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Education Committee

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

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 6 June 2023.

Watch the meeting

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

Questions 116 to 186

Witnesses

I: David Holmes CBE, CEO, Family Action; Declan Barker, HAF Manager, Nottingham City Council; and Leigh Middleton, CEO, National Youth Agency.

II: Nathan Persaud, Programmes Director for England, School of Hard Knocks; and Jonathan Pauley, 11+ Education Manager, City Inspires.


Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: David Holmes, Declan Barker and Leigh Middleton.

Q116       Chair: Welcome to the third session of the Committees inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. We will be hearing evidence today from two panels, in the first of which I am pleased to welcome David Holmes CBE, CEO of Family Action; Declan Barker, the holiday activities and food manager for Nottingham City Council; and Leigh Middleton, CEO of the National Youth Agency. You are all very welcome.

David, could I start by asking you to give a brief overview of the national school breakfast club programme?

David Holmes: Good morning, everyone. I am very pleased to be here. The national school breakfast club programme, funded by the Department for Education, has been in operation since 2018. It is a national programme that currently reaches up to 2,700 schools in England. The whole purpose of the programme is to provide a free nutritious breakfast to children living in areas of income deprivation. Currently, there are more than 2,500 schools on the programme. The DfE recently extended the programme to 2,700, so we are recruiting those additional schools now.

The programme has existed in different phases over the last five and a half years. Originally, there were 1,800 schools on the programme. The focus of the initial phase was sustainable breakfast provision. Then, of course, we came into the pandemic and the programme transformed into one that was providing a new form of breakfast provision, often using take-home packs for children who were unable to have breakfast at school. Since July 2021, the programme has been focusing on a larger group of schools, but is requiring schools to pay 25% of the price of the food that is supplied.

I have been responsible for the programme since it began in 2018, and we have conducted lots of surveys of schools to see the impact. What has been really interesting is how positive schools have been about the programme, but also how wide the impact is. I know that this Committee is particularly interested in the impact on attendance, and I would certainly say that a lot of schools do talk positively about the impact of attendance, but we can also see the difference it makes to childrens wellbeing, to their ability to concentrate and to improving behaviour in class, but particularly to readiness to start the school day. The impacts of the programme are wide-ranging.

Q117       Chair: Thank you. I absolutely recognise that all the programmes we are hearing from today will have benefits beyond attendance, but what we are keen to establish is what the evidence base is for what works for attendance and for tackling both persistent and severe absence. Can you talk us through what the evidence is so far on the impact that breakfast clubs can have on those issues?

David Holmes: Yes. I want to talk about punctuality as well, because that is certainly linked. In the first phase of the programme, we conducted an exercise with schools to look at the number of children with late marks in the term before the programme began and then in the term after the programme had begun. We saw a 28% reduction in late marks once the national school breakfast programme was present in schools.

In phase one of the programme we did not specifically look at the impact on attendance, but we are doing so in this phase of the programme. We already have some data on attendance; it is currently with DfE analysts for checking, but we will be able to provide that data to the Committee in time for your final report, which I understand will be after the summer. What I can say is that a majority of schools are reporting at least some impact on improving attendance, but it is really important not to overstate that and to recognise that there is a spectrum of attendance. We are looking at improving the punctuality of children, where providing a school breakfast provision may encourage those children to get into school on time or may encourage their families to ensure the children get to school on time. The impact of breakfast clubs on persistent and severe attendance merits further analysis.

I would be really keen for us to segment different groups of children who may have poor attendance at school and to take a really intelligent approach to that. School breakfast can make a difference there. For example, if a child has anxiety issues, working really proactively with that child and giving them a role in a school breakfast club may encourage them to come in. For children who are worried about lining up with a big group of children and entering school with them, going straight into a breakfast club may be an easier start to the day. For children with special educational needs and disabilities who find it difficult to make that transition from home into the classroom, a breakfast club may be a softer start to the day. There are a range of different situations where sensitively provided breakfast provision could at least have some impact on attendance.

