We know, for example, that if a child’s SEND needs are unmet, that can lead to them missing out on education. I am also concerned about the rise in children being put on part-time timetables, especially children with SEND who may not yet have an education, health and care plan—part-time timetables should be used only for a very short time and in exceptional circumstances.

Changes in attitudes towards minor ailments may be another driving force behind school absences. Parents are now more likely to keep their children at home for minor illnesses such as coughs and colds than before the pandemic. In most cases, children are better off in school, including when they have minor ailments. There may be other changing societal issues. For example, a mental health services provider in my constituency suggested to me that increasingly addictive online gaming is impacting negatively on mental health and resulting in more of the children and young people they see missing out on school. I would like to see more research on that to see whether those societal issues are also driving some of the change.

For the most vulnerable pupils, regular attendance is also an important protective factor. Research shows that regular absence from school can expose young people to other harms, such as being drawn into crime or serious violence. The Education Committee heard that children missing out on school was one of the biggest risk factors in cases of child exploitation. These are yet more reasons why we must find new ways to bring those who are missing out back to school and ensure that young people turn up to class.

Every parent has a legal responsibility to ensure that their child receives an education. If they decide to have their child registered at school, they have a legal duty to ensure their child attends that school regularly. However, in addressing the issue of school attendance, it is important that we do not simply lay the blame at the door of hard-working parents. Most parents want their children to do well, but many need help to support their children to fulfil those aspirations. Securing good attendance requires a holistic approach—an approach that brings together schools, families, the local authority and other local partners.

Much detailed work has already been undertaken. In 2022, following a detailed consultation, the Department for Education published new guidance entitled, “Working together to improve school attendance”. Running to more than 60 pages, it is extremely detailed, with a great deal of emphasis placed on early help and multidisciplinary support. It requires every school to have a senior member of the school’s leadership team acting as an attendance champion and sets out how schools and other partners should work together.

Last year, the Education Committee undertook a detailed inquiry on attendance. Witnesses agreed that that guidance needed to be put on a statutory footing, and that was a major recommendation of the Committee. Making it mandatory for bodies to follow that best practice is supported by the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice, as well as the Education Committee and many other experts.

That is why, before Christmas, I presented a private Member’s Bill to the House of Commons to make that happen, the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill. It will make the guidance statutory so that all schools, trusts, local authorities and other relevant local partners must follow it. The Bill will contain two clauses. The first will introduce a new general duty on local authorities to exercise their functions with a view to promoting regular attendance and reducing absence in their areas. The second will require schools of all types to have and publicise a school attendance policy. Both clauses will require all schools and local authorities to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. That will all be achieved by inserting two clauses into the Education Act 1996, under section 443.

Incidentally, I have given copies of the wording of that Bill to the Public Bill Office today. It will be printed overnight and will be available for Members to read tomorrow. The DFE has also told me that it will publish a revised version of the guidance ahead of the new provisions taking effect, and that the guidance will help to reduce unfairness in the amount of support available for families in different areas of the country and level up standards in areas with poorer attendance by providing consistent access to support.

Local authorities will need to provide all schools with a named point of contact for support with queries and advice. They will need to meet each school termly to discuss cases where multi-agency support is needed, work with other agencies to provide that support where it is needed in cases of persistent or severe absence, use their services and levers to remove common causes of absence in their areas, and monitor and improve the attendance of children with a social worker.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the right hon. Lady for bringing forward this important subject for debate. I know that there could be no better person than the Minister to answer the points that she is putting forward. Does the right hon. Lady not agree that the mixed messages over covid about learning from home have left a lot more parents either more complacent about attendance or expecting teachers to provide online learning to help their children catch up? There is no substitute for in-school learning; I think that the right hon. Lady said that, and I agree with her. Teachers cannot be expected to double their prep and delivery on behalf of those children whose parents keep them off and ask for the learning to take place on their schedule. Does the right hon. Lady agree?

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I think that the important message to get to children and their families is that the best place for most children to be is in school. That is best for their education. It is best for their friendships. It is best for their development. It is best for their learning in other extracurricular activities. There is also a separate issue of home education, which I will get to shortly.

Under my Bill, which makes the guidance mandatory, schools will be expected to have an attendance champion, to have robust day-to-day processes for recording, monitoring and following up absences, to use their attendance data to prioritise the pupils and cohorts on which to focus their efforts, and to work jointly with their local authorities and other agencies where the causes of persistent and severe absence go beyond a school’s remit.

