Bridget Phillipson delivered a flagship education speech in which she made a strong commitment to addressing the school attendance crisis

Last week, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson, delivered a flagship education speech at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in which she made a strong commitment  to addressing the school attendance crisis and a breakdown in the relationship between home and school.  As she outlined Labour’s policy priorities for Government, Philipson referred to an ‘attendance crisis in our schools that is the single biggest barrier to the success of our children’.

Labour’s proposals span various aspects, including the introduction of annual checks on attendance, safeguarding, offrolling, and health and safety. Notably, there’s a call to decouple attendance and behaviour in the Ofsted inspection framework, advocating for a nuanced evaluation approach.

Philipson also pledged to introduce new legislative measures, including the establishment of a new register for home-schooled children,  breakfast clubs in every primary school and mental health counsellors in secondary schools as part of its Child Health Action Plan. The high ‘cost of the school day’ for families will be addressed by plans to limit branded school uniform requirements.

Bridget Phillipson’s speech followed the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan announcing the expansion of the attendance mentor programme to 10 new areas to support more families.

A new poll from the CSJ revealed that while parents’ perspectives on attendance have changed since the pandemic, they want more support with attendance

The speech was also set against a backdrop of the CSJ new report The Missing Link: Restoring the bond between schools and families’which shows that while most parents value the significance of daily school attendance, 28% of those surveyed said that the pandemic has shown not essential for children to attend school every day.

Worries about child performance and attendance persist for 35% of parents, rising to 42% in low-income households. 18% of parents said they are worried about their child’s attendance and would like to see more support – it rises to 24% among low-income households.

Low-income households report higher instances of school absenteeism due to mental health concerns. While 16% note a decline, 27% feel an improvement in their relationship with schools during the pandemic.

Communication with school remains a key point, with 38% of parents questioned saying that school does not communicatewith them well enough, contrasting with 26% praising their children’s schools for excellent communication.

David’s story

David was nine years old when he was first referred to School-Home Support Practitioner, Ellen, as his school attendance and behaviour had started to decline. His attendance was just 84% and when he did make it into school, he would struggle to engage and often fall asleep in class.

Ellen worked with David and his family to identify the underlying reasons for his persistent absence and difficulties in the classroom.

The issues impacting David’s attendance

David lives at home with his Mum and four other siblings.

When Covid hit in 2020 Mum was left hospitalised, which caused a huge strain on the family and had a significant impact on Mum’s physical and mental health.

Mum continues to struggle with her mental health and as a result, the children have to help out with errands and jobs around the house.

To compound these challenges the family are struggling financially, which was having a negative impact on everyone’s mental health and David’s attendance. When Ellen met the family they were in need of some basic essential items at home, such as a working fridge-freezer, a cooker and beds.

How School-Home Support helped

Ellen successfully applied to the School-Home Support Welfare fund to help the family with the essential items they desperately needed, such as a bed to ensure David could have a good night’s sleep and a new fridge/freezer. She also successfully applied to the Child in Need Emergency Essentials Programme for a new cooker.

One to one sessions were given to the youngest children in school, where they had a space to express how they were feeling at home.

Support was also given around evening routines, to help ensure all of the children are able to get enough sleep.

Ellen also worked with the School to look at other potential reasons behind David’s lack of engagement in class and explore the possibility of SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) support.

The impact of our support

Ellen’s support has had a significant impact on the entire family’s mental health and David is showing continuous steady progression. After around eight months of support, his school attendance has already risen to 95%.

Ellen says: “I have seen such an improvement with the whole family. Mostly with mum and her motivation to carry on even though things are hard. She has worked hard to provide for her children and continues to push through all trials up against her. I feel I learnt a lot about listening and seeing more from their perspective and really understanding what families go through.”

It’s good news seeing politicians commitment to a support led approach to tackling absence

It’s reassuring to see such strong commitment from both political parties to tackling the school attendance crisis which sees a national persistent absence rate of 1.56 million or 21.2% pupils  and a national severe absence rate of almost 139,000 or 1.9% pupils.

Both parties have focused on the importance of supporting and  including parents in their policy approaches  to high absence and we welcome their ongoing interest in our model (highlighted by the Education Select Committee) as well as the work we did with Public First on parents’ attitudes to attendance. But action must go further and faster to get help to families and schools or the crisis will continue to escalate.

Many more families need support to tackle barriers to school now. Schools must be able to access the nuanced support they need to help get children back to school. Gaps in local services (CAMHS, SEND, Early Help) which exacerbate the school attendance crisis to escalate must be filled.

We’re asking the Government to commit £90.2 million to pay for a service of family support practitioners to support the 19 Priority Education Investment Areas where persistent absence currently exceeds the national average of 12.1%. This would provide 2,225 practitioners nationally, supporting 194,000 children and their families based on the School-Home Support whole family support model. Our cost plan proposes that the policy is funded from existing government funding for families, including the Supporting Families Programme.