Q118       Chair: That absolutely makes sense. We would certainly be grateful if, when that evidence has been through the DfE analysts, you could share it with the Committee; that would be very useful. As you say, any segmentation that looks at persistent and severe absence will be particularly useful for the purposes of this Committee. We know in general, and from the published figures from the Government, that persistent absence has increased very substantially since the pandemic. That is obviously a concern. Is that trend reflected in the schools for which you provide breakfast clubs, or are you seeing some of them buck that trend?

David Holmes: The impacts of the pandemic are wide-ranging across all aspects of life. What we are seeing is a recognition that a really well-planned breakfast club has a role to play in bringing the whole school community together and in helping to provide some answers about not only the lingering effects of the pandemic, but the current cost of living crisis that the country faces. We often talk about breakfast clubs as if there were just one type of breakfast cluboften people have an idea in their mind of children sitting down around a table in a school hall or something and everybody eating together. One of the beauties of the national school breakfast programme is that we have lots of different models of breakfast provision. We do have that traditional form, but also a breakfast that is provided literally as children come into the playground, or a grab-and-go bar, which is popular in secondary schools. Providing breakfast actually in the school classroom is something we are doing as well. Often schools are providing multiple models of breakfast, depending on what they need. The learning from the national school breakfast programme is that having this bespoke tailored approach that reflects what the school needs makes the schools really enthusiastic about the provision and ensures that it has the intended impact.

Q119       Chair: Obviously breakfast clubs are one among many interventions to support children. You set out some of the circumstances in which they may need supportanxiety, special educational needs and so on. Have you done any analysis of which other measures make a difference alongside breakfast clubs, in terms of the evidence that you have looked at? Have you looked at what is working where there are multiple interventions going on and what the most effective combinations are?

David Holmes: Family Action, the charity of which I am the chief executive, provides the national school breakfast programme, but our core work is family support. We have a very broad experience of working with families experiencing disadvantage in lots of different circumstances. For example, we have specialist young carer services, services working with special educational needs and disability, and lots of family support work. This is not in relation to the national school breakfast programme, but more broadly.

For example, in Cumbria, where we have large family support services, we have now been commissioned to provide a pilot service focusing on school attendance and improving school attendance, which is really important because it recognises that the reasons why a child may not be in school need careful interrogation. They may be down to lots of situationsmental health, wellbeing, being a young carer, special educational needs or disabilityand it is specialist work to understand those circumstances and then come up with a plan that is going to work for that child and their family. Having that broad experience and recognising that is important, and I am sure it will go beyond the knowledge base that is in the school to involve other agencies as well.

Chair: Thank you. I will bring in Kim.

Q120       Kim Johnson: Thank you, Chair, and good morning to the panel. David, I just wanted to pick up on the point you raised about schools contributing 25% towards the programme. Given that most of the schools are operating in disadvantaged areas, and we know that there has been massive inflation of food prices in the last couple of months, I just want to know how schools will survive with that massive food inflation. Also, with the programme due to end in 2024, what are you doing to try to ensure the Government continue with this programme?

David Holmes: Thank you for asking those questions. On the first point, you are absolutely right: food price inflation is much higher than the standard rate of inflation that is reported. That schools have continued to be part of the programme and wanted to be part of it is a mark of how much they value it. It is good to see that even in this high inflation context, we are still able to recruit additional schools to the programme and that the fact that schools have to pay a proportion of the food costs is not deterring them from remaining on it.

The 75% subsidy of food costs is a considerable benefit to the schools, but you are absolutely right that at the moment the programme is scheduled to end in July 2024. It is currently feeding hundreds of thousands of children every school day, and I wonder what is going to happen to those children in terms of receiving a healthy breakfast if the school ends it. We want the Government to continue this programme, but we also want there to be cross-party recognition that providing a healthy, nutritious breakfast without fear or stigma to children who need it is vital because, as I was saying at the very beginning, the knock-on benefits in terms of the wide range of outcomes that are achieved are very good value for public money.

