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Education Committee 

Oral evidence: Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils, HC 970

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 16 May 2023.

Watch the meeting 

Members present: Mr Robin Walker (Chair); Caroline Ansell; Miriam Cates; Mrs Flick Drummond; Anna Firth; Nick Fletcher; Kim Johnson; Andrew Lewer; Ian Mearns; Mohammad Yasin.

Questions 44 - 115


I: Ellie Costello, Director, Square Peg; Dr Daniel Stavrou, Policy Vice Chair, Special Educational Consortium; and Vicki Nash, Associate Director of External Relations, Mind.

II: Pauline Anderson OBE, Chair of Trustees, Traveller Movement; Dr Claudia Sumner, London Advocacy Manager, CPAG; and Diana Sutton, Director, Bell Foundation.

Written evidence from witnesses:

– [Add names of witnesses and hyperlink to submissions]

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Ellie Costello, Dr Daniel Stavrou and Vicki Nash.

Q44            Chair: Welcome to today’s session, which is the second session of the Committee’s inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged children. I am delighted to see a good attendance on behalf of the Committee. We will be hearing evidence from two panels. On the first panel we have Ellie Costello, director of Square Peg; Daniel Stavrou, director of the Special Educational Consortium; and Vicki Nash, associate director of external relations at Mind. Welcome to you all.

I will start with Daniel and Ellie. What does your research tell you about the main barriers to attendance for pupils with SEND in mainstream provision?

Dr Stavrou: Good morning and thank you, Chair, for inviting the contribution of the Special Educational Consortium. I know the Committee has received quite a lot of the written evidence and, indeed, you heard oral evidence in March, I think, attended by the Children’s Commissioner, among others, so I will not go over much of the data again. However, I want to highlight pieces of statistics that I think speak quite powerfully to the extent and type of challenge that we see with pupils with SEND.

Among those who hold an EHCP, 37% of pupils were persistently absent. That means 10% or more sessions missed, which I believe is roughly one day every fortnight. If you flip the data slightly over, among those who are severely absentnamely, those who are missing 50% of sessions or more, or to put it another way, are more out of school than in schoolroughly 36% are pupils with SEND. I think that demonstrates the level of challenge, but in fact the numbers are probably masking a more significant challenge.

I will share another couple of pieces of information. In a study carried out in 2019, one in six pupils with SEND experience at least one episode of what is called unexplained exit. That is basically when a child either moves school or moves from a school to AP or to what is euphemistically called “unknown destination”. Invariably these episodes will include some time out of school and we often lose sight of these pupils altogether.

The other point that is important to make at this point—we will no doubt speak about it more later—is that many of the problems we identify are to do with unidentified need. I think we take it as given that among those persistently and severely absent, the proportion of pupils with SEND is in fact even higher.

To the point of your question, Chair, which I am not going to avoid, what we know from the data is that the two leading causes for persistent absence are challenges in mental health, chiefly among them anxiety and unmet need. When I say “unmet” I mean also lately identified or not identified at all. That is the raw data.

If the Committee will bear with me for one minute, in the interests of also bringing forward the voice of young people, I prepared for this session by, among other things, speaking to young people who are members of a group called FLARE, which is the DFE’s young SEND advisory group. I want to share three takeaways with the Committee. The first substantiated in very vivid terms these two leading causes for absence, namely they all spoke about the mental health challenges and unmet need.

Secondly, the narratives explained and detailed what I call a self-propelling process of escalation, which is the result of this unmet need. Unmet need translates to internalisingfor instance, an increase in anxiety and mental health challenges, externalising behaviours that challenge and the beginning of problems with attendance. That led to poor and at times traumatic experiences in the school environment, increased pressure on home and family life and, ultimately, to further deterioration in attendance, up to the point of non-attendance and placement breakdown.

The third takeaway—I hope I am not speaking out of turn here—is that I think it would be very helpful for the Committee to speak directly to these young people. I will do my best to convey their voices, but I think that if you speak to them you will be, like I was, humbled and also compelled to act.

Q45            Chair: Thank you for that introduction. In expanding on that, Ellie, can you talk about how the experience of children with SEND differs between mainstream and specialist provision in this respect? Is there any contrast in the levels of attendance, the levels of anxiety and the levels of where need is being met? Clearly in specialist provision you would expect that to be met perhaps slightly better.

Ellie Costello: Without a doubt there are high levels of persistent absence and severe absence in special education and alternative provision as well. I think there are some clear drivers for that. First, we need to hold in mind the cohort that are accessing special and alternative. We have children with lots of multiple difficulties and illnesses and appointments and so there are lots of reasons why that attendance might be higher, but also we have children who are struggling with very severe needs to feel safe in a setting and to access the support they need, or even something as practical as not having good reliable transport to that setting can interrupt their ability to attend.

On the experience of children at either setting, I think universally the themes are the same when you speak to children no matter what setting they are in. In fact, there is a piece of research that is live at the moment with Durham University interviewing children around school-related distress and what is the difficulty with attending school. Those children very clearly identify that: 94% say that they have lost sleep or are anxious about school and 87% experience physical symptoms like a headache or a stomach ache around attending school. These children are in either setting. The cohorts are from both settings. There is a very common theme around the reasons for non-attendance. When you speak to young people, they say that the common theme is that staff don’t understand them or their diagnosis or really respond to supporting a mental health challenge, be it anxiety or very low mood.

When you ask those children about what might help, they are ready to say things like smaller classrooms, fewer students, no uniform, having adequate mental health support or a safe space to go and regulate. Those themes travel across whichever sort of setting you are looking at. The non-attendance is higher in specialist settings, but the experience of the young people is the same, be it mainstream or special or AP.

Q46            Chair: The Local Government Association has suggested that some pupils with SEND are better off being reintegrated into mainstream education, partly due to what it says are the astronomical costs of specialist provision to local authorities and that pupils are likely to have better outcomes than in specialist provision. Do you agree with that generally? Clearly there are some pupils who will always need specialist provision, but do you agree with that view from the LGA?

Ellie Costello: I think we have a real challenge with the sheer scale of children who are finding mainstream inaccessible for whatever reason. We have lots and lots of data, with children and families reporting that they are struggling with a very inflexible behaviour policy or a lack of reasonable adjustments. That could be a switch in the type of shirt they are able to wear or the type of shoes they are able to wear. While we have a culture and policy within mainstream schools that is perhaps not as flexible and inclusive as it could be, that is definitely seeing an exit and a need for more special support.

On reintegration as a plan, what we see time and time again is that it is not person-centred, so it is not personalised, it is not agile or responsive and it is very time-limited. When you are dealing with a young person with a disabling mental health condition, they can feel that there is a sword of Damocles over them. You are applying a pressure cooker on top of a child who is already within a pressure cooker and saying to them, “You can have this AP for six weeks or you can have this bridge for six weeks, but then you must re-attend. That isn’t altogether viable or possible for that young person.

It is about being agile and responsive and keeping it within a person-centred, individualised and personalised approach. For saving revenue, absolutely mainstream is a cheaper option, of course, but is that necessarily in the best interests of the child and supporting their needs?

Q47            Chair: You talked about the time-limited nature of some of these arrangements. Is there any evidence of what happens to children’s attendance when they have been through that and returned? Is there any evidence that it does or does not work in the long term of improving attendance?

Ellie Costello: Absolutely. It can become a revolving door. We can have children in and out of an alternative provision setting. It is very destabilising and, therefore, there is not that sense of belonging and progress and attainment for the young person, so they are not able to settle. It can be enormously problematic and destabilising, particularly if you have a young person with very complex special educational needs and an anxiety around attending as well. There is an enormous pressure on them and their family to hit a certain percentage of attendance. That then comes into play where the school and everybody is working within a graduated response and the percentage becomes what everybody is focusing on, rather than what the child is able and has the capacity to achieve.

Q48            Chair: Daniel, from your perspective, in talking to the group of children you have spoken to, have you come across any cases where, with the right support, they have successfully reintegrated in mainstream or where they are very clear that they benefit from a specialist setting longer term?

Dr Stavrou: Yes, indeed I have. In fact, among the silver linings of some of these educational journeys I heard about was some very outstanding practice and outstanding practitioners within the AP system. I did watch the exchange you are referring to.

There is a number of other questions that I think bear upon this situation. First, the Special Educational Consortium does not have a consensus position about when and in what situations somebody should attend a special school, so I will avoid that slightly contentious question, but, as you can probably imagine, we believe that the deciding factor needs to be around need and suitability and not the funding. The funding, if I put it plainly, needs to be found. I think there is a bit of a concern about drawing that direct line on the side of the local authority, although I suspect that was not the actual intention.

The other wider question is about the place of AP generally in the system. The recently released improvement plan speaks to the fact that it has been recognised that there is a need to readdress that. I said there is some outstanding practice in AP. However, I think it is fair to say that at the very least nationally it is inconsistent. We know, for instance, that generally speaking the outcomes for young people going into AP are considerably poorer than their peers. I am clearly not laying the blame with anyone. I think young people come to AP in very difficult circumstances and often after the situation has escalated considerably already.

I think the picture is mixed, but one of the things we are concerned about is the difference between alternative and specialnamely, do we have the right kind of level and type of expertise in these settings? Again, I am not convinced that that is the situation nationwide and that needs to be taken into account. We are very concerned that AP ends up being a default solution for mainstream schooling when they basically cannot meet the needs of pupils. Many of them, I agree, should be well catered for in a mainstream solution, but what I am advocating for of course is that this will happen because mainstream provision is so good, and not because they are trying to save money.

Q49            Chair: More inclusive. I have heard from similar panels as the group of children you heard from. We had very interesting engagement with a group supported by Ambitious about Autism, where a large proportion of the children they were supporting had been through an extended period of home education because they felt that the settings were not able to meet their needs. Is that reflected as well in the range of students that you have heard from? Are some of these children being put into home education that is not really elective?

