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School absence crisis: Education Committee publishes Govt’s response to report

7 December 2023

The Education Committee has published the Government’s response to its recent major report on persistent absence from schools (summarised below). 

It comes after the cross-party Committee questioned the Secretary of State for Education yesterday (6 December) on a key recommendation from the report – that the Government should legislate for a national register of children not in mainstream education that should be operational by September 2024.  

Despite repeated statements from the Government that it supports the creation of a register, the legislation required did not appear in the recent King’s Speech. 

The Government’s response to the report said of the proposals for a register: “The Government remains committed to introducing local authority registers for children not in school… The Government will legislate for these at a future suitable opportunity.” 

On 6 December, the Committee questioned Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan on the lack of progress.  

Ms Keegan said: “My understanding was that it was a procedural matter. There wasn’t long enough [in the Parliamentary session] actually for the bill to go through. But we are fully supportive of the desire to do it and we are very much looking forward to getting this done.” 

Chair's comment

Education Committee Chair, Robin Walker MP, said: 

“We welcome the positive reforms the Government has laid out in its response. However, outstanding questions remain about whether the education and health systems are sufficiently resourced to meet the rising tide of demand for SEND and mental health services. Everyone in the sector can see the implications this is having on children’s attendance, which will then undoubtedly impact on their academic attainment. 

“The Committee also stresses the urgent need for the Government to bring in the long-awaited register of children not in school, and statutory guidance to help schools boost attendance, including guidance on councils’ inconsistent use of fines. Much like the case for creating a national register, the Pupil Attendance Dashboard will be a helpful tool for policy makers nationally and locally to help schools with absence issues. We again hope Government can crack on with these reforms.” 

Summary of the Government’s response 

Pupil Attendance Dashboard: 

The Committee said DfE should make it mandatory for all schools to provide daily absence data to be published on its Pupil Attendance Dashboard. The Department said it agrees with the recommendation of ensuring 100% of state schools are sharing their daily attendance data. However, the timeline it gave for achieving this was “no sooner than September 2024”. 

New statutory guidance: 

MPs urged the Government to put its 2022 guidance ‘Working together to improve school attendance’ on a statutory footing from September 2024, though with revisions following consultation with the sector. 

The response agrees and says updated statutory guidance will “include new sections on mental health and targeting support meetings, and updated sections on SEND [special educational needs and disabilities] and LA [local authority] services.” The response did not provide a timescale by which this will be achieved. 

Use of fines:  

The report said fixed penalty notices should be issued to parents of absent children once other means of support had been exhausted, and that the new statutory guidance should ensure councils have a consistent nation-wide approach to fines. 

The response said: “In circumstances where support is not successful, or is not engaged with… there is a clear role for the use of legal intervention… This includes fixed penalty notices.” It also welcomed the Committee’s recommendation and suggested it will help inform “future regulatory or legislative changes to establish a national framework” on councils’ use of fines. 

Mental health waiting lists: 

To address the high waiting lists for children and adolescent mental health services, the Committee said ministers should order a cross-government review of demand and support available, to be completed by summer 2024. 

The response said “cross-government working is already taking place on several projects related to children’s mental health”. The Department said it publishes annual State of the Nation reports “collating and analysing published evidence about the wellbeing of children and young people”. The reports provide a “shared evidence base” for health services and the education sector. 

On waiting lists, the response said NHS England will soon publish outcomes of a consultation on introducing five new access and waiting time standards for mental health services, “including the proposal that children… should start to receive care within four weeks from referral.” NHS England also plans to publish data on the longest waits for community mental health services (for all ages, including children and young people) in Autumn 2023, followed by “full community mental health waiting times… in the Spring of 2024”. 

SEND and Alternative Provision (AP) reforms 

MPs broadly support the Government’s SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan. The report said DfE “should prioritise resource for inclusion and assessment in mainstream schools, to ensure they are adequately set up to support SEND pupils and address the current level of unmet need, and therefore improve their attendance rates.” 

In response, DfE said it is working with 32 local authorities and “testing approaches” in schools to improve early identification of SEND-related conditions. 

It is also testing an Early Language Support for Every Child pilot, jointly funded with NHS England. The pilot sees speech and language professionals based in early years and primary schools to spot early delays in development “and to take swift, appropriate action”.

Further information

Image credit: UK Parliament/Elspeth Keep