Q121       Miriam Cates: I will move on to the eligibility criteria for the national school breakfast club programme. At the moment, as I understand it, for a school to be eligible, 40% of the children must be from low-income backgrounds, but all the children are then eligible for the breakfast if it is provided. Leigh, if I could start with you: do you think that those are good criteria? Would you expand it to more schools? Would you have a mixed economy in terms of paying/not paying? How would you change it if you could?

Leigh Middleton: The obvious answer is to remove all the barriers to access, so it is as cheap as it can be and requires less measures. I would start with the 1.7 million young people who live in poverty but do not meet the free school meals threshold and so do not get counted in the calculations for who should have access to these support services, because that is the group who are struggling, who do not get the help and who are more likely to be missing.

Q122       Miriam Cates: There is a clear benefit when the breakfast club is in operation to it being universal, is there not, because it removes stigma and it makes it easier to operate? If you were going to continue the universal model, it would obviously become unaffordable very quickly if you expanded it to all schools, so are you suggesting that the bar for starting a club reduces or that you would have different criteria in different schools?

Leigh Middleton: I would reduce that barscrap it entirely, if you could. I am an expert in youth services: when I was running my own youth service we scrapped substhe quid it used to cost you to come to youth club—and the minute we scrapped that, we doubled the number of young people coming. Even £1 on Tuesday night was a barrier. Schools will have a list of children they are worried about, who they really want through this provision, but they have friendsyou need to make sure their peers also get to participate, because that is what brings the one you really want to engage. If you remove the limits and the thresholds as much as you can, you are more likely to get a larger group through, but you are also likely to get the ones you really want to focus on through quicker.

Q123       Miriam Cates: David, on Kims point about the schools paying 25%, is it not also the case that the schools that are eligible for this programme are funded more generously than other schools simply because of the deprivation contingent of funding, and that they are therefore more likely to be able to afford that at present? I am not saying that there are not pressures on their budgets; of course there are. If you did roll it out to other schools, potentially with a less deprived background, there would be some significant funding challenges, would there not?

David Holmes: Yes, there would. School budgets have lots of pressures. What is importantI say this in the sixth year of providing the national school breakfast programmeis that schools are prioritising contributing to the programme. They clearly think it is worth spending money on.

In such a challenging public spending environment, there is a choice: do you make this offer available to everyone, or do you make it available where it is going to have the most impact? If I had to choose, I would say make it available where it is going to have the most impact.

For example, when we talk about free breakfast provision but only for primary-aged children, I worry, because young people over the age of 10 in secondary school get hungry too. I worry if there is conflation of providing breakfast provision with childcare, because it is different; we know that most childcare provision is relatively small. We need to be really clear about the policy objective here, which is reducing morning hunger and making sure that there is a more level playing field so that children going to school have the same chance to succeed—that their chances are not affected by the fact that they are hungry. If that requires some prioritisation, I think that is all right.

Q124       Anna Firth: Can we move on to the issue of holiday clubs and the holiday activities and food programme? Declan, can you give a brief overview of how the programme works in Nottingham?

Declan Barker: Good morning, all, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. I am really happy to be here to talk about the HAF programme. In Nottingham city, we have close to 18,000 young people in receipt of benefits-related free school meals.

In terms of how we work the programme, we have two lead organisations that deliver big universal provisions on site: Nottingham Forest Community Trust and Trent Bridge Community Trust. They work collaboratively with schools to base provision at the school sites. We see that as a key marker and a key success, because we are bringing community provision into a safe, secure site where the children know their schools. What we want to do is associate schools with really happy experiences. the HAF programme provides really enriching, highly stimulating experiences, inclusive of enrichment in sports.