Dr Stavrou: Precisely, yes. In fact, you stole my march. I was about to say I think we see in this particular context often unelected home education. Again, I am going to put it in very simple terms. I think that parents and households, when they reach the point where they have to concede that their son or daughter is not going to attend schoolI have heard from young people things like, “My parents were asking me to go to school. It’s like walking into a room with hungry lions; the feeling around this is very strong—at that point the parents will say, “I might as well not be fined for not having my child in school,” so that is exactly what is happening.

In other instances, if I go back to the AP point, if you are placed in an unsuitable AP provision, for instance, if your needs are mainly around anxiety but you are placed in a large AP that is catering for people with very complex behavioural needs, it doesn’t take much to understand that this is probably going to escalate the level of need and anxiety.

Vicki Nash: Thank you for having us this morning. We definitely heard from parents who, particularly after struggling to keep their child in school and then having to go through fines and the court system, just pulled their kids out because they were like, “What is the point? I don’t feel my child is safe in the school. It is like a double whammy. When he goes back into the school, he is then getting disciplined for being absent and we are getting fined. I think I will just pull him out. It is not a positive engagement with home schooling; it is like, “This is our best choice”.

Chair: We will return to the issue of fines, but first I will bring in Flick.

Q50            Mrs Flick Drummond: I will not go off-piste. I am bringing in the register later on, which I hope will help all that, but I will stick to the script here. We talked about persistent absence rates in schools and you said it was very similar in specialist schools as in mainstream, but the difference is there is 40% persistent absence in special schools compared with a total absence of 22% in mainstream schools. You talked about mental health and unmet need and so on; is there anything else that you have not mentioned so far as to why that is such a big gap?

Dr Stavrou: I think to a degree there is a discrete set of considerations when we talk about the population who attend special schools. Clearly you will understand that they tend to have a more complex need profile. For instance, the starting point of these pupils is often that by the time they get a place in a special school, their attendance is very poor to begin with. This is not something that you can typically turn around very quickly. I know that special schools invest much in doing so, but it does take time.

The other point to make is again because of the complexity of neednot always, but oftenthere are also medical needs associated with that. If you think about a child who has to go once every fortnight for a medical appointment, you are not far off already getting to the 10% absence rate, which puts you automatically in a persistent absence category, although that might not have any bearing at all on them getting up and getting to school every day they can—namely, when they are not facing an appointment.

The other point to make that Ellie touched on, and I will try to restructure it slightly, is that one thing to consider is the intersectionality of vulnerability. We know that the SEND pupil population is much more likely to be bullied, for instance. There is a clear link between bullying and school absence. We know that over 30% of pupils with SEND are also on free school meals, which is another category we know is closely associated with school absence. We know that pupils with SEND are disproportionately represented in particular ethnic groups, which also are in turn more associated with school absence.

All these factors mean that before we even begin the consideration of an individual, they are more likely to be absent from school. If you add to that also the individual characteristics, if you will forgive me for using a slightly clinical term, the comorbidity rates among pupils with SEND also bear on this. You might have a primary diagnosis of autism, for instance, but you are then much more likely to also suffer from anxiety and you might have a physical disability that again carries more vulnerability. To begin with, and I would say a priori, the special school population is much more likely to be absent from school.

One of the weaknesses is the way we gather data. Individuals and families and schools are called to account somewhat unfairly because the starting point is simply not equal and the data may not be telling us the real story. Incidentally, I note that you wrote the foreword for the report from the Centre for Social Justice and you will be familiar with the data, but I think it is important to nuance it in the way I just set out.

Mrs Flick Drummond: Very interesting. Ellie, do you have any more to add?

Ellie Costello: Yes. You are absolutely right about the 40.4% in special schools and 22% in mainstream. It is also important to hold in mind that the percentages now—so the tolerance for how soon you become persistently absent—are lower and much more sensitive. What I was touching on is that the experiences of the childrenthe reasons why they are now non-attendingis consistent.

On the family perspective, the culture around managing attendance is extremely coercive. It really is a very blunt instrument and very destabilising. It is pitting schools against families and forcing hands to reach percentages and it is a real pressure cooker that is happening and bubbling over.

On the LGA comment, I was just recalling that there are some attitudes and presumptions around how parents are perceived, where SEND parents are often perceived as pointy-elbowed and entitled or feckless and lazy or poor parents or not trying hard enough. I think we need to grapple with this, because parents are hearing this and are aware of it. By and large they are doing their absolute very best in unprecedented circumstances post a global pandemic with children who are very understandably struggling to reset.

The pandemic widened the gaps and inequalities. I think all of that sort of sloshing about in the system, combined with a real and very tough position towards attendance in the aspiration of improving it, is leading to a very problematic mix.

Q51            Kim Johnson: Daniel, you mentioned that some ethnic groups are overrepresented in SEND. Could you expand on that a little bit, please?

Dr Stavrou: I can, because I have read the data, although I have to say this is not a field of expertise for me in particular. I know that there are higher absence rates in the Traveller community in particular and also in other ethnic minorities. There are not particular divides, so I would not say that every ethnic minority necessarily has higher rates of absence. It does differ, but the data seem to show that this is a consideration that needs to be taken into account. But with your permission, I will leave the analysis of this to others who are more expert in the field.

I hope it is okay if I just jump in, because I forgot to say something about the special school population and would find it hard to forgive myself if I don’t mention it now. The other point to make about these schools is that they are not immune from the wider sectoral pressures. When I was here last, I mentionedif I name just a couplethe problems around accessing specialist provision, allied health professionals and so on. Even in special schools it is not to be taken as given that they can have the access. Even if all the pupils on their rota have EHCPs, it is still not a straightforward enterprise to secure that input. I think the same goes for particular strands of teacher training, for instance, around mental health. We need to take into consideration also the wider pressures that mainstream faces and special schools are not immune to them as well.

Chair: On mental health, we will bring in Miriam.

Q52            Miriam Cates: I want to look at the correlation between mental health problems and absence. This is for you, Vicki, to start with. What impact do children’s mental health problems have on absence and attendance? Why do you think persistent absence is increasing in children with mental health difficulties? I think partially you have answered that in a previous answer, but it would be interesting to hear your perspective.

Vicki Nash: I will start the answer to that question by explaining the current scale of the challenge that we have around mental health within young people. In 2017, one in nine young people had a diagnosed mental health problem. By 2020, we are at one in six, so the scale is rising and rising very rapidly. It just means there are more children with mental health problems in classrooms or in and out of classrooms.

While there have been improvements and money going into the system on the health side—you cannot look at what is happening in education without looking at health—it cannot cope with the volume of kids that need support. Thresholds get pushed up and you have lots more young people who are left languishing on waiting lists or waiting to get sicker until they can get access to it. It is a very unsatisfactory kind of situation. It is important to remember that.

When we did work during covid, so in 2020 to 2021, we ran our own independent inquiry—it wasn’t as good as your inquiries—and we heard from over 1,000 young people. So it was more of a snapshot survey. Seven in 10 of those young people said that they had missed school as a result of their mental health problem. That is for a variety of different reasons. It can be because they are simply just not well enough to go in. It can be because they are experiencing anxiety about going into school. The level of bullying has a real impact on people’s mental health, and there is also a kind of broad stigma and discrimination, not only from pupils but from teachersa lack of understanding about what mental health is and isn’t.

Q53            Miriam Cates: When you talk about bullying, do you mean physical or physically present bullying in the classroom? Or are you talking about online, through social media? Or both?

Vicki Nash: I think both.

Q54            Miriam Cates: Obviously we have the pandemic and many other things, but do you think part of the rise or the increase in mental health problems and bullying is social media?

Vicki Nash: Yes. It is a very complicated area and we hear a lot about the role of social media and online media. For some young people it is a lifeline because that is their community, so it is not a one-size-fits-all, but obviously for others it becomes very poisonous and it definitely plays into that atmosphere. It is a mixed bag, but we do know that it is definitely having a role. We don’t quite understand the impact that that role is having yet.

On the punishments handed outto pick up on the point I was making earlierif you have been out of school, you come back in and you are punished for your lack of attendance as well as what happens in school. The use of isolation and restraints has a negative impact on our young people’s mental health. One example is a young girl who gave evidence to us, who said, “Due to my anorexia taking a toll on my physical health, I was taken out of school, which meant I lost a lot of lesson time. I am now also attending day patient treatment, which has meant I am missing out on one day a week of school. She is missing out one day a week, but that is to get her mental health treatment and that is impacting obviously on her attendance.

Q55            Miriam Cates: On recognising the attendance is authorised, it says in our brief that there are difficulties, because if a child cannot get a diagnosis from a health professional, obviously the school is in a difficult positionhow do they authorise their absence? Given that the waiting lists are long, with a mental health problem you wouldn’t go—unless it is very severe—to the doctor on day one, like you might do with an infection, so it takes longer anyway. How could we improve that situation? It is not going to change overnight, but we need schools to be able to authorise absence where appropriate, rather than, as I say, children get even more punitive results if it looks like they have taken an unauthorised absence.

Vicki Nash: Yes, that is a spot-on analysis of where we have the problem at the moment. There has been progress on that and I think that should be acknowledged. There has been a kind of extension to the amount of time for short-term absence, so it is now 15 days before most schools would then ask for medical evidence. The challenge is the challenges in our primary care system, which means that while that has been extended, and that is welcome, it is very hard to get certificates or evidence from a primary care practitioner to support the unauthorised absence and for it to be classed as authorised.

It is a bit of a Catch-22, so we need to have a little bit more of a practical amendment to that to reflect the state of the services at the moment, because otherwise parents and pupils are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t get the evidence from the healthcare, and do they want to be back in school? They are very stuck in that situation. I think we need a reflection of what the reality is like for people to get that evidence.

Miriam Cates: Did you want to come in, Ellie?

Ellie Costello: Yes. Picking up on the veracity of parental opinion, I think more often than not parents are finding it very surprising, shocking and challenging when they are phoning up to record an absence, to report it, and their opinion is not being believed or they are told that they have to evidence it. We have this very incongruous situation where heads of schools are asking for evidence at a stage that they don’t need to. We need to get back to valuing parental opinion, because it has been completely undermined and parents are finding it extremely challenging.