The Local Government Association, for which I have great respect, has written to me in advance of the debate, saying that there is urgent need for a cross-government, child-centred strategy to tackle rising disadvantage and the wider factors that contribute towards persistent-absence children missing out on school. It says that that must include reforming the SEND system, expanding access to mental health support and youth services, connecting with hard-to-reach communities and ensuring that schools are resourced, supported and incentivised. The LGA also supports the introduction of a register of children who are out of school due to elective home education. That would improve the data on the visibility of these children so that councils can verify that children are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment.

A register of children who are out of school due to elective home education is not part of my Bill, but it is part of a Bill tabled before Christmas by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who is a former Ofsted inspector and just spoke in the debate in the main Chamber. I know that Government Ministers are assisting her with the Bill; it is on the Order Paper and has been since December. It does not need to be overtaken by an Opposition day debate to table yet another Bill, because that would be confusing. We have two Bills, they are going through the House, and they are already on the Order Paper.

The Centre for Mental Health and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition have written to me to point out the link between mental health and absence from school that I have mentioned. They recommend that a mental health absence code is introduced. The issue of different absence codes was also raised by the Education Committee. It is not specifically addressed by my Bill, but the Minister may wish to comment on it. In their letter, they welcomed the “laudable progress” being made in rolling out mental health support teams to many thousands of schools. They would like its funding to be guaranteed and an assurance that all schools will have access to these teams. It would be helpful if the Minister could address that in his answers to the debate.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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Having been born and brought up in her early years in Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member will know of the excellent educational facilities and teaching in that part of the United Kingdom. She makes a valid point about mental health. She will know that one in eight young people in Northern Ireland experience anxiety, which is 25% higher than in the rest of the UK. Does she agree that there needs to be a focus across the United Kingdom on mental health because it is contributing to children’s absence from school?

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I thank the hon. Member for her comments. I remember my time in education in Northern Ireland very fondly. I was lucky to have access to a brilliant education in both state and private schools and to benefit from scholarships. I have excellent schools in my Chelmsford constituency. I commend the Government for the increase in recent years in the number of good and outstanding schools across the country.

On mental health, the Schools Minister has just explained in the main Chamber how the mental health support teams have been rolled out already to thousands of schools, and that they are working with the NHS to see that rolled out more widely. That is already in progress, and I have asked the Minister to address more of that roll-out. I know that it makes a difference, and it was a major ask from the coalitions of mental health experts who wrote to me. There is also, often, bespoke local need, such as that addressed by the amazing Kids Inspire charity in Essex, based in my constituency of Chelmsford, which does wonderful work. Part of it is funded by the voluntary sector, and part of it is state funded through grants. It does fantastic work with children who have been at risk of trauma.

I say to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) that it breaks my heart that Stormont is not sitting. If it were, Northern Ireland would be able to make its own decisions to address the particular mental health and other health needs there.

I thank the Centre for Social Justice for all its research on the subject, and the Children’s Commissioner and her team for their research and advice. As well as listening to the views of colleagues today, I have been working with the Children’s Commissioner, who is helping me to host a major roundtable next week so that I can hear the views of schools, social workers, parents and other expert groups directly. That will happen before my Bill has its Second Reading on Friday 2 February. I hope that the Bill will receive cross-party support from all Members in the Chamber and that they will ensure the same from other Members of their parties, which will enable it to pass swiftly through Second Reading and into Committee. Through that, we can make the guidance mandatory so that every school, local authority and body follow best practice. It is a positive legal step that we can take to enable children to get the support they need and help them return to school.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab)
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I thank the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing the debate. I was unable to attend the Labour Opposition day debate on a similar theme, so I appreciate being able to raise my points here. School absences are a huge problem, and we all agree with that. In County Durham, there were well over 1,000 absences in the 2022-23 autumn and spring terms. That number has sharply risen since the 2016-17 autumn and spring terms, when there were under 250 absences in the county. The Labour party estimates that the number of absences will rise to well over 1,800 by the 2026-27 autumn and spring terms, which would be an increase of 377%—unless, of course, there is a change of policy or, better yet, a change of Government.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (Bradford South) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that we need a coherent strategy for tackling persistent absence, which includes a new register for home schooling, to keep track of these absent pupils?