The model of the programme is four days by four hours. In essence, that means that on arrival, children in Nottingham City will usually receive a breakfastor if it is later on in the day, they will receive their lunch on arrival and snacks throughout the day. It is then very full-on in terms of activities and provision. It is very fast-paced, and the feedback that we have had from our evaluations is that the children really like the variation of trying lots of new activities. While our key outcome is always to try to feed as many young people in receipt of benefits-related free school meals as possible, there have been a lot of further outcomes in the programme: new activities, new friendship groups and engagement in wider holistic community activities, including mentoring, which has really helped young people to have better relationships with Nottinghamshire police, which we are really pleased with.

In the programme, while the format is to engage as many children in receipt of free school meals as possible, there is a 15% allowance within which you can target and engage children who are not in receipt of benefits-related free school meals. Each local authority has its own parameters around which young people meet those criteria. It could be looked-after children, or there may be children who have additional needs a safeguarding risk, so they really need the safe space that the provision offersthat four hours of real high-quality activity and safe space.

We ourselves also fund schools and SEND-specific programmes. Again, they are usually delivered on school sites due to difficulties of SEND children accessing community activities and the barriers to them accessing and continuing to access that.

Q125       Anna Firth: What you have just been saying about SEND-specific programmes and children with additional needs is very interesting. One of the things that has been raised to me by parents who come to see me in Southend is that there is not the same provision within that cohort for deaf children, for example, and children with learning difficulties. In Nottingham, within that 18,000 cohort, what proportion of children are you able to help with additional needs or SEND-specific requirements?

Declan Barker: At the start of this year we looked really hard at how we could increase our capacity to engage SEND children. It is quite clear that the cost per head for the SEND children is really high in comparison to a universal provision, but that should never be a barrier to a young person engaging in provision. What we have done is look back and say, “Instead of funding loads more SEND-specific provision, how can we bring them into a universal provision and make adaptations to that? We have given our providers the strengths and resources through additional staff with specialist skills to be able to engage those children in a universal provision, which helps to reintegrate those children into their local community.

Q126       Anna Firth: How has that worked?

Declan Barker: It has worked really well for us. We have a centralised booking system that is universal: every child in the city on free school meals and identified as SEND gets access to that system. On booking, if it is showing that the young person has SEND, our providers do a discovery call to speak to the young person and understand more about what their needs are and how they can meet their needs. The provider and I will then have a two-way conversation to understand what provisions we, as a local authority, can put in place to make their universal provision fit for purpose for that young person. If it is not suitable, it is for us to work with our other holistic providers around SEND-specific provisions to make sure they are able to get on that provision, whether it be transport orif they have autism, for exampleperhaps a site visit in advance of provision to make sure anxieties are eased and that they understand where the fire exits are or what the site and staff look like.

Q127       Anna Firth: Of those who contact you with SEND difficulties, what proportion are you able to accommodate in Nottingham?

Declan Barker: I do not have that statistic to hand, but we are increasing year in, year out in terms of how many we engage.

Q128       Anna Firth: Thank you very much. A final question: of the 18,000 who are eligible to attend, what proportion actually do attend?

Declan Barker: During shorter holiday periods it tends to be a small proportion, but over the summer the number is much higher. We tend to find that children want to be outside more, the school sites have grounds that can better accommodate much greater numbers, and we have a greater uptake of providers who want to provide sporting activities.

Q129       Chair: What sort of proportion is it over the summer at the peak?

Declan Barker: Around 6,000.

Q130       Caroline Ansell: I should probably confess to being a passionate advocate of the holiday activities and food programme; I think it has incredible potential and enormous wider benefits, but we are just focusing on attendance today. One thing I am very aware of is the budget implications. It has to show value for money because there is a significant opportunity cost to every £1 spent. Nationally, £200 million is dedicated to this programme annually, and even in my own county it is £1.6 million across the 80 settings. In terms of the evidence base, and David’s earlier point around making a case for continued and further investment, what evidence are you aware of that the HAF programme positively impacts attendance?