Again, it is very activating, but we have instances of schools who are just refusing to authorise any kind of mental health, so they do not recognise anxiety as a viable or real problemnot all schools but some schools. Where there is a local policy in place of, “You are depressed, you are anxious, but it doesn’t matter: you still need to be here,” that piles on adversity.

On understanding why children with a mental health challenge are not able to attend, I wouldn’t wish anyone to get up close and personal and live alongside a child who is struggling with disabling levels of anxiety, but it is a horrific challenge. The last thing that you are thinking about is getting your child into a classroom at that point, because they are so vulnerable. It becomes about survival and real acute measures and levels of care.

We can’t talk about all this without talking about the impact of austerity on services, and the fact that CAMHS has been the Cinderella service of the Cinderella service for a very long time. Mental health funding for children in local areas isn’t ringfenced, so there is a massive problem with the resource reaching services that are already very vulnerable and scant.

Miriam Cates: Yes, I don’t disagree with that. It is probably slightly off topic, but what I think is far more interesting and urgent is getting to the root of why mental health problems are exploding. I do not think that can be put down to investment in services or otherwise, because the changes we have seen are not just in this country but in many other western countries. It is a lot more complex than funding, although of course that is part of it. Can I move on to Daniel?

Chair: I will bring in Nick first; he wants to follow up on your last point.

Q56            Nick Fletcher: I want to fact check something. There were one in nine children suffering with mental health issues; when was that?

Vicki Nash: In 2017.

Q57            Nick Fletcher: In 2017, and it is now one in six?

Vicki Nash: Yes.

Q58            Nick Fletcher: You also said that seven out of 10 children have had mental health issues.

Vicki Nash: Yes. The one in nine and one in six are the NHS data, but the seven in 10 was the evidence that young people told us directly in the snapshot survey of over 1,000 young people. One is the big dataset from the NHS; ours is what young people have told us directly, so we would not claim to be on the same level. It is a snapshot.

Q59            Nick Fletcher: There is an explosion in this, isn’t there?

Vicki Nash: Yes.

Q60            Nick Fletcher: This will probably not go down too well with a lot of people, but do you think some of these are not actually mental health issues but are just people saying mental health issues because that is the thing to say? We have seen it with other ailments over the last five decades, with different things. Do you think we have a problem with that? If this is happeningif people are crying wolf with thisit is taking money away from the people who really need it and are struggling. How do we deal with that?

Vicki Nash: I think that those NHS stats—the one in nine down to the one in six—are with a diagnosed mental health problem. They have been through that process. They have had that diagnosis.

Q61            Nick Fletcher: Seven in 10 that is really concerning. To me that just cannot be right.

Vicki Nash: Yes, but that is about people saying, “I have not gone in because I don’t feel well enough to go in.” That does not mean they have a diagnosed mental health problem all the time.

Q62            Nick Fletcher: We all don’t feel well enough to go in though, don’t we? There were lots of times when I was at school and there are lots of times when I come here and I do not feel well but I come in. It is called building resilience into people. If we continually give them a way outWe have a mental health issue”we will end up with an issue where there is no funding for the ones who really need it and no resilience in these people going through their life. You will end up with a Select Committee like this with nobody here because they say, “We have a mental health issue.” We have to be careful with this. Responsible people need to make sure we hold people to account for it.

Vicki Nash: Yes. I totally understand where you are coming from on that. There is clearly an increase in diagnosed mental health problems that are clinically founded. There is also an increase in young people experiencing symptoms that do not go on to become a diagnosed mental health problem. Everyone can struggle with the day-to-day—you can have an up day then you can have a down day. When it starts to impact on your ability to do your job or to be at school for a period of time you should seek medical help. That is when you get a diagnosis.

I understand where you are coming from in that concern, and you are not the first person to recognise that, but I think that we have to be careful about balancing that. What is definitely happening is that more people with diagnosed mental health problems are coming through the system, as well as there being a sense of anxiety about the state of the world and what that might mean. That is where there is the element of building resilience and understanding that we all struggle with our feelings at times and how we respond to that. There is a distinction. I understand the concerns about how the two things can be conflated, but I would say that there is the distinction within that, if that helps to answer the question.

Q63            Miriam Cates: Can I come back to Daniel? What is the overlap between children with SEND and children with mental health difficulties? Are children with SEND overrepresented in the group of children with mental health difficulties?

Dr Stavrou: The short answer to that is yes. Among those on SEND support, SEMH is the second most common primary diagnosis. It might also be worth while taking a step back and looking at the wider picture. If a person suffers from ill mental health that is substantial and long term, under the Equality Act they will then become disabled even though there might not be a diagnosis involved. That is worth keeping in mind.

That is the D of the SEND. If we look at the SEN of the SEND, under the code of practice you have special education needs if you require provision that is different from and additional to your peers. It is quite easy to understand and imagine that those who are struggling with mental health challenges, even if they are only temporary, are not going to be in what teachers would call the place of learning. Some of you might know the triangle of need. You cannot really vacate yourself for learning if you are being bullied at the same time, for instance, or if you have pressing mental health needs that are a result of your home and family life. In all these respects, in fact, my constituency and the constituency of Mind are very similar and certainly overlapping.

I will make one more point that I think is important, because it came out of conversations I had with young people. We also know that unmet need, and in particular unmet need in mental health, can escalate and translate into what is called somatic complaints. I am not a medical professional, but in layman’s terms this means when phenomena like anxiety feed into physical complaints, predominantly complaints around pain-related issues. It is easy to appreciate how this would become another factor inhibiting better attendance. That is the self-fulfilling cycle of escalation I spoke about.

Q64            Miriam Cates: How successful do you think join-up is between different agencies that help with children, such as CAMHS, schools and attendance officers, for example? Do you think there is good joined-up working around this, or not really?

Dr Stavrou: Again, the short answer is that there is not enough of it happening and it is not happening well enough. There are some good examples of signposting as to where things could become better. I think the overriding issue is capacity and that has been well rehearsed. I am sure that Vicki has better data than I have, but we know very well that a high proportion of young people wait a long time for that first appointment. We have modelsfor instance, the mental health support teams, about which I read the provisional review recently. They seem to have some promising results, but in that particular programme the ultimate goal is that only around a third of schools will end up having this, even after the pilot. This begs the question: what happens with the majority of schools?

There is another intervention that has had some success, but I might hand over. I am not putting you on the spot, but while the Council for Disabled Children was involved in this, I know that Ellie was personally involved and might want to say a word about how this might improve the situation.

Ellie Costello: Thank you. This is a new service that came out of the NHS 10-year long-term plan. One of the points was that a person with a learning disability or autism would have access to a key worker. The key worker service that I helped to develop in Coventry and Warwickshire in the Arden pilot was to avoid in-patient admissions—psychiatric inpatient care—for a child or young person aged between 14 and 25 who had a diagnosis of learning disability or autism. We created a multidisciplinary team that was commissioned out of our joint working team. This was local authority and CCG working together, so it was integrated and joined-up. We created a service that was empowered through user agreements to unblock the blockers around the family or young person that led to them having such high levels of care that they needed to be in-patients and they were no longer in education, employment or training. This service was dynamic and it was about supporting the family.

To understand the cohorts, if you live in poverty or are on free school meals, you are more likely to suffer with your mental health. If you are a young carer, if you are living in a refuge, if English is your second language, if you have multiple elements in your life going on, that impacts your mental health. If it disables you for a long period, it reduces your efficacy in independence and then you have Equality Act entitlements that follow.

It is important to understand that our children now are more emotionally literate. We have parents who are more emotionally aware of their child’s development than ever before, and that is a good thing. I think that if we respond to children and say that they are crying wolf and they are making it up, that will only push things down. I really welcome the conversations that are happening. I think that if we can respond in a compassionate way, contain the feelings and support children by saying, “I understand you, it is okay and I am here with you to help you conquer this thing,” that is how we build resilience, in partnership rather than punishing. In understanding the pressures on children now within education—

Q65            Miriam Cates: We have strayed off the point again, but I would push back slightly against that along the lines of what Nick said. There is clearly a difference between a mental health problem that completely incapacitates you and is clinically diagnosable, and what is actually very normal human emotionups and downs. Personally and as a parent, I think that the right way to approach the normal ups and downs of life, failure, and even being bullied, potentially, is to support your child to get back on the horse, to learn from the failure, to step back in and to try again, because all the way through life, you will get knocks. If you do not learn that as a childif you do not learn that your security is much more fundamental than how you are feeling todayyou will never grow into a resilient adult. I am afraid that is what we are seeing in young adults today. There has to be a line between what is normal everyday emotional up and down, and what is serious disabling clinical need.

Ellie Costello: It is a paradigm though, isn’t it? But we have to start somewhere.

Q66            Miriam Cates: It is, but I think having an approach which is, “I understand your mental health difficulty” is not the same as at least initially attempting to support that child to get back on the horse. I think we need an approach like that; otherwise, we will have a generation of kids who cannot.

Ellie Costello: I was that parent holding the line with my child until we reached the point where he was self-harming and unable to attend school. It is a shocking place to find yourself.

Miriam Cates: Exactly, and for the small number of children who do reach that point of course that is the right approach, but I am just saying that on a population level, that cannot be the right approach.

Vicki Nash: I want to come in with a couple of points on the joint approach between health and education in particular. A third good news story is early support hubs. We have run a series of pilots working with our colleagues in a number of different organisations—Young Minds, the Children’s Society, Youth Access. The early support hubs are there to try to fill the gap between low-level support in schools, particularly for complex needs—the complexity of cases while you are on a waiting list—and CAMHS, whose thresholds are really high. The early support hubs fit within that. It is a third way in the middle where there is a no wrong door policy for people to get early support. We have found that they are much better able to access young people of colour and young people living in poverty. It is a different design of a service. We are encouraging the Government to look at that for future funding to roll that out, because the results from that are really positive.

The last point is on national policy and where this fits. DFE and DHSC talk to each other. The officials talk to each other. I am sure that the Ministers also talk to each other, but something gets lost in the output somehow. We know cross-departmental working can be tricky, partly because of where budgets are and how they work around that. Particularly as organisations in the mental health sector, we were hoping to get a new cross-Government long-term mental health strategy that was committed to. Sadly, that has been dropped now in favour of a major conditions strategy. I cannot see where some of that joint collaboration will be picked up on this issue, which is obviously so pressing. What happens in health has a knock-on impact with what happens in our schools.