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
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I absolutely agree. All children, whether they are in mainstream schooling or not, deserve to have the same importance placed on their education and their life chances. In Durham, we are blessed with incredible educators, and I must mention Mr Byers of Framwellgate School Durham, who publicly shared his recent letter to families highlighting the importance of good attendance. Mr Byers also encouraged families to reach out for support if they were struggling with their children. We must remember that support is key to ensuring that children achieve all that they are capable of, and I will miss Mr Byers’s supportive attitude when he sadly leaves Fram School in the near future.

It would be remiss of me not to mention St Leonard’s Catholic School in my constituency, and I am sure that Members will appreciate that my constituents, especially those affected at St Leonard’s, will want me to use all available opportunities to raise what their children are going through—after all, that is what they sent me here to do when they elected me in 2019. St Leonard’s was ordered to close just days before the autumn term began last year because of the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. According to the Government’s own figures, pupils at St Leonard’s only moved back to full-face education learning at the end of November. Before that, they were in a mix of face-to-face and remote arrangements, and for almost two weeks in fully remote learning.

I want to focus on that because, for the weeks that pupils were not in school, they were unable to socialise or receive a face-to-education, and they were placed in a topsy-turvy arrangement of being taught remotely and then off site. Their education was severely disrupted and it still is—they are being taught in inadequate settings. I would wager that the disastrous impact of RAAC is not too dissimilar to the effect of chronic absences. Absences can severely affect a pupil’s future opportunities—just look at the situation at St Leonard’s—and the Department for Education has not offered any dispensations. In fact, Durham University said the following in a report released last week:

“No policy has yet been devised to protect the results of the exam cohorts most affected. It is not clear why”.

My first question is this: why has a policy not been written up? In a letter that I sent to the Department for Education in October, I suggested an amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 to give the Secretary of State the powers to give dispensations where appropriate. Why not start with that? I cannot be more emphatic about this point: parents, teachers and pupils are extremely worried that pupils will not be achieve their dream of getting into the university of their choice because the Government have not offered to help them. When will the Government offer to help them?

With the crisis in St Leonard’s school, we can see how other injustices, such as the situation with Royal Mail, have been able to run away with themselves in this place. Government Ministers, such as the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), could have solved that problem; they could have brought justice for those affected. Instead, there was inaction and indifference. What are the consequences? The people out there—the people who we are supposed to serve—are left all the worse off. I will not allow that to happen to my constituents.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)
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Mr Twigg, I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) not only on securing this debate but on her excellent speech.

I attended the SEND Reform England event last week, which was a great opportunity to speak to specialists in the area. Its manifesto, which was circulated at the event, says that 24% of identified SEND pupils have an education, health and care plan, or EHCP, which meant 390,000 pupils in 2023. Additionally, it reports that 97% of school leaders think that funding for all SEND pupils is insufficient and 95% think that funding is insufficient for pupils with an EHCP.

During the covid period, I had weekly online meetings with county leaders and my fellow Gloucestershire MPs in which the challenges facing schools were often discussed. There was huge concern about some students dropping out of the system, not engaging with online learning through the lockdown period and not returning to schools when they fully reopened.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) referred to a school in her constituency being closed through RAAC, which I sympathise with. Of course that situation—of school closure—applied to pupils across the entire United Kingdom when their schools were closed during covid, so I think we are all very familiar with the effects of schools being closed. Nevertheless, as I say, I sympathise with what happened in that school.

The overall absence rate for primary and secondary schools in Gloucestershire during the autumn term of 2022-23 was 7.3%. That compares with a 6.6% absence rate for the autumn term of 2021. Before the pandemic, the rate was consistently below 5%. This pattern of increased absence since the pandemic can be seen in national, statistical neighbour, and south-west groupings. According to the Government website, across England in both the autumn and spring terms of 2022-23, the overall absence rate was 7.3%, with 21.2% of pupils being persistently absent across those terms, meaning that they missed 10% of sessions or more—an exceptionally high percentage of students missing classes.

I, too, listened to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), addressing the Chamber. He made the point that the data for persistent absenteeism will be published this Thursday. We do not know what that data will show; hopefully, it will show an improved situation.

Of course, pupils being persistently absent from school has a huge impact on their academic success, with just 11.3% of severely absent pupils achieving grades 9 to 4-4 being the pass grade—in English and maths, compared with 67.6% of all pupils. Although we cannot look totally at statistics in this debate, we can look at the social and mental impact of absenteeism on these pupils. As other Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, have already said, I believe that being persistently absent from school will have similarly negative impacts on other aspects of a young person’s life.