Declan Barker: Each holiday period, the HAF team and I go out and conduct quality assurance visits. During Easter, I was at a large multi-academy trust. On the first day I attended, I was really fortunate, because they had a young person who was persistently absent from school but had already attended HAF on day one. The schools are coming back to us with that feedback. As part of the evidence we submitted, our schools that host provision with community partners coming in and providing activities are saying that the structure and consistency of activity over the holiday periods is showing increasing benefitsfirst for families and childrens perception of school, and secondly for attendance rates when they return after the holiday period. That is why we are seeing an increased number of schools willing to host and open their gates during the school holidays. In year one, it was really difficult to get schools to understand what the programme was and to encourage staff to come in during the holidays, open the gates and allow community providers to come in and provide activities.

Q131       Caroline Ansell: That sounds very encouraging and promising, but in terms of data gathering, what you are describing is a little anecdotal in nature. What are you requiring of your schools to provide by way of substantive data?

Declan Barker: In terms of the HAF outcomes, the data is not around persistent absence, and it does not require that, but these are the wider outcomes that they are feeding back to us. It is something that we are going to look to measure more closely going forward.

Q132       Caroline Ansell: At this point, do you have any initial thoughts about how you are going to measure?

Declan Barker: Around the school attendance rates, really, to see what the drop-off is. HAF is delivered at the end of a full term, so we would be looking to see whether there was a direct correlation around a spike or a decrease in attendance when HAF had not been delivered over a half-term on school sites. That is the way we will look to measure that.

Q133       Caroline Ansell: Will you focus on the September return? Are you looking at particular ages and stages? Are you looking at different cohort groups? How will you do that? I am just very aware that the last funded year is 2024, so there is actually already quite a limited runway to establish this case. Are you aware of similar data gathering research proposals in other authorities?

Declan Barker: I am not aware of any other local authority that is looking at this specifically.

Q134       Caroline Ansell: Thank you, that is very helpful. Relatedly, if part of the overarching mission is to reach those children who are on free school meals and provide them with nutritious food during the holiday breaks, as well as having engaging activities, should we not be very concerned that only 29% of those children who are eligible are actually attending the programmes? If so, what are some of the responses to try to swell the numbers?

Declan Barker: Local authorities are becoming much slicker in how we are getting the messaging to children directly, ensuring that the pre-eligibility checks are in place and the messaging is getting in the right hands. When we look at the number of children engaged, it is important that we look at the wider context around attendance during the programme. Around a holiday periodtake summer, for example, where we have 12 days of provisionwe could look to engage each child once. We are perhaps not doing the greater good there, whereas if we have a smaller cohort engaging consistently throughout the programme, we are offering wider support for a longer period. Ultimately, it is about the funding level: we have to do what we can on a cost-per-head basis that works for both our providers and the food providers.

Q135       Caroline Ansell: Do you not have the funds associated with a 100% take-up of the programme? Is it funds or is it providers, or is it a mix of both?

Declan Barker: It is a combination of everything, really. It is parents attitudes towards booking on a programme like thisalthough everything is put in place to de-stigmatise the programme, there will still be some who see it as a food bank. The cost of living is increasingly difficult: food prices are greatly inflated, so the cost per head has gone up naturally without the providers putting in any other additional costs around venues or their coaches wages or salaries. It has become more difficult, but what we have seen in Nottingham is a real willingness and determination for the food network and the providers to work more collaboratively to drive that real value per head and work smarter around how they procure food, which sites they are working at and how they work in greater partnerships to engage bigger numbers, to minimise the cost.

Q136       Caroline Ansell: Is availability part of the issue, with the only 29% take-up?

Declan Barker: Again, it is trying to get as many bums on seats as possible for the cost per head. Ultimately, there are only so many children we can engage around the fees.