Chair: I have a long-standing invitation that I am looking forward to taking up to guest on the Health Select Committee on mental health issues, precisely because of this need for join-up. I absolutely recognise the benefits of that. We will have to make some progress, I am afraid, because we have another panel to come, but I will hand over to Kim.

Q67            Kim Johnson: Very briefly, on the issue of mental health, do you, Vicki, believe that race should be used in any kind of trauma-informed practice?

Vicki Nash: Yes, absolutely. Definitely from the work we did through our own inquiry, the young people who experienced racism and discrimination, the impact that had on their mental health, the lack of understanding from the schools about the impact that that was having—it was like people were just talking different languages. I think that when we are looking at trauma-informed approaches to mental health, race is part of that as much as other aspects.

Q68            Kim Johnson: What are your thoughts on whether alternative provision is effective for improving attendance? If it is not, why not?

Dr Stavrou: I touched on this to a degree earlier in our conversation. I think the picture is mixed. If you look at the actual formal outcomes, one has to acknowledge that the outcomes are not good enough. In fact, as I said earlier, they are poorer than their peers who do not access AP. Clearly, by the time one reaches an AP provision, there has already been an escalation of need. We also know, as I mentioned earlier at length, there is the intersectionality of mobility. In essence, we know that the job will be harder, if I put it in simple terms.

I think that we need to go back. I know that this is work that is under way because it features in the improvement plan. We need to go back and evaluate what exactly is the place of AP in the wider system and how that intersects or not with special provision. The question of alternative or specialist is important, as are the types of specialism. Forgive me, I am repeating myself but that is just to answer your question directly.

I spoke to a representative of the AP system yesterday. There are indeed some good examples of forward-thinking practice that appear to be working well. If you would like, I can mention a number of them. Most of them are things you would expect. Common sense dictates that you would adopt these kinds of approaches in one sense, taking a bespoke and individualised approach to the barriers to attendance and to be reintegrated into the mainstream system. For instance, have a look at the relational aspects, social pedagogies; look at the picture including home life, how a pupil makes their way from home to school, transport and so ondrilling down to the fine detail.

Fostering a positive ongoing relationship with families and carers is another thing that has been mentioned across the board. You will also see overwhelmingly mentioned in the responses to this Committee or the inquiry fostering a sense of belonging to the community inside the AP. AP is a small provision at times and you can leverage that to create a sense of community. They also mentioned something that I was not really aware of much before about the use of AV1 robots that provide a telepresence. Basically, a child can be at home and have a robot representing them. They can manoeuvre them, including putting their hands up and express emotions and so on. These are initial trials but they seem to be quite successful. There are some good forward-thinking progressive approaches being taken.

There are two points to caveat that. First—the person from the AP was very clear about this—we do not have enough nuanced data about AP. A small AP providing for pupils with complex medical conditions is very different from one large one providing for complex behavioural challenges, for instance. I think it is very important to keep that in mind when we analyse the outcomes of pupils in APs.

Kim Johnson: Thanks, Daniel. Does anybody else want to contribute to that?

Ellie Costello: I think there is incredible practice that goes on within APs and I think it is a very varied marketplace. Our understanding of APs may go to one type of AP than another. For our children who end up in AP, why does it work? It is relational, it is not telling them that they are bad, it is trying to heal, and they are welcome and wanted. That work in fostering belonging and the support and a wraparound approach is positive. Then you have children who are much happier in an outdoor setting that is flexible, dynamic and agile.

When we talk about AP, there is such a huge range going on, but there are some absolutely phenomenal practices that I would like to see learned from and incorporated within mainstream. There are lots of easy wins that happen in AP that can help more children to remain in a mainstream setting.

Q69            Kim Johnson: My next question is about Ofsted and the practice of off-rollingeffectively informal exclusionsparticularly for disadvantaged or marginalised pupils. How do you think that impacts on persistent absences and attendance?

Vicki Nash: I am trying to find my notes on off-rolling. When we did our piece of work with young people, parents, carers and teachers, off-rolling was a very live issue. It was happening despite the Government saying it is not happening, it does not happen, it is illegal or unlawfulone of the two. We are like, “Well, we have X, Y and Z and it is definitely happening.” It is happening in a wide variety of places because the young people do not fit in in the same way. Their attendance is low, their grades are not where they were or there is an issue with their behaviour. The way they are behaving is often a result of their struggles with their mental health problem, but they do not have the right support in place. They are not keen to be on the books, so off-rolling was still a live issue. I have not seen data from the most recent analysis, but that was definitely the case in 2020-21.

Q70            Chair: Isn’t the problem fundamentally that because this is unlawful for schools to do, the data is therefore not available? They will not say, “We are doing it.” It is happening informally.

Vicki Nash: Of course. It is the informal data. We do not have an update on the informal data. Of course, this does not happen so there would be no formal data for it.

Chair: I agree with your analysis. Fundamentally, we all know that it happens. It is about identifying it and trying to make sure we close off the avenue for it, which seems to be the key challenge.

Q71            Kim Johnson: Did you want to say something about that, Ellie?

Ellie Costello: Yes. I think it is the reporting as well. We know that when school census is happening, we have children magically disappearing off-roll. From a parent point of view, what is happening is some coercive off-rolling into non-elective home education. Parents are told that if they do not get their child to school, the school will remove them because a census point is coming up. At the start of an academic year, if a child has been on roll and is struggling to attend, there is a ruling that if a child does not attend for the first month of an academic year they can be removed from roll and that is to do with the transition points. It is absolutely happening.

I think we are seeing off-rolling in a way that is new. At the moment, we are hearing from families whose child is a non-attender, and they are told that if they do not start attending, they will not be allowed to sit their GCSEs or their A-levels and they will be removed from roll. There are lots of subtle new activities going on. That is also driven by Ofsted’s chasing percentages on attendance data and schools feeling the pressure around that.

Q72            Andrew Lewer: Moving on to a different topic, both of your organisations, Ellie and Vicki, have said that you do not agree with the use of fines and legal interventions to combat low attendance and absence. I would like you to use the opportunity to explain why that is. What systems would you like DFE to implement and put in place instead, and why do you think they will be more effective?

Vicki Nash: We have seen an increase in the number of fines that are being handed out and I can understand the principles behind them. It is that balance between getting the carrots and the sticks in the system. We see it in different public services. We have similar conversations around sanctions within a benefit systemnot to go off tangent.

The feedback we have had from parents is they just do not work. It does not make a child get back in to school very often. It puts more pressure on families that might already be struggling financially, particularly given the cost of living crisis at the moment. The idea that the fines are there as a deterrent or signal that the behaviour is unacceptable does not really impact on the behaviour of the young person in getting back into school or the ability for the parents to get the young person back into school.

We come from not necessarily a principled perspective but more from a practical perspective. It does not seem to help young people to get back into school and to stay in school from an attendance perspective. It puts additional pressure on the young person and on the family and ultimately, in some cases, drives them further away from the school and they go into home schooling.

Q73            Andrew Lewer: What about the deterrent effect on those who end up not being involved rather than the opinions of those who have?

Vicki Nash: Yes, I think that is a valid question and one that I have less insight into. We work on the basis of the parents who have spoken to us about that. Others may have a different view or more expertise on that. I would not want to speak in areas where I do not have as much insight on that.

Q74            Andrew Lewer: What should happen instead?

Vicki Nash: Good question, right? I think it is not clear what the right answer is. We need to work together on what that option is. There are definite ways that we can look at itpotential options that do not have a financial impact, particularly at the moment. I will not sit here and say I necessarily know what the right solution is. At the moment, we have worked out that this seems to be the wrong thing, but we need to work together to work out what the right thing is, because there are people looking at it from different pressures. You have DFE, you have the schools. I think it is about sitting down and working out what the right alternative to that is.

Ellie Costello: For us, it is a very blunt instrument and it does not change the difficulty. It does not remove the barrier to the attending. We need to look at the reason for the non-attendance and respond to support and change that surface level behaviour that we do not want to see and that the child is struggling with. Attendance, exclusion truancy or persistent absence are headline behaviours that are shining a light on something that is preventing that child from accessing or remaining in education. The reason why we do not think it is appropriate is that it drives family away from work and school and it can place them in a very pressured place. As a parent to a non-attender, it added so much more conflict in our home and it also drove my child into much more severe levels of mental health distress.

What are the solutions? If we have a child at risk of serious harm, we have methods in placesafeguarding and child protectionto respond to that. I think safety is already covered. The solutions for us are that we want some improvements to the registration codes. For example, we have no definition between physical ill health absence and mental ill health absence. If we had a parent who phoned up and said, “They are really not good. I am not sure what is going on. They have not slept in a week,” and so on and was reporting an early emerging mental health need, if that was marked under a mental health absence code, that would be an instant flag for the school to be able to respond to. Also, we would start really understanding.

For us, there would be a pastoral response initially, a phone call home, “What’s going on? Have you seen the GP? Do you need a referral to family support? There is youth work. There is early help. Do you need to see the school nurse?” It would be an opportunity to have a conversation. In my experience, by the time you get to full non-attendance, at home behind closed doors you have been managing something for a very long time and maybe this is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.

We would also recommend that where you have a child who is waiting for an assessment. We have a code already in existence that where a child is unable to attend because they do not have transport to school and they have an entitlement, and that absence is authorised. We recommend that there is the same for a child who is on a waiting list so that the absence could be authorised for an assessment or for care.

We also recommend a measured triage response to non-attendance. I think that there are many pathways towards getting a child back to attending. That would involve a multidisciplinary approach and a team around the child working with the family, but predominantly it would start from a pastoral place: “What do you need? How are you doing? How is it going?”

We have grave concerns about the impact of the non-statutory guidance at the moment. The Telegraph reported that the fines had quadrupled in a year from, I think, 45,000 to 218,00 fines issued in 12 months and £12 million paid. That gives you an idea of the experience of families, and how that exacerbates stress within the home and how it does not magically flick on a switch so that the child just starts being able to attend, because there is a need there. Something is going on that needs to be responded to.

