23 January 2024
Clifton-Brown calls for action to tackle persistent absenteeism at schools

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown spoke in a debate on school attendance and the increased absenteeism since the pandemic. He called on the government, schools, and communities to work together to ensure every student, whether they have an Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP) or not, is able to access the educational, social and physical opportunities that schools have to offer and has the opportunity to realise their full potential.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

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 (in the Chair)

Order. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes.


Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.


On resuming

Derek Twigg (in the Chair)

The debate may continue until 5.45 pm.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown 

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.