Friday Five: persistent absence, skills, child payments, poverty, university drop-out rates


29th September 2023

1. Select Committee report on tackling post-Covid persistent pupil absence

Most recent full-year statistics show an overall absence rate of 7.6% in schools, up from around 4-5% pre-pandemic. Prior to the impact of the pandemic, absence and persistent absence had been gradually declining since 2010, but there is no sign of a return to this trajectory. This week, House of Commons Committee published a report on the persistent absence and the need for extending support to disadvantaged pupils.

The evidence heard by the committee specifically highlighted the inappropriateness of the use of fines to boost attendance, particularly given money is a barrier to attendance for many families. The committee supports the expansion of currently existing schemes such as the attendance mentors and attendance hubs. More fundamentally, it recommends that the government implement measures to tackle child poverty, including the expansion of free school meals if necessary.

The committee also underlines the role of enrichment activities, such as breakfast clubs, sports clubs, arts and drama activities to improve school attendance. Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) are seen to have significantly higher rates of absence than their peers, and the rate of absence in special schools is also higher than mainstream schools. The committee’s report urges the Department to prioritise resources for the inclusion and assessment of SEND pupils in mainstream schools, and recommends that alternative provision should only be used as a time-limited intervention with clear structures to ensure each pupil’s needs are being effectively supported.

Another key driver of school absence is understood to be the deteriorating mental health of children and young people.The report recommends that DfE funds senior mental health lead training for every 11+ educational setting in England, by 2025 and that it work with the DHSC to report the findings of its review on the scale of mental health challenges and the support available, by summer 2024.

Read the full report here

2. SMF report on how to help British start-ups expand 

A new report from the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) looks beyond the issue of access to capital to highlight the barriers that hold UK businesses back from expanding and realising their full potential. The report points out that the proportion of SMEs who report that it is difficult to access external finance has fallen from 41% in Q4 2019 to 31% in Q4 2022, and thus, argues that although lack of access to finance is an important obstacle for British start-ups, it is neither the only nor the most important barrier to the growth of scale-ups. 

Findings show that the main barrier seems to be access to skills. 69% of SMEs and 76% of high-growth SMEs between 2016-2021 reported staff recruitment and skills as a barrier to business success. The report identifies issues with the education and the immigration system that contribute to this shortfall. 55% of scale-ups face digital skills gaps in the workforce, yet the number of students taking IT or computing qualifications has declined by a third since 2015. Brexit has made it much harder for scale-ups to access high-skilled labour from the EU, while the rise in non-EU immigration has not compensated for this. 

The report contains 10 recommendations on how to overcome these barriers, including the establishment of a cross-government scale-ups unit, investing in addressing the skills gap, and reforming the visa system. 

Read the full report here

3. David Hume Institute on the Scottish Child Payment 

A blog by Liz Ditchburn, a senior civil servant and most recently the Director General for Economy in the Scottish Government, discusses the Scottish policy on child payments and calls for investment and action to ensure that the rest of the UK can learn from its implementation. 

The child payment scheme is directed to low-income families, broadly those in receipt of Universal Credit or similar, at the rate of £25 a week per child for children under 16s. There are no limits to the number of children an eligible family can claim for. A typical family with three children receives about £3,900 a year, leading to about a 5% reduction in child poverty. The scheme covers between 300,000 to 400,000 children across Scotland, costing the government around £405m a year in 2023/24.

Ditchburn notes that the discussion around the scheme in parliament has largely been positive with a general consensus around the necessity of reducing child poverty. The author discusses the results of the interim evaluation of the scheme in March 2022, to point out that there is broadly positive evidence supporting some of the short-term outcomes: reduced money-related stress, increased child-related spend, improved participation of children in social and educational opportunities and reduced pressure on household finances. However, with changing contexts and cost-of-living crisis, the author calls for the need to conduct a thorough examination of the impact of the scheme using randomised controlled trials (RCT) based evaluations. 

Read the full article here

4. New JRF report looks at what protects people from very deep poverty and what makes it more likely

Currently, there are 6m people facing very deep poverty, nearly 1.5m more than 20 years ago. Moreover, between 2017-18 and 2020-21, 10.4m people in the UK – around one in seven – experienced very deep poverty during one or two of those years. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has used the Understanding Society dataset to track the lives of the same households over more than a decade, to examine trends in greater depth. A new report explores some of the key findings.

So what protects people from very deep poverty? Many of the findings are unsurprising – having a job with a secure contract, claiming benefits that you are entitled to, and having a strong social network, among others. Alternatively, relationship breakdown and bereavement, and rising housing costs are events associated with increased risk of moving into very deep poverty.

Another event associated with increased risk of falling into very deep poverty is having additional children, with 7% of those with children who have an additional child moving into very deep poverty, compared to 5% of those in families where the number of children remains the same. The impact of an additional child appears to have a larger impact on moving into very deep poverty than having a first child, raising further questions about the punitive two-child limit.

The authors argue that the social security system is failing to provide adequate protection during moments of great financial hardship. JRF and Trussel Trust have therefore been calling for an ‘essentials guarantee’ to be built into Universal Credit. The authors argue for other measures, including increasing the number of good jobs offering regular hours, improved employment support, and more affordable housing.

Read the report here

5. Student Loans Company report record university dropout rates

The Student Loans Company (SLC) has reported a 28% rise in students who had registered for a student loan before dropping out during the academic year – with the number reaching 41,630 for the 2022/23 academic year.

This coincides with a report from the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education that showed that the main reason students cite when leaving university early is mental health.

Financial stress was another key reason, cited by 8% of students that dropped out in 2023 – an increase from 3.5% in 2022, which may well reflect pressures induced by the cost of living crisis. As noted in last week’s Friday Five, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) made several suggestions that may help address some of the cost pressures associated with university attendance, including cost-of-living working groups in all universities and a government cost-of-living taskforce that consults regularly with students and sector leaders.

Read the BBC report here.

That’s all for this week! If you found this blog useful, please be sure to share/tweet it and follow @theCfEY,  @Barristotle and @billyhubt for future editions.