Chair: Do you want to come in, Caroline?

Caroline Ansell: I do, but I don’t know whether Dr Stavrou had a point to make first on fines. My question is similar in principle but slightly different.

Dr Stavrou: I do. I am very conscious of the Committee’s time constraints and I will keep my comment brief, because I think my colleagues have already set out the case pretty well.

I want to elaborate slightly on something that was already mentioned. First, as far as we know there is no evidence that this approach works. We have looked at it carefully. You will see from the written responses that over 1 million people are asking this question and to date I have not seen the evidence. When I looked into the research, some of it was inconclusive and some recent research from Harvard suggests that in fact it has the opposite effectnamely, to further disengage families from the system. Any conversation about this has to be based on evidence and the evidence presently, as far as I know at least, is simply not there.

Secondly, for the constituency of the Special Educational Consortium—namely, pupils with SENDit is very important to explain that we are not talking about pupils going to Euro Disney in term time. We talking about pupils with very complex needs profiles who are not able to attend school, so it feels misguided to approach this in a punitive way. The Special Educational Consortium supports the social mode of disability that applies also to special needs. If I put that into very basic terms, that means that if you consider the figures that I opened today's session with—for instance, that such an enormously disproportionate number of pupils who are severely absent have a complex set of special needs—it seems misguided not to look at what we can change in schools to make them welcoming and safe for pupils, but to see how we are going to coerce pupils into the schools where they are saying very loudly and clearly that they are not the right places for them at the moment.

In essence, we are saying that we need to change the grammar of the conversation. Persistent absence in this sense is not the problem. It is an indicator that there is a problem, if that makes sense.

Q75            Caroline Ansell: Vicki, I want to come back to a made a point you made earlier. It reflects the notion of a punitive approach and how that can compound some of the issues at play here. You talked about students who had been absent coming back to school and who were punished for coming back. I confess that I did not quite understand or recognise that. I understand that it is very difficult to come back after an absence because the continuity of teaching and learning means you are coming in at a place where you might not have context and are not part of set group work, and that it is sometimes incredibly difficult for teachers to support absence. I can understand how that could be punishing. But were you suggesting that schools brought absent pupils into their sanctions regimes and that on their return to school, they were experiencing detentions or things of that ilk? I did not understand or recognise that and am keen to understand the point you made.

Vicki Nash: Exactly that: schools are bringing pupils back and straight into their sanctions regimes. Detention is the most obvious one, and there are other areas too. It goes back to the first point, that pupils are hit with the unauthorised absence or the fine, get back into school and they then might be put into detention while they are trying to catch up with the work that they have missed when they are already not feeling great about themselves. They will be put into detention for missing school.

Q76            Caroline Ansell: For not being in schooland this is a standard, routine response?

Vicki Nash: I do not know how standard that is and I would not want to over-egg that, but young people have told us about that fairly regularly. I don’t want to say that it is happening everywhere but we have heard of cases—

Caroline Ansell: That it is a widespread practice?

Vicki Nash: We have heard from young people and from parents that it happens.

Ellie Costello: It may not be called detention. It may be called a learning opportunity. The child will come back to school and there will be a discussion about if they are absent, their attainment will go down and there is a conversation to be had, but it is happening universally and quite regularly for children who have been ill. We had instances last year of children having omicron or strep A or whatever, who had gone back to school and been placed on a pathway that was to have six half-hours for six weeks after school to talk about their attendance.

Q77            Caroline Ansell: Is that punitive? Or is it additional support and tutoring?

Ellie Costello: I suppose the question is: how can a child help being unwell? What is happening is that it is creating anxiety about being unwell. Lots of children are already struggling, after the pandemic, with fear around germs and so on.

Q78            Caroline Ansell: I understand, but on that additional requirement of returning pupils, are they are sitting in a punitive context, writing lines of “I won’t be absent again”? or do they have a teacher coming alongside to try to fill the gaps, to provide confidence and help them to engage with their learning? It seems to be a little mixed, so it is hard to say that this is a punitive approach if there is additional support and nurture.

Vicki Nash: I am very happy to write to the Committee with a little bit more information about our understanding.

Nick Fletcher: If they are being given extra support after they have been off for six weeks, I think that is good.

Vicki Nash: That would be great, but that is not what they are telling us.

Q79            Nick Fletcher: Very quickly on fines, does the headteacher have any discretion about whether they impose a fine? Or do they have to? If they do have discretion, surely they should be able to pick out the kids where it might end up with the child off-rolling and one that is just going on holiday for a fortnight to Euro Disney.

Vicki Nash: My understanding is that some headteachers and some schools use discretion but others do not. When we did our research, we spoke to just under 1,000 teachers, and less than one-fifth of school staff that we surveyed said that their school always authorised absences if someone was unable to attend school. Of the parents, one in four said that their child’s mental health absence was always authorised by the school. It is a mixed picture. I think there probably is some discretion but I think it would come down to the understanding of the circumstances and the understanding of mental health at a very basic level sometimes within schools. I don’t know if Ellie or Daniel have more insight.

Ellie Costello: Headteachers do have discretion and the local authority can also exercise discretion, so there are repeated points where there is a chance to choose not to follow all the way through to court.

We are hearing this from those who are receiving these cases within the single justice procedure that they are shocked at the types of families that are coming forward trying to appeal fines. Not many do that but of those who do, the circumstances of many families ending up in that position are such that there were very many missed opportunities where somebody should have said, “What this family needs is support. This child needs support. Maybe we should be considering an assessment of needs.” It is those missed opportunities that are problematic. Local authorities and headteachers are saying that they do not feel they can exercise discretion because of the non-statutory guidance and the high attendance data that everyone is being requested to aim for.

Q80            Anna Firth: Should the Department’s “Working Together to Improve School Attendance” guidance be made statutory?

Dr Stavrou: Perhaps I will begin and then hand over to Ellie, who I know has been working on this. We believe there should be some statutory guidance in the form of a code of practice on attendance. However, to be clear, we do not think that the May 2022 guidance should be it. We think there needs to be a form of accountability that is much more geared towards and focused on inclusive practice. I will hand over now to Ellie who I know has worked on this.

Ellie Costello: We have some non-statutory guidance that is due to become statutory in September. Given the scale of finesthe quadrupling in a yearthe rise in persistent absence and the scale of the numbers of children with emerging mental health conditions and severe levels of need, I think we need to tread very carefully. We are calling for an attendance code of practice, an important piece of work that would offer some assurance and reassurance in the same way that the SEND code of practice does.

We work with Not Fine in School, a peer support group. We saw our membership increase by 70% from May last year when the non-statutory guidance went online in preparation for coming into effect in September—

Anna Firth: I don’t want to stop you but we have another panel coming in. Vicki?

Vicki Nash: My only additional point is that if and when or as statutory guidance is brought in, it needs to be done in collaboration with the Department of Health and Social Care, because what are young people supposed to do if they are waiting on long waiting lists—we are talking about people who are very ill—and there is no support around them? That feels very unfair. If the guidance is going down that route, it needs a cross-Government approach to make sure that it will do the job it is set to do.

Chair: Thank you. The cross-Government approach goes to Flick Drummond’s multi-agency point.

Q81            Mrs Flick Drummond: My point has almost been answered now. Apart from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, and of course your own organisations, are there any other agencies that should be engaged in this and that we should be talking to in our inquiry?

Vicki Nash: The third sector plays a key role in providing a lot of wraparound support for parents and young people with SEN or mental health problems. There is also a role for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities because of the role that local councils can play in safeguarding and particularly assistance for vulnerable families. It seems obvious to me that they would be the third part.

Ellie Costello: I also recommend that the Ministry of Justice be brought in, because there are concerns about what is happening with the use of the single justice procedure. I recommend some sort of discussion on that mechanism. A properly co-produced piece would involve the voices of children and families, the third sector, headteachers in schools, local government and support services, and the Department of Health and Social Care alongside the Department for Education.

Chair: Thank you all very much. We will now move on to our next panel. We are very grateful for your input. We have run over a little bit but your evidence was very important. Thank you.


Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Pauline Anderson OBE, Dr Claudia Sumner and Diana Sutton.

Q82            Chair: Welcome. We will plough straight on because we slightly overran with our first panel. I am delighted to introduce our second panel: Pauline Anderson OBE, chair of trustees for the Traveller Movement; Dr Claudia Sumner, London advocacy manager for the Child Poverty Action Group; and Diana Sutton, director at the Bell Foundation. I will hand over to Mohammed Yasin for the opening questions.

Mohammad Yasin: Welcome, panel. Diana, why is persistent absence more of a problem for primary-age children with English as an additional language than for second-age pupils?

Diana Sutton: We have looked at the data and also run a survey of some of our partner organisations. We see very clearly from the data that language combined with ethnicity is a risk factor in eight out of the 10 groups who are severely and persistently absent.

In our survey, we also asked about transport. Transport is an issue because older children who are attending secondary school are much more able to get themselves to school. Also, older children see the importance of qualifications, as do their parents.

We have previously looked at the data on proficiency in English for the two years when it was collected in the school census. We found that the percentage of children new to the English language was much higher in primary schools than in secondary schools. That would suggest that the problem is communication, that some families are not proficient in English either and that children from families that are more proficient in English understand the school system a lot better. Unauthorised absence and holidays are not noticeably more of an issue for this cohort than for pupils with English as a first language.

Q83            Mohammad Yasin: Do you think that families with EAL understand the requirements for school attendance? If not, what can be done to educate them, to make them realise the importance of children attending school regularly?

Diana Sutton: No, I don’t think they do, because 74% of our survey respondents said that they had experienced challenges in working with families and caregivers of learners speaking English as an additional language, specifically when they were managing persistent or severe absence. Two common challenges described were language as a barrier to involvement and a lack of understanding of the school system and its requirements. People may have come from countries where the school system is different and do not necessarily understand the requirements for attendance.