I totally agree not only with what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools said in the main Chamber, but with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. School is the best place to be to learn. For social development, for making friendships, and for overall physical development, it is much better that children are in school, rather than being absent.

During covid, I saw a considerable increase in casework on this issue, which sadly has continued in the years since. I am talking about parents getting in touch with me about children who are long-term absent from school, and asking me to help them to engage with schools on how to move forward with their children’s education. Those cases were usually exacerbated by complex mental health issues and educational needs that made regular attendance more challenging. In liaising with parents and schools, it became clear that the relationship had completely broken down in many cases, with the students being the ones to ultimately suffer. Teachers were being overextended on what they could achieve. Understandably, with the pressures of trying to teach during lockdowns, they simply did not have the capacity to provide the extensive support needed by some pupils, while parents felt overwhelmed in dealing with their children’s educational needs without support.

Ultimately, as my right hon. Friend said, the legal responsibility for pupils attending school falls on the parents. Unfortunately, because of often complicated socioeconomic factors and individual family challenges, a considerable number of families are simply unable or unwilling to engage fully with their children’s educational needs. We should not allow those children to fall out of the education system. I agree with my right hon. Friend and others and, indeed, the Minister for Schools, who said in the main Chamber that we should have a compulsory register for home education, so that we can see whether children are being educated at home or whether they are absent from school, and then we can take the necessary measures to do something about it.

Growing demand for mental health services and SEND support centres creates additional pressure, compounding a problem that became far worse during the lockdown period. The Education Committee examined this problem, launching its inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils in January 2023. Another report, published in September, made a number of recommendations, including a review and possible abolition of fines, which it found made little or no impact on long-term absenteeism, the urgent need to improve school-level attendance monitoring, and the need for investment in SEND and child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—which it concluded are significant factors in the attendance crisis.

The Government are 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 £15 million over three years, that programme will provide direct, intensive support to more than 10,000 persistent and severely absent pupils and their families. I think that the Minister for Schools said in the main Chamber where it is being expanded to, and I am pretty sure that I heard that it is expanding to the area of the hon. Member for City of Durham, but she will no doubt correct me if that is wrong.

The Government have also produced a toolkit for schools, providing tips and evidence-based, adaptable templates for communicating with parents and carers, as well as the plan announced last year to expand attendance hubs, delivering 18 new hubs. This is a knowledge and practice-exchange initiative, taking the lead from those schools with excellent attendance records to introduce engagement initiatives such as breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities or to improve an individual school’s attendance data. I have just listened to the Minister for Schools outline a compendium of measures to help pupils to return to school.

On a county level—

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Order. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
On resuming
Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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The debate may continue until 5.45 pm.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
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I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr Twigg, given the debate in the main Chamber, and I am delighted to be able to resume my speech.

Just to quickly recap the last bit of my speech, before we had to suspend the sitting I was praising the Government for their attendance monitoring pilot programmes and particularly for delivering 18 new attendance hubs, which are doing much of what the private Member’s Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) aims to do, disseminating best practice among all the agencies, and teachers and parents—everybody involved—to try and deal with the problem of absenteeism. I therefore wholly support her Bill.

At county level, Gloucestershire County Council provides support, advice and guidance for schools through the team of inclusion officers. This includes a specialist attendance officer who can support more targeted intervention work where needed. Leveraging technology to improve engagement and accessibility is also essential. Online learning platforms, digital resources and interactive teaching methods can cater to diverse learning styles and help to ensure that students remain connected to their studies, even in challenging circumstances that prevent them from attending in person.

As I and so many others have said, it is vital we do not allow students to be left behind. Regardless of how complex the reasons for long-term absence on an individual level, all children deserve a chance to have the educational, social and physical opportunities that schools have to offer. From my constituency cases, it is clear that many parents need the additional support of schools and others to assist with their children staying in education. By investing in early intervention, mental health support, addressing socioeconomic disparities and embracing technological advancements, we can all work towards creating an education system that is inclusive, supportive and ensures that every child has the opportunity to realise their full potential.

On Friday, I visited Andoversford Primary School in my constituency to speak to the headteacher about the challenges facing the school. It was an excellent visit and a good chance to speak to teachers, pupils and parents. While the Government have announced record funding for schools, with The Cotswolds in particular set to benefit from an increase of £1.5 million in 2024-25 compared with 2023-24, it is important to see what is happening on the ground in schools.

