We need to look beyond the education sector for solutions to school absenteeism – here’s why


17th April 2024

“Parents have responsibilities,” Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson told an audience at the Centre for Social Justice earlier this year. “One of the things we do as parents that has the biggest impact on our children is making sure they go to school.”

Persistent school absenteeism is one of the central challenges facing the education sector right now. Four years on from the first Covid-19 lockdown, attendance still lags behind pre-pandemic levels. Pupils are considered ‘persistently absent’ if they miss more than 10% of their schooling – as of January 2024, 20.5% of pupils fall into this category and nearly one in five children now regularly miss school. This can have a huge impact on pupils’ development and outcomes: the link between attendance and attainment is well documented.

How should the problem be tackled, then? Well, ask both main parties and you’ll get broadly the same answer: ‘with parents and with schools.’

A Labour government, Phillipson has pledged, would create a national register of home schooled children, harness artificial intelligence to identify absence trends, and expand Ofsted’s remit to review absence during safeguarding checks – all in a bid to tackle persistent absenteeism. It would also bolster mental health support for pupils and fund free breakfast clubs for primary schools to encourage attendance. The Government has responded with its own plans: 18 new ‘attendance hubs,’ £15 million for an attendance mentor scheme, and a new publicity campaign for parents. The push to improve school attendance is firmly a fixture of the current education policy landscape.

But it’s not enough to just look to parents and to schools. Something we consistently see across our research at CfEY is that problems in the education space often have causes and solutions that lie outside the sector. When speaking about Labour’s plans, Phillipson does occasionally couch them in wider narratives about crumbling public services and a rising cost of living, but we have yet to hear much detail on how these wider narratives can actually impact school attendance directly. Viewing persistent absenteeism as primarily a failure of parenting or schooling might well be broadly accurate, but it obscures wider challenges faced by smaller numbers of people. These challenges may not stand out for everyone, but they need to be fixed, too. When it comes to public services, no service truly works for anyone until all services work for everyone. When it comes to public services, no service truly works for anyone until all services work for everyone. Share on X

What should solutions look like?

In my next blog, I look in depth at how recent cuts to transport, health, and housing budgets are disproportionately impacting children and young people from disadvantaged communities and fuelling school absenteeism. The issue here is not about convincing parents of the need to send their children to school – it’s about building and funding the public infrastructure that allows them to do so. There’s no quick fix or clever policy approach that can do this within the education sector alone: a crucial part of improving school attendance must be improving public services across the country. The issue here is not about convincing parents of the need to send their children to school – it’s about building and funding the public infrastructure that allows them to do so. Share on X

Tackling persistent absenteeism by focusing primarily on solutions in school settings won’t help a pupil who regularly misses school to translate for a relative with a long-term health condition at hospital visits because statutory translation services are inadequate. It also won’t help a child who struggles to get to school without their parents, both of whom work two jobs and frequently leave very early in the morning now their local bus route has been cut. These hypothetical children may be a small minority of those who are persistently absent. But this doesn’t mean solutions for these children don’t matter or should be ignored.

In the runup to a general election, it is key that whoever forms the next government takes a broader view of the drivers of persistent absence and applies a correspondingly broad approach to solutions. Any government strategy for improving school attendance needs to take a cross-departmental approach that spans considerations in many strands of public services.

There are many things I’d like to see the next government do if it’s serious about tackling this problem. These include:

  • Establishing a cross-departmental working group (involving the Departments for Education, Culture, Media, and Sport, Housing and Levelling Up, and Health and Social Care) to produce a cross-departmental strategy for improving pupil persistent absence. As part of this, the relationship between key performance indicators for each for each department and pupil absence should be further clarified and pupil absence should be framed as a further key indicator for each department involved in the strategy.
  • As part of the working group’s strategy development and ongoing practice, investigate models of how schools can act as anchor institutions and local service convenors to improve efficiency and coordination in public service delivery. There’s plenty of great examples of this already that we’ve seen from recent research at CfEY, including the Old Kent Road Family Zone and the St Helens Borough Cultural Education Partnership.
  • Adopting a model of success and an approach to evaluation that accounts for the value of individual lived experiences alongside broader data driven trends. Outlines of these approaches already exist: The Marmot Review and Every Child Matters both offer useful frameworks in the health and education sectors that can be built on to drive meaningful and comprehensive improvements.

Whatever happens at the election later this year, it’s clear that conversations around school absences need to be wider. Solutions must not be created in a silo: an understanding of the various ways all the components of society interrelate is crucial. Otherwise we risk missing the needs of those children who sadly still occupy the margins of the education policy making space in England.

Do you have thoughts on how to tackle school absenteeism? Let me know on Twitter/X or LinkedIn, send me an email, or leave a response below.