On a positive note, we also heard from schools that for some families the amount of time spent by schools trying to increase attendance and ensure that families understood the system paid off in the long term. We also know that bilingualism has very positive associations with attainment, so if you join the school system at age five, you will outperform the national average at age 16. It is important, therefore, to engage in the primary phase.

We heard things such things as having buttons on websites to translate the school material into the home language are fairly cheap and very practical and the solutions to challenges are very much more about communication—coffee mornings, engaging parents, talking to parents and so on—than more punitive approaches.

Q84            Mohammad Yasin: One of my family members was taken on long holidays to Pakistan in the year when she was doing her GCSEs, so she missed them and she still regrets that. When I was abroad recently I met a family that was there for a long holiday and all they were worried about was the £250or whateverfine by the school; they were not concerned that the children were missing school. What can be done to educate these parents, to make them realise how important it is that the kids attend school and don’t miss their lessons?

Diana Sutton: This is all about communication in the primary phase, meeting parents, talking to parents, and engaging parents. When we ran the data, unauthorised holidays was not a bigger issue for this group than it is for English first-language pupils, but it is still an issue. It is about talking about the importance of examinations and qualifications but, according to the data, it is more of an issue in the primary phase.

Q85            Chair: It is striking, isnt it, that over the long term EAL children tend to outperform, although these issues are often challenging on arrival? Do you have any data on which years within primary children are particularly susceptible? Another issue might be that we start school earlier than in many European countries. Is there an element of particularly high rates of absence in the early years?

Diana Sutton: Yes, there are higher rates in the early years. The biggest attainment indicator for children with English as an additional language is their proficiency in English—proficiency in the language of instructionwhich is common sense but surprisingly the information is not collected in school data in England. It is collected in Wales and other devolved jurisdictions in the UK and it is also collected in the United States and other countries. We do not collect it but we should. It has by far the greatest impact on attainment and you can see that very clearly. We have shared data from Professor Strand of the University of Oxford on this. Late arrival in the system has a severe penaltysay if you arrive in year 6 or 9and we will talk a bit more about late arrival issues later.

Yes, school does start later in some countries, but we heard from schools about having coffee mornings and engaging and meeting parents. We heard from one local authority that it has a policy of always using the home language in its commentary and that can help, and with the online translation tools available now it can be very cheap to do. It is not an expensive intervention. My organisation translated guides to the system for Ukrainian parents and if we, as a charity, can do that, local authorities and Government services should be able to do it too.

Q86            Mohammad Yasin: An issue that has been raised with me is about families with very strong links at home who like taking the kids home regularly. They find it very hard to afford the fares and so on—you know how it is; they sometimes double or triple in the school holidays—so they take a risk during the school term to take the kids home. Do you think this is a problem?

Diana Sutton: It is not more of a problem for EAL pupils than for English first-language pupils. It is an issue but it is not as big an issue as late arrival and the provisions for those children, which I hope we will come on to. Yes, it is obviously something that needs to be dealt with, but through engagement with families and seeing the importance of education.

Q87            Mohammad Yasin: Can you tell us about the findings of your research on pupils who arrive in the school system between key stage 3 and key stage 5 with EAL?

Diana Sutton: Late arrivals struggle in the system for a number of reasons. They may or may not have covered the curriculum in the country they have come from. We have been working with Refugee Education UK and find that dispersal policies also have an impact, and that it is only in the GCSE year that that can be taken into account. Pupils could be moved and mid-year arrivals are an issue.

Another thing we are noticing is an increase in what we call withdrawal provision, where children are educated separately. People with long memories will recall that Calderdale Borough Council was taken to task by the Commission for Racial Equality and condemned for segregated practice. We see segregated practices creeping back into the system. Integrating a child into the mainstream is the fastest route to language acquisition and that is DFE policy, but we have not had any guidance on this from the Department since 2012, and we think that is important because we see it creeping back.

Q88            Mohammad Yasin: Do any other panel members have views on the questions I have raised?

Dr Sumner: Black and ethnic minority children are much more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts and so lots of issues around deprivation will come into play as well.

Q89            Chair: I will bring in Pauline Anderson on the specific barriers facing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Could you talk us through some of the specific barriers to attendance that those groups face? I guess the key question is whether the aspirations for attendance are the same for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children as for other children—or do cultural differences mean they should be treated differently?

I think I am on record as saying that my engagement with this Committee when I was a Minister talking about issues for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children was difficult because the Department did not have much specific policy for those groups, and sadly for those children, the figures for their attendance and attainment gaps are quite stark. I am interested to hear your evidence on how that situation could be improved and what approaches you think could make a difference.

Pauline Anderson: It might be worth giving you a little bit of background to my personal experience. I am an Irish Traveller. I have been an English teacher in inner-city Bradford and I became a primary school headteacher. I have been head of school improvement for Oxfordshire County Council and Sheffield City Council, and my current professional role is as director of learning, inclusion and skills for Derby City Council.

I am here today to represent the Traveller Movement but I thought it would be useful for you to see that I have been on the other side of the fence for education delivery. My own mum never went to school. Again, it is about understanding that story and why it is that in one generation, with the power of education, I can be sitting here with you today, and lots of other family members have similar stories.

When you begin to talk about your past experience of looking at these issues, it is easy to feel hopeless and to think that these are communities where there is not much chance of success, but the reverse is true. There is hope and there are some great stories of success, my own included, but also many others. What would bring about that success? You have already mentioned the low attainment figures and the very low attendance figures, and they are absolutely stark. We must accept that where there is persistent absenteeism but parents want children to attend school, something has to be wrong in that relationship. In the underlying context of schooling and wider support for families, something is not working and we need to understand those kinds of drivers.

I recently had a long conversation about some children not attending school and the difficulties of engaging with the family, and one thing I found was that the school leaders did not know the family. They did not know that one of those children is a young carer or about the health issues in the family. They did not understand the social isolation and they had absolutely no idea about the poverty indicators that are a major factor and not just in that family. Over 80% of the communities I am talking about today are below the poverty line or have very low incomes. I do not think that information is very well known.

As a headteacher, I did not expect anyone else to come in and do my job. I wanted to know my families, my parents, my children, and that is where we have to start; otherwise, we are not allowing the universal provision that is education in this country to do its job. We would like to support schools and school leaders to do this to the best of their ability, but to think about it from the human perspective. These are people. How well do you know those families and how well do you know the children and their circumstances, and then how can you engage with them?

Within the Traveller Movement, we look at how we can help schools to break down the barriers that they might find arise, and at how we can break this vicious cycle of poor engagement where the school is not always doing the right things and the family is not always responding that well. There might be a long history of non-attendance at school or never attending school and a fear of going into an institution like a large secondary school. I imagine that some people in this room perhaps still feel a bit shaky going back into a secondary school. Can you imagine what it is like if you have never been to school yourself, having to try to advocate for your child and come across school governors, the headteacher, the headteacher’s office and so on?

I think it starts from the human perspective and from every school doing its job well. Then we can begin to talk about specialist support.

Q90            Chair: Do you think it is fair to say that at the end of the day, and with the right support, aspirations for attendance should be the same for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities? You touched on a range of issues, but what about previous generations of the families not having been in education? Clearly that is different from many other communities. In your case, I take it from what you were saying that your parents wanted you to be in school.

Pauline Anderson: Yes.

Chair: Is there a challenge with some parents who do not necessarily want their children to be in school and particularly for older boys and older girls, toothe older ageswhere there is a culture of saying that the children do not need to be in school in some parts of the community? How do you challenge that? How should schools go about doing the outreach in a way that will engage with the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities rather than create conflict?

Pauline Anderson: In all communities—white British; all communities—and particularly those where poverty is a factor, there is disengagement with the education system and low aspiration. I think that has to be said across the board.

Are there particular issues within the Roma, Gypsy, Traveller community? There are cultures and traditions in some families. I think this is the problemthe stereotypical view that this family is very different from that family. To paint everyone with the same brush is the big mistake that we make in policy terms. That cannot be the starting point. We cannot say that that is never the case but, actually, it is not universal.

Q91            Caroline Ansell: My background is in education butforgive meI do not have extensive experience of or connection with the Traveller movement, so the question may be a naive one.

In the previous panel we heard that there was a very strong correlation between persistent absence and unmet or unrecognised need, whether that was mental health or special educational needs not being picked up. For a child in the Traveller movement—and there is no average for the child—building relationships with schools, how continuous would that school connection be? Do you anticipate that there would be a change of schools much more widely than with a settled community? Is that an issue around the recognition and identification of special needs, the provision there and the relationship building?

Pauline Anderson: All of the above, really. The Traveller Movement is, first and foremost, a research and policy development organisation, but we have developed some frontline services. We have an education and social justice unit and during lockdown supported the development of a community interest company, Open Doors Education and Training, which delivers digital online training development.

Q92            Caroline Ansell: Did you practise that in a populated Traveller community?

Pauline Anderson: Yes.

Caroline Ansell: Rather than the organisation?

Pauline Anderson: Yes. Just to be clear, we do not have thousands of children that we deliver services to but there is a sister organisation that is more in line with that. We have to say that racist bullying—our organisation listens to what children and young people say. We are talking here about attendance, and the statutory school age is five and we have children as young as—

Caroline Ansell: The thing I am asking is how often they change schools and whether that relationship building then is—

Pauline Anderson: The breakdown in schooling is much higher than in other populations. The reason for the breakdown in schooling is because of bullying, the cycle of low attendance, disengagement with the school, poor relationship with the family, risk of exclusion or threats of exclusion, and we are beginning to talk about—

Q93            Caroline Ansell: In theory, would the Traveller child or young person reasonably expect to attend the same school all the way through their school life or is there a sort of—

Pauline Anderson: I think you are alluding to people who travel, who are moving around.

Caroline Ansell: I think that is part of that.

Pauline Anderson: Yes. It is important to know that over 80% of Gypsies and Travellers live in fixed accommodation and are likely to be able to attend their local school.

Caroline Ansell: The same school and have that community.

Pauline Anderson: A local school, yes.

Q94            Caroline Ansell: Do your statistics reflect that nuance when you talk about some of the issues?