Q137       Caroline Ansell: I am not sure I am totally clear on that. Leigh, what are your thoughts?

Leigh Middleton: From our experience and the reviews that we have been on the fringes of is, it is about who is providing that offer. School sites are used a lot of the time, but young people do not want to go back to school in the summer holidays, because their holiday time is a time away from that environment. Where youth sector providers or youth services are providing in a different environment, in a youth centre or a more community-based orientated venue, that is more attractive to young people, and you get a different audience.

Caroline Ansell: That is also my experience in my home town. In fact, there are one or two schools in the mix, but otherwise it is sports clubs and activities.

Leigh Middleton: I have also seen how some councils are subsidised and are putting more money into their HAF pots because they want a broader range of interventions in a broader range of settings. Some of the restrictions, certainly in the earlier years of HAF, were put around the funding and how it could be utilised.

It is also about removing some of the barriers to access. We hear about online booking systems, but a lot of families do not have internet or do not know how to navigate it. It is quite difficult: special needs, young people, families, parents with special needsall these things just make it harder and harder to engage. I have seen areas where they give out lots of vouchers, but then you hear, “What do you do with this bit of paper? How do I convert this? All of that gets in the way of provision, but it is about providing support to young people where they need it and where they will choose to engage. That is where the special bits for youth work and youth services are.

Q138       Caroline Ansell: Are you seeing a higher take-up of places than the 29% average?

Leigh Middleton: I cannot answer your question, sorry. We have not done an analysis of HAF or interventions of that nature. Certainly with traditional youth servicesnot many of them exist like they used to, going back a decade or so—we would focus on the 10% of the population who most need free school meals, universal credit, etc. When I was running my local government service, we were getting 75% of that cohort of young people through our services, so you can provide the right support for them and in the right way.

Q139       Caroline Ansell: I have one final question, if I may, about the experience where there is not 100% take-up of places that are funded and provided, and the new freedom where around 15% can be dedicated to other groups. You listed a number of themlooked-after children, young carers, children at risk of exploitation or domestic violence. Frankly, I would have thought they should all qualify. Do you think there is scope to adjust that figure to be more inclusive and bring in a wider cohort of children such as those you talked about? When you consider this, 15% seems low.

Leigh Middleton: It does seem low. I would trust local people with local data to understand their local story, because it is so different in a rural or coastal community and in an urban one. The need and the percentages of different young people will be all over the show, so having more flexibility and saying, “Actually, this is an area we want to focus on—this is a group of young people that we recognise are disproportionately missing in absence from school, means that we could skew services in that direction. I guess that that is the targeting that David was talking about. In my head, that would be logical.

Q140       Caroline Ansell: That is really helpful. In terms of attendance, are you aware of any evidence, or gathering any evidence, to illustrate that this is having a positive impact on attendance?

Leigh Middleton: On the HAF Programme? Not directly, no. We ran a workshop for the Department with youth sector providers on their experience of delivering HAF under contract from local authorities and how we could improve that. Vouchers, online systems and all sorts of barriers came up, along with locations and the types of activity provided. A lot of it is quite sport-orientated, which is not so attractive to young women, stereotypically. We unpacked some of that, but not its effect on attendance. I am sorry.

Q141       Ian Mearns: I am interested in what you have been saying there, Leigh, regarding having to concentrate on particular groups of youngsters. It seems to me that you have put together programmes, or are working with programmes, that have had to prioritise particular youngsters. From your perspective, I am sure you would want to expand those programmes to a much larger group of youngsters if you could. I think it was one of your predecessors, Tom Wylie, who said that you cannot provide youth services without money. I think he said that in about 2004I did know him quite well. It seems to me that there must be an awful lot of youngsters who, in your judgment, really should be able to engage with these programmes, but are prevented from doing so just because of the lack of money.