The headteacher I met had enough money for her basic teaching. Yet she made the point that in a small rural school, there was very little money left for the other things, such as cleaning, maintenance, the caretaker and the administrator—all the different functions any school has to fulfil—and that a small school with very limited money for overheads is particularly disadvantaged in that respect. The headteacher also made the point that concerns revolved around the number of pupils attending the school overall—there are lots of small schools in the area—and how small village schools often do not bring in enough pupil funding to cover running costs and ensure they have administrators, caretakers and cleaners.

Particularly relevant to this debate, however, the headteacher also mentioned an increase in pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, and she said how extremely difficult it is to get an EHCP statement in Gloucestershire. In fact, in the school I visited, there were no pupils with a statement at all. Although the pressure on SEND overall is there, as a country, I think there is a bit of postcode lottery in pupils being able to get statements, and we need to address that.

I look forward to what the Minister has to say. In addressing the whole problem of absenteeism, we have to work closely with the local education authorities and the Department of Health and Social Care to deal not only with pupils who do not have a statement, but with others who have severe mental health problems. That way, we can see—with increasingly better knowledge, thank goodness—how we can help children and pupils with those complex problems.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on bringing this important debate and on her work in this area. I am glad to have the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed today. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on the importance of support for parents who struggle with their children’s attendance. She also mentioned the impact of RAAC and the disruption that is causing to children’s education in her constituency. I hope she is able to meet the Minister tomorrow as planned. We heard from the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the impact of persistent absence on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. He also told of the impact of the lack of SEND support on attendance and the very great difficulties that that presents.

I know that everyone in the House will agree that one of the most important things we can provide to children and young people across the country is an excellent education. Education opens up the world to them, not just in terms of jobs or training but in discovering interests and passions and fulfilling their aspirations. However, we cannot give children and young people the foundation they need for later life if they are not in school. New research from the Centre for Social Justice reveals that more than one in four parents think that school is not essential every day; not one in four adults but one in four parents. That is an extremely worrying statistic.

A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner found that pupils who are persistently absent in years 10 and 11 are half as likely to pass five GCSEs as their peers with good attendance records. Absence figures have reached historic levels under the Conservatives, increasing by more than 40% since 2010. The number of pupils severely absent has nearly trebled in the same period, with more than 88,000 secondary school pupils missing at least half of their education last year. School attendance should not and must not be seen as optional, or something that can be dipped in and out of. However, unfortunately for at least some parents and carers, the relationship between schools, families and the Government has broken down after years of neglect.

School attendance is one of the most urgent challenges that the Government must tackle in the education system today. The figures on school attendance have been moving in the wrong direction for years. In the 2016-17 academic year, the rate of persistent absence was 10.7%, and that has increased year on year ever since under this Government. By 2022-23, the rate stood at 21.2%—double that of just six years ago. It is unacceptable that the Government have been sitting idly by, letting the rates of persistent absence rise and giving no real thought or effort to the solutions to tackle the issue. They must start working to get children back in school, and they must start with urgency.

Labour has a plan to reduce persistent absence. We would introduce free breakfast clubs for every primary school pupil in England to boost attendance across the country. We know that breakfast clubs improve children’s learning and development, helping to boost performance in maths and reading, but they have also been shown to improve behaviour and attendance. They not only take pressure off parents in the morning but give children a chance to play and socialise, and, importantly, make sure that no child has to start the school day hungry. We would legislate for a new register of home-schooled pupils to keep track of those not in mainstream schooling. For many children, their home is a safe and enriching learning environment, but it is right that the Government take action to ensure that if a child is not in school, local authorities are clear about where they are and what education they are receiving.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) is not present. I know that she wished to be, but she has been in the debate in the main Chamber. Much as many of us try to be in two places at once, that is not possible. She has a piece of legislation already going through this House to legislate for a register of home-educated children. Will the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) support that legislation so that it can go through swiftly? Will she also encourage the Members of her party to support my Bill to make the best practice guidance on school attendance mandatory? I know that she will want to look at every single word of it, but it would be brilliant if she could give her support in principle because then we could do both these things now.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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We agree that there should be a register of home-educated children and that there should be measures to tackle persistent absence. It is bizarre that Government Members chose to vote against the measures before the House this afternoon, which they agree with. Those measures were simply intended to accelerate the process of delivering a commitment that the Government have already made.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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I will not give way again. The right hon. Lady will also know that private Members’ Bills progress if the Government give them time. It is not the Opposition who are holding up those measures, and she would do well to turn her attention to the shocking record of her own Government on this issue, which they have been allowing to slide for 14 years, and the question of why action has not been taken any sooner. If the Government allow time for the Bills to be debated, the Opposition will support the measures with which we agree. Frankly, that is a matter for the Government. The right hon. Lady’s obsession with the Opposition’s position when our position has been set out really clearly is bizarre.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Will the hon. Lady give way again?