Pauline Anderson: Those statistics are quite hard to capture because often leaving one school and going to another is an informal arrangement, so it is not connected to an exclusion. It might be a normal house move but it might be—I alluded to this earlier—constructive exclusion, a bit like constructive dismissal in the workplace, where the environment in the school becomes so hostile that the family feels they cannot continue in that school.

Q95            Caroline Ansell: Are you able to distinguish between the settled and the travelling community?

Pauline Anderson: It is very hard to gain those statistics, even at a local level. You have mentioned special educational needs and lack of support for additional needs and particularly social, emotional and mental health, and where you are seeing distressed behaviour wrapped up as bad behaviour, or described in those terms, and perhaps setting that child on a journey into alternative provision and possibly into the youth or criminal justice environment.

We also have to understand under-attainment. If you look at the prison population, the low levels of basic skills in reading and maths are a real issue. If for any reason, whether it is because you have been travelling or because you have had low attendance, you are behind on your learning, how on earth are you going to access the full curriculum? Who is going to help you to catch up on reading and maths and give you the confidence to re-enter school life fully? Under-attainment needs to be addressed.

Q96            Chair: From your experience, can you give us some examples of initiatives that have worked to support the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community and to allow for that support and attendance to take place? You have obviously worked in a number of different locations. It would be useful to draw the Committee’s attention to some of the areas of best practice and where you have been able to deliver a successful approachyou or others.

Pauline Anderson: There is really good practice across the country. Again, we do not want this to be all about doom and hopelessness, because we have to be optimistic as leaders to take these things forward.

In my own city, in Derby, we have the new communities achievement team, which was originally formed to respond to the migration of the Roma community coming in from central and eastern Europe. It is everything that has been said about early English acquisition, English as an additional language, as well as recognising that for many Roma families that the family themselves are completely new to English, also new to education in any country, have not been through the education system and possibly have had very negative experiences in home countries, such as Hungary, where the children would be automatically put into a special school. Roma children are put into a special school. I do some work over there with Corvinus University of Budapest and we look at these issues.

The new communities team looks at removing those barriers, working with families, making sure that the whole family has access to English as an additional language teaching. At the moment, it is not only Gypsy/Roma but we have the Better Together Café in the Council House, which is there for Ukrainian refugees. They have their English lesson in the morning and then they run the café in the afternoon. That is proving to be very successful. It is the creativity and commitment to helping people overcome the barriers. We also help people to make applications to school, where the paperwork is too complicated.

Q97            Ian Mearns: Particularly eastern European Roma families are quite often coming from a context where they were actively discouraged from sending their kids to school. For them to be actively encouraged by schools to get their children in is kind of a shock to their systemsomething that has never happened before. I have a number of Romanian Romany families and Czech Romany families in my area. They just do not understand why all of a sudden the authorities want their children to go to school. It is a complete cultural shift for them. We have had some success in my own locality with that and have managed to break down some of those barriers, but a lot of hard work has to be done continually.

Pauline Anderson: Fantastic. During the pandemic it was recognised that many communities had poor access to online learning. Perhaps some of you were there at home with children trying to manage three children and deliver lessons. We found that a large proportion of the Gypsy and Traveller community were without digital access. We were funded by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to set up digital learning, so what works and has worked.

This is the interesting thing. Where young people have, even pre the pandemic, fallen out of the education system, they have now managed to re-engage through the online tuition for younger children and given older young people, who have become NEET—not in education, employment or training—a second chance to retain English and maths qualifications, then further on from that to develop training and internships.

If you look at Open Doors Education and Training as part of our website, you will see that that is having great success and turnaround stories: people who were out of education are now back in. We often find that through the adult learning service and through programmes like this, young people from these communities who perhaps did not have a good time at school go back through education as a second chance. That is very important.

Q98            Chair: You said earlier that we should have the same aspirations for the Gypsy and Traveller community, which I agree. It seems sensible that we should do. Is there any area of the country or any particular school or group of schools that you can point to where the attendance is on the same level for Gypsy, Roma, Traveller children as it is for other groups? The statistics are so stark and it is such a concern for this Committee. We looked into this specifically when I was a Minister and had to answer to the Committee. To be honest, there were not good answers necessarily. Are there any good examples you can point us to where that level of attendance has been achieved and sustained?

Pauline Anderson: I am not saying equal to national attendance but much higher than the figures that we are talking about today. I am happy to send those figures on to you. It is encouraging because, again, I am against hopelessness. The reason for the success is always back to the things we are talking about: relationships and engagement.

Q99            Chair: Yes, knowing your community. Your point about need is quite striking, one of the issues being that compared to other groups, Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities in poverty are probably less likely to be linked into a benefit system and getting that support. Therefore, they do not necessarily qualify through the mechanisms that schools often use to determine who needs extra support.

Your point about young carers is obviously a wider issue for the schools needing to do more work to identify and support young carers. I can imagine how the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community can find it much more difficult to identify those groups. It takes that detailed work to follow through.

Q100       Nick Fletcher: Thank you for what you have said; it has been very interesting. Some of this has already been covered but this is, in particular, for Dr Sumner. What are your thoughts on the increased absence rates of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds going to school there?

Dr Sumner: We have identified very specific cost-related barriers that act as a disincentive, particularly for children on lower incomes to go into school. There are issues like uniform costs, transport costs, costs of special occasions and dressing-up days. Lots of pupils have spoken to us about various issues that they identify as very specific barriers. For example, if they can only afford one uniform and their uniform isn’t clean or isn’t dry, that is a disincentive to go to school.

There are recent changes to the rules around uniform, encouraging schools to have fewer branded items, be able to go to different school suppliers, which we endorse. Forcing parents to go to one particular supplier or having lots of expensive branded items can mean that parents struggle to meet the cost of uniform or to just have one set of uniform and it becomes problematic for the children.

Things like special occasions, dressing-up days, pyjama day or World Book Daythings that are supposed to be fun for children and can be fun for lots of childrenfor low-income children there can be lots of extra costs incurred that act as a disincentive to go to school on that day. We heard from children who told us that for a specific day lots of people would buy a kind of costume from Amazon, and that would be about £20. If you cannot participate in that, that is a disincentive to going to school. Those are some of the kinds of things we see.

If there are problems with transport in lots of areas, particularly in more rural areas, and transport costs, that is a big barrier for children to overcome. Some children told us that, particularly on the day that benefits are paid, it is very difficult for them to get the early bus before the benefits are paid if there isn’t cash in their parents’ account early enough, so there can be ongoing problems. There are also rules around things like punctuality policies that children told us make it harder for them to go to school. For example, if a bus is late, if they have responsibility for getting younger children to school, perhaps some caring responsibilities—some children told us that with policies on lateness you get the same sanction if you are five minutes late as if you are an hour late. That is a disincentive.

Q101       Nick Fletcher: You have talked about lots of different issues and I am sure they are all important, but surely there is a bigger issue of children not wanting to go to school because maybe the parents do not see the value of education. Do you think it is the school uniform, transport or dressing-up day that is actually stopping kids going to school? Or do you think there is a bigger issue that we ought to be looking at, which is that a lot of parents do not see the value of school, “School never did me any good”? Do you think that is more of an issue? Are we just trying to pick off little things here that are not really barriers but—

Dr Sumner: We have never seen any evidence that parents on low incomes value education for their children any less than anyone else. A lot of our oral evidence came from talking to children in schools and identifying very specific policies that schools can change and that schools have absolute power over.

For example, with things like uniform, it is a big disincentive for that child that day. With things like fundraising policies, if a child knows that that day is a fundraising day for a charity, for example, and everyone is asked to bring in £1, if they do not have that £1 it is a big disincentive for them to go in. We are trying to see from the child’s perspective what school-related factors could remove barriers to children feeling less inclined to go to school.

Q102       Nick Fletcher: The school uniform is probably one of the best things that I think a school can have. We need to help the children obviously, but making school uniforms not uniform I think is probably a disincentive to 99% of the children out there. It is a good thing to feel part of a school and a uniform does that. I can see why we could remove fun days if you think that is a barrier, but on playing with school uniforms, I think that is a very important part of being in school, being in a community, being together, bringing people together so they feel part of one. We need to be careful of that, don’t we?

Dr Sumner: We absolutely agree with you. We are big fans of school uniform. I think school uniform is one of the great levellers, absolutely. We do not for one moment say “Do away with school uniforms. Our point is to make it cheaper and get rid of branded items. A lot of the schools we have worked in have very good second-hand pre-loved uniform provision. A lot of schools we work with did not portray it as a poverty alleviation measure. They portrayed it as a kind of sustainability initiativethat 10,000 pairs of grey trousers going to landfill every year is crazy from a whole range of perspectives.

There are lots of things that schools can do, particularly around uniforms, that would encourage children to come in in uniform. There are uniform swaps. Often PTAs can be involved in sorting out uniform: you grow out of it, you drop it at school, it can be reused.

Q103       Chair: On World Book Day, I remember visiting a school—I think in your neck of the woods, Ian—where they were making masks for children for World Book Day instead of having the costumes. They said that was more inclusive and it did not create the divide and the buying of Amazon costumes. I think there are ways of engaging with these things if the schools want to remove some of those barriers that it is important they address.

Dr Sumner: There are, absolutelyfor example, giving children t-shirts to decorate or bringing in a book. With things like school trips, even with residential trips we came across some excellent practice. Schools were working just post-covid or during the pandemic. In a primary school normally a section of the children would go to an activity centre that cost about £400. They could not do that because of covid so they invited the year 6s into the school for the weekend. They slept in the hall, had activities on the fieldarchery and climbing thingsand it was a tiny fraction of the price. I argue that it is a similar experience and for the children it is just as fun.

We are looking for ways to reduce very specific cost barriers. Also, it is very important for all parents to know who they can go to in the school if they are concerned about cost barriers to their child participating in any aspect of school—food, uniform, trips, curriculum. I think that it is very helpful to parents if they know that there is a point of contact that they can be in touch with and seek support without judgment.

Q104       Andrew Lewer: If you have a well-tendered sole supplier arrangement for school, that can actually be cheaper and probably more uniform, and there is less competition about brand names and just letting people choose for themselves, which goes against the point of having it in the first place, so that is not as straightforward as it may seem.

I want to move on to fines. Pauline and Claudia, your organisations disagreed with the use of fines and prosecution; I would like you to unpack why that is. What you think the DFE should do instead? Maybe you could answer the point—I know you were both in here—that I made to the previous panel that there is a concept of it being a disincentive to those who end up not being in the system, rather than just those who have ended up being fined saying they do not like it and they don’t think it works.

Pauline Anderson: I have already mentioned that the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities experience a far higher average rate of poverty than white British ethnic groups. In our opinion, fines are often compounding existing inequalities so it is adding one problem to another for very low-income families.

It is about knowing the families. Not every family is in the same position. Again, I go back to my very first comment that the broadbrush approach is the statistics tell us we are talking about very low-income people here, probably not the people who are going on the extended holidays and so on.

The reason why we don’t agree with fines for all families is because some of the reasons for non-attendance are not well understood. If we go back to poor health, or being a young carer, if a school understands and know that family and that child, it is very unlikely that they will even get to the point of fines. They will work with the local authority. I work with a local authority and we have an excellent attendance team. They work with early help with children and social care. They try to unpack that before it gets to that point.

My feeling is that if you have explored every option to support families and young peoplesometimes as young as five or six years old—and exhausted every opportunity to do it, maybe a fine is appropriate, but it is very unlikely once you know the circumstances that you will get to that point.

Q105       Chair: At the risk of being controversial, can I challenge you on that? Particularly with the Traveller community, where there has been a culture of children working in fairs, for instance, and taking days off school to do that, if we have the aspiration of raising attendance and making sure that people have the opportunity to pursue their education, doesn’t there come a stage at which that is essentially a valid reason to say, “You should not be doing this” and fines should be applied? Children should not be made to work in any case, and it is about trying to create a cultural change.

Pauline Anderson: That is a very interesting question. I recently gave a presentation to Ofsted’s East Midlands regional conference. I was invited there by an Ofsted colleague who is from the showman community and a highly successful Ofsted inspector. She explained about her background and also introduced a young woman from a similar backgroundshow people who were often travellingwho had succeeded because of the understanding that they would use the T code for specific periods of time, but once they were reintegrated back into the education system it was a very positive experience.

The young woman I am talking about went to Cambridge, got a first in theology. Roxy, who works for Ofsted, is clearly a success in the system. We need to look at the successes in the system as well as the dire statistics, and let’s build on hope and optimism, because there certainly is that. I will be speaking again with Roxy to colleagues in Ofsted at the Nottingham office at the end of June. I think it is about a balanced approach and not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How do you keep and respect cultural differences?

Chair: It is about striking the right balance.

Pauline Anderson: We do not want to go into that zone of denial or ethnic removal, do we? Also, I do not think anyone would want to lose the richness of the Gypsy and Traveller heritage in this country, going back hundreds of years. There are successes; how do we build on the successes?

Dr Sumner: We take the view that fining people who are already facing considerable financial hardship is not very constructive or helpful. Our research suggests that taking a more positive approach to promoting and encouraging engagement will improve attendance and be more effective.

Q106       Andrew Lewer: It is more about the engagement. As Pauline has said, if you have gone through all thateveryone in this space, because they care about it, will inevitably say that there is not enough support and there should be more. We understand that, but we also understand that we have the highest taxation rate since the second world war. What do you do when you have tried all that and people are persistently not engaging and not having their child attend school?

Dr Sumner: There has to be an evidence-based approach to these things. Lots of them are very complex reasons. I am not sure there is much evidence to say that fining someone £200 will bring a child who is persistently absent back into school.

Q107       Andrew Lewer: Does it demonstrate to everybody else that if you persistently do this there is a penalty for it?

Dr Sumner: Perhaps. I don’t know if other people would like to come in on this.

Diana Sutton: I will add that the teachers in schools we spoke to felt that fines were largely ineffective and that the issue for the EAL community is communication and actually not understanding the system. Interventions, like the use of interpreters to translate information and school staff who speak the home language, are much more effective. It is about what is really going to make a difference.

Q108       Kim Johnson: Picking up on the previous question about socioeconomic barriers, Dr Sumner, I want to know from your point of view whether the increase in poverty and 13 years of underfunding across the public and private sector has led to the increase in persistent absences?

Dr Sumner: Our work is very much focused on what schools can do to engage families, engage pupils and remove very specific barriers to attendance, and any moves that can help families with school costs. The two biggest school costs that were identified were uniform and food. There are various issues around free school meals. In Scotland, Wales, and very soon in London, primary school children will not be paying for school meals, but I think there are lots of costs around lunch.

We have done some work around assessing the cost of school. School is supposed to be free to attend. We have calculated it costs about £19 a week for a child to attend primary school, for example, and £39 a week at secondary. There are lots of costs that families face. That was calculated on having a packed lunch rather than a hot school lunch.

I think that schools are increasingly aware—particularly very recently—that an awful lot of people are feeling the cost of living squeeze, and schools are bending over backwards looking for ways to support families with those costs.

Q109       Kim Johnson: Diana, 51% of boys in young offenders institutions are black, compared to 14% of the population, and 25% of children in custody are black, compared with 4% in the general population. What do you think is needed to challenge these inequalities and keep more of our students in education and out of the school-to-prison pipeline? What interventions are you aware of that improve attendance?

Diana Sutton: There has been a vacuum of policy from the Department on this issue since 2012. We had a very short briefing, we have had funding for refugee communities, but that is it. To be very clear, our expertise is around English as an additional language rather than other ethnic groups, not making policy from aggregate datasets. First, if you look at the datasets alone without looking at ethnicity, time of arrival in the school system and first language, you get a very different picture. Secondly, issue guidance and policy on this, because we have had literally nothing.

We have also had the decimation of ethnic minority achievement services, following the removal of the ringfenced funding. Pretty much all the support services from local authorities have disappeared in that time, so schools are operating in a vacuum of expertise and lack of teacher training in this area.

The other issue, particularly with late-arriving students, is particular types of provision that build access into the mainstream. We are aware of positive practice in Kent, Nottingham and Bristol, where children are supported to learn English for a limited time and then accessed into the mainstream.

Kim Johnson: Would anyone else like to comment?

Pauline Anderson: I want to draw your attention to the report by the Traveller Movement on disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline—I am happy to share that with colleagues after this event—and the fact that we are working with the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education on the practical implications of things like low literacy and numeracy skills, which are other drivers into the youth and criminal justice system. There is quite a lot of work going on in that area with the Traveller Movement and between Government Departments.

Q110       Mrs Flick Drummond: Claudia, in your research on the cost of the school day, you identified a number of interventions. You have talked about those and the barriers. Is there a particular intervention that is the most effective in improving attendance?

Dr Sumner: I think lowering school costs—hidden costs and explicit costs. Also, it is very important for schools to disseminate widely that there is someone that families can talk to if they are concerned about cost barriers.

Q111       Mrs Flick Drummond: Do you agree with an extended school day? Would that help with not only attendance but enrichment, particularly for children on low incomes?

Dr Sumner: There is evidence that breakfast clubs can support attendance. You get them in and feed them and they are more likely to be there. I noticed that in Ofsted’s submission to this inquiry it also discussed breakfast clubs and the role they might play.

On extended schools, we support access to enrichment activities, sports clubs, music clubs, craft clubs, at a cost-free or affordable level. Extended schools can support families, obviously, if they are appropriately run, staffed and funded. They can support families to work more easily.

Q112       Mrs Flick Drummond: At one of my local schools I talked about an extended school day and they said, “Well, no one would come in then if we had long days. The only days they come in is when we have activities.” That is exactly what I mean. Extending the school day would attract people because of the activities and the interesting stuff that you have to do apart from the academic stuff.

Dr Sumner: The very important social aspect of school. I think children are learning all day and then kicking a ball around.

Q113       Caroline Ansell: Related to this is the holiday activity food programme that is in its first few years. It is probably too soon for a solid evidence base, but one of the hopes is that that might provide a bridge over the summer, so that those who struggle with attendance still have a connection through the long summer weeks and are more likely to make a more confident return in September. You might not have seen any data, but what is your sense around that principle and the holiday activity food programme?

Dr Sumner: We absolutely encourage that. I know that it is in various pilot areas and we would encourage it go to nationwide. It can be very helpful to support families in the holidays, absolutely.

Q114       Caroline Ansell: With absence as well, and maintaining that connection?

Dr Sumner: If children continue to be engaged, active, structured and fed in the holidays, it cannot hurt.

Q115       Chair: On your recommendation of having a point of contact, do you have a view as to who that ought to be in a school? Should that be the class teacher or one of the leadership team? Is there a view on what works most effectively for that?

Dr Sumner: We have heard from a lot of family support workers, who can be great. From our work in schools, it is whoever parents find most approachable. Often in primary schools particularly it is the front of housethe office person on reception—who parents see at drop-off and pick-up and feel most comfortable with.

Chair: Pauline, do you want to come in on that?

Pauline Anderson: Yes, just to also draw attention to the priority education investment areas—of which Derby is one and there are numerous others—that have a focus on attendance. I think the direction of travel is a good one, not just particularly for Gypsies and Travellers but for all disadvantaged groups.

We are looking at best practice across 10 multi-academy trusts in the country and I had the privilege of being part of one, which was run by North Shore. The depth of practice, the family engagement and the kind of work we are talking about today was fantastic. That was just excellent practice. That would apply to any disadvantaged group if people are working in that way, so we do have good examples.

Chair: Thank you. That is a useful advertisement for one of our future sessions, which is going to be on best practice and talking to some of those MATs and groups of schools. That is definitely an important part of what we want to address with this inquiry, to look at what works and where it works. If you have any further detailed examples that you can send to us, where there has been very successful approaches to attendance, particularly with the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community, and also with other marginalised groups, that would be very helpful to understand. We want to be able to pull those out and look at examples for how the system in general could do better. You have been very patient. You have taken lots of questions and we have massively overrun our allotted time today, but it has been a very useful session, so thank you very much.