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Order. The hon. Lady is not giving way.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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I am going to make some progress, I am afraid. I will not give way again.

We need a comprehensive strategy for addressing the complex issue of persistent absence. Labour will empower Ofsted to review absence as part of the annual safeguarding spot checks. The outdated and dreaded Ofsted inspection regime urgently needs reforming; one-word judgments are unhelpful for parents and put unnecessary stress on teachers and other school staff. So, as part of a series of reforms to Ofsted inspections, we will introduce annual school checks covering persistent absence, among other areas.

Absence rates among children with special educational needs and disabilities are particularly high. Labour will ensure that mainstream schools are inclusive, making inclusivity part of the Ofsted inspection framework, and introducing a new annual continuing professional development entitlement for teachers that can be used to boost their expertise to teach children with SEND. Good mental health and wellbeing is also vital for school attendance, and Labour will ensure that there is mental health support available in every school and that children and young people have an open-access mental health hub in every community.

Labour will reform the curriculum to deliver a better foundation in reading, writing and maths. We will ensure that children do not miss out on music, sport, art and drama, keeping schools a happy and joyful place to be, making children want to come to school—to enjoy it, not to dread it.

Urgent action is needed now to bring down the rates of school absences. Labour’s projections, using data from the Department for Education, suggest that the number of children persistently absent from school will rise to more than 2 million in 2025-26 under current trends. That is more than one in four children and young people across the country. We face a lost generation missing from Britain’s schools—a tragic example of national decline under this Government. We desperately need a Government who will put children first: one who will prioritise education, as Labour did when we were last in government. Labour has a vision for education and a plan to deliver a world-class education for every child, giving schools the right tools to deliver it.

But to break down those barriers to opportunity, our children need to be in school. That is why this debate is so important, and why we need a Labour Government to tackle the problem. In the short term, it is so disappointing that the right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches failed to support the Opposition’s motion this afternoon to bring forward the Children Not in School (National Register and Support) Bill in February. There is not a moment to lose to secure the future of children across the country, and we will support every effort to deliver that.

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education (Robert Halfon)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Twigg. Thank you for your kindness earlier. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for leaving slightly early to get to the vote, as I missed a little of his otherwise excellent speech.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), my constituency neighbour in Essex—we have got Essex man and Essex woman here today—on securing this debate. She has championed this subject and is absolutely right to do so, because we know that regular school attendance is vital for children’s attainment, mental wellbeing and long-term development, and it is crucial that we have a support system in place to ensure that every child attends school every day, ready to learn and thrive.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds talked about the damage of school closures. Wearing my previous hat as Chair of the Education Committee, I spent a huge amount of my time campaigning against school closures, as I thought that everything we are talking about today, both here and in the main Chamber, would come to pass. I have to say that I was opposed significantly by not everyone, but a lot of Members on the Opposition Benches, and of course some—not all, to be fair—of the unions. I thought, at the time, that it would cause significant damage.

The attendance challenge has grown since the start of the pandemic, not only in England but around the world. There is evidence that, post pandemic, some attitudes to absence have changed. There is a greater propensity to keep a child at home with a minor illness such as a cough or a cold, and we can understand why that has happened. We must at least try and recalibrate back to where we were pre-covid, when an attendance of 95% was achieved year after year.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I fully support the idea behind the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and indeed the complementary Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). Will the Minister find the time to meet me to discuss specifically home schooling and how it relates to absenteeism on the Isle of Wight, where we have over three times the national average of home-schooled kids? While I absolutely respect the rights of responsible parents, I worry that especially after covid, some of those home-schooled kids are simply absentee kids from school who are not learning, and who are drifting into isolation, mental health problems or criminality.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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As always, my hon. Friend makes powerful points. I think he speaks not just for some—and I stress some—younger people in his constituency, but also for those across the country. I am not the Schools Minister or the Children’s Minister—I am standing in because of the debate in the main Chamber—but I will mention what my hon. Friend has requested, and I will ask for a meeting with the Schools Minister or the Children’s Minister to discuss the important issues that he has raised.

Contrary to what has been suggested by the shadow Minister, we have started to see some progress, although there is a long way to go. There were 380,000 fewer pupils persistently absent or not attending school in 2022-23 than in 2021-22. Overall absence for the autumn term that has just finished was 6.8%, down from 7.5% in Autumn 2022. That means that, on average, pupils in England are attending school for the equivalent of around a day and a half more across an academic year then they did last year.

It is difficult to make direct comparisons, but we know that absenteeism is a problem not just in the UK, but in other parts of the world too. However, there are signs that our approach is bearing fruit. I mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford is my constituency neighbour. Absence rates for Essex are very much in line with those of England as a whole, and they mirror the improvements seen nationally in the most recent terms.

We are committed to working with schools and local authorities to drive up attendance rates, and we have a six-point plan to deal with some of the problems. We have set out stronger expectations of the system, including requiring schools to have an attendance policy, appointing attendance champions and expecting local authorities to hold termly meetings with schools to agree individual plans for at-risk children.

We have established an alliance of national leaders from education, children’s social care and allied services to work together to raise school attendance and reduce persistent absence, and the Attendance Action Alliance has pledged to take a range of actions to remove barriers preventing children attending school. The attendance data tool allows early intervention to avoid absences becoming entrenched, and 88% of schools are already taking part in the daily data pilot. We are committed to requiring all schools to share their daily registers as part of the programme.

We have expanded our attendance hubs, which will see almost 2,000 schools supported to tackle persistent absence—reaching around 1 million pupils. We have also launched a campaign to re-emphasise the importance of every school day, not just for learning, but for wellbeing, experiences and friendships too. From September, our attendance mentor pilot will be extended to 10 new areas. Trained mentors will work with more than 10,000 persistently and severely absent children and their families to help them back to school.

Both the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and the shadow Minister rightly talked about mental health and special educational needs. We are now spending £10.5 billion on special educational needs—that is a 60% increase since 2019. The Children’s Minister has a lot of work under way on this, including a plan for special educational needs which will standardise education, health and social care plans, so that we end the postcode lottery that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds mentioned.

The hon. Member for City of Durham also asked several questions. As I understand it—I will ask the School Buildings Minister to discuss the issue that she raised—the Department for Education has contacted the Durham research team, offering to discuss the report and clarify areas of mission. We have worked closely with St Leonard’s to provide additional spaces for learning and to put extra education provisions in place. All pupils at St Leonard’s have been in face-to-face education since October and additional educational support is available for those pupils due to sit exams next year, with specialist facilities being sourced at other providers in the local area and transport being provided for pupils. Nevertheless, as I have already said, I will ask the School Buildings Minister to talk to her.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
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We have had a number of meetings with Ministers. I had a meeting booked in last week with the Minister for Schools, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), which he cancelled, and it was also cancelled today, so hopefully it will go ahead tomorrow. However, one of the big priorities for the school is that mitigation will be put in place for the education that has been lost. It is now 18 weeks that there have been issues and those pupils doing their exams have not yet had specialist equipment for any of their coursework, so I implore the Minister to impress that upon the Minister for Schools.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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I will ensure that the Schools Minister, or the School Buildings Minister, hear what the hon. Lady says; I will pass on her remarks. And I am sure that that meeting will take place.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
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Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give way?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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I want to carry on, if I may, because I only have a few minutes in which to speak and I want to respond to some of the points that have already been made. However, if I do have time to take an intervention, I will give way a bit later, if my hon. Friend will be so kind.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford referred to the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, which she herself presented before Christmas. As she has said, that Bill will introduce two new legal duties on schools and local authorities respectively. I am grateful for her work on the Bill and welcome her contribution to the debate. I and the Government look forward to the future stages of the Bill as it progresses through the House, which she will know about, because she will have had discussions with the relevant Ministers. Those stages include Second Reading next Friday.

We absolutely remain committed to making guidance on school attendance statutory, which has already been discussed this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. We are exploring all avenues to do that. That is in recognition of the attendance challenge and to help ensure that local authorities and schools consistently meet the expectations made of them, under our “support first” approach.

There was also some discussion of mental health. All Members here today will be pleased to know that mental health support teams now cover almost 44% of pupils in schools and further education, and that percentage will increase to around 50% by March next year. We have also committed to offer all state schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead by 2025, which will make a huge difference. Over 14,400 schools and colleges have received a senior mental health lead training grant so far, including more than seven in 10 state-funded secondary schools in England.

As a Government, we also remain committed to introducing the statutory local authority registers for children not in school, as well as a duty for local authorities to provide support to home-educating families, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) mentioned in his intervention. That is to help ensure that all children receive a suitable education and are safe, regardless of where they are educated. That is the crucial point.

We warmly welcome the Children Not In School (Register) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and await its Second Reading on 15 March. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford for the dedication that she has shown. We will continue to work with local authorities to improve their existing non-statutory registers, and support them to ensure that all children in their area receive a suitable education. Also, the Department recently held a consultation on revised elective home education guidance for local authorities and parents, with the aim of improving consistency of practice across all local authorities. That consultation closed on 18 January and we are currently analysing the responses to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds also mentioned attendance mentoring and I welcome his support for what the Government are doing. We are currently delivering support in Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Knowsley, Stoke and Salford, and will expand into 10 new areas later this year to reach 10,000 children who are severely absent. Having heard me say that, I hope he will see that a lot is going on to try to resolve this very difficult problem.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I think he has time. Will he address the problem that I mentioned at the end of my speech, which was about the liaison between local education authorities and the Department of Health and Social Care, and mental health trusts in particular? In Gloucestershire, the waiting lists for children with mental health problems are extremely long. We really need to do better by our young people.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I am sure the Minister is aware that he should leave a minute or two for the right hon. Member for Chelmsford to wind up.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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Yes. I will finish in a couple of minutes. The “health” part of an education, health and care plan is fundamental. I absolutely agree that co-operation work needs to go on, and a lot of work is going on to ensure that the H part of an EHC plan does exactly as he describes.

The legacy of the pandemic means that absence levels are still too high. Improvements have been made, but there is a lot of work to do. Too many children are missing out on the opportunities that regular school attendance provides, but I reassure pupils, parents, teachers, local authorities, and health and other partners that we remain committed to working with them to tackle the issues through our “support first” approach, building on the strengths of the current system and the success that we achieved together prior to the pandemic.

Being in school has never been more valuable, with standards continuing to rise. I thank our brilliant teachers, heads and everyone who has worked with us—in Essex, in Chelmsford, in my own constituency of Harlow, in the Cotswolds, in Durham, in the Isle of Wight and in the other constituencies across the country—because the teachers and support staff are the people responsible who are doing so much to make sure that we make progress on this very difficult issue.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I thank hon. Members and right hon. Members for taking part in this debate. I was very moved to hear about the situation at St Leonard’s School in the City of Durham. Three schools in my constituency were affected by RAAC, and Essex County Council, working with the Department, was phenomenal. It turned around approvals really quickly and got in temporary classrooms where they were needed, so that every child in my constituency was in face-to-face learning at the beginning of this term. Essex had more RAAC schools than anywhere else, and the county council was phenomenal in turning it around. Some schools had it very badly, but they were very few; when so many kids are anxious, we need to be really careful to remember that the vast majority of children are in safe schools. I hope that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) gets her meetings and those issues addressed.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who spoke beautifully, especially about the impact on small rural schools. Obviously, the ones in my constituency are bigger, inner-city schools. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for taking the opportunity to mention schools on the Island, a place of which I am very fond. It is important that the issue of children missing out because they are off the school register is considered.

With regard to my private Member’s Bill, I make no apology for being obsessed with making sure that children get education, or for being obsessed with doing the best I can to deal with this issue. To get the private Member’s Bill through the House does not need the Government to give time; what it needs is for no Member of this place to object to it when I move it at Second Reading. Any Member could object to it, and it would then go back to the bottom of the queue. To get it through on Friday 2 February, I just need to know that no Member of this House will object to it. I know that the Government will not object to it; I have been talking to all Members on the Government side of the House to make sure that there will be no objections from our side. If the Opposition would kindly check, if possible, that there are no objections on their side—I am happy to talk to anyone who has concerns—it will enable the Bill to move swiftly.

I thank all Members for treating the issue seriously. It is a real issue, and it needs us all to work across parties to perform the No. 1 recommendation, which is to make sure that all schools and local authorities have to follow best practice. That is what the Bill will do.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered school attendance.

Sitting adjourned.