Leigh Middleton: Yes. Lets get the money out of the way: we have spent £1 billion of public money less on youth services this year than we did a decade ago. That has a massive impact: there are fewer youth centres, there are fewer youth workers, we have a less professionalised workforce and there is just less support for those young people.

The thing we find quite fascinating is that young people spend 85% of their waking hours outside school, yet with all the interventions and everything, we expect schools to respond to every issue that young people have. Schools are amazingthey do incredible work for children and young people, and they are absolutely the hub around them—but children are not there for 85% of their time. That is the time when we have the opportunity to engage them. If you are not attending school, you are spending 100% of your time out of the school gates. Community-based provision, youth workers, Scouts, Girl Guides, uniform groups, church-based youth clubs, groups, parents in the village hall on Friday nightit is those trusted adults who have a relationship and a connection to those young people. We are starving those colleagues of the resources to meet those needs.

Q142       Ian Mearns: The voluntary activity is brilliant and we all applaud it, but without the hard edge of a professional youth service, you are not actually actively trying to get out there and reach out to the youngsters who are not automatically brought into those voluntary organisations.

Leigh Middleton: No. These are interventions that youth workers are very familiar with, like detached youth work. There will be youth workers tonight on the streets of London talking to young people in housing estates, in communities, down by the riverwherever they are and whatever they are up to, they will be engaging them and sometimes preventing bad things from happening at the same time. Building that rapport and that relationship with young people means that you can then encourage them into education and give them that support.

You are absolutely right that it is about professional intervention. I think youth work is often dumbed down to just playing ping-pong and pool, but actually it is not. It is a highly technical skillset with degree-qualified experts who should be delivering this—absolutely supported by volunteers and others, but what we have lost in this country is a lot of our professional intervention.

Q143       Kim Johnson: Henry Dimbleby, in his food strategy, and CPAG state that policies like universal free school meals are the best policies to improve health and education attainment. Have there been any comparative studies between the roll-out of breakfast clubs and universal free school meals?

David Holmes: My starting point is that the eligibility for the national school breakfast club programme is a lot broader than the eligibility for free school meals, but I think if you bring it down to the level of the individual childit is always important to do that when you are thinking about the effectiveness of policywhat we are really talking about here is providing food for children who otherwise might not eat. The imperative has to be that we are ensuring that children are receiving enough healthy, nutritious food to be able to function well and to have the same chances as any other child.

Q144       Kim Johnson: This inquiry is about persistent absences. Would you say that this is just presenting a problem and not going far enough in looking at the major issues around poverty, housing or health, and that what needs to be done must reflect more than just a sticking-plaster approach in terms of breakfast clubs?

David Holmes: That is really important, because you could just look at persistent absence, severe absence, without situating that issue within the context of everything else that is happening in a child or familys life. In my earlier comments, I was talking about taking a segmented approach to who we are actually talking about. What are the reasons for a child being persistently late? Is it because they are a young carer and they have significant caring responsibilities at home? Is it because of family functioning, where for whatever reason the routines are not in place to ensure that that child gets to school on time? Are there mental health reasons? Is it special educational needs or disability? Is it the cumulative impact of poverty that is causing such problems within the family that things just are not working as they should?

I was looking at this specifically in the national school breakfast club programme. For children in temporary accommodation, the breakfast club was such a benefit because it stopped the parents having to struggle to make breakfast in the morning when they were sharing facilities: instead, they could just take the child to school and know that the child was having breakfast. So yes, you have to take a systemic approach to this and think about how the provision of a breakfast club, or other interventions together, can reduce inequalities.

Q145       Kim Johnson: David mentioned that the system does not go far enough. It has been suggested that free school meals, the voucher scheme, has been and could be more beneficial than holiday activities or breakfast clubs for disadvantaged pupils. Declan, would you agree with that or not, and why?

Declan Barker: In my experience, having worked on the HAF programme and seen the difference that the programme consistently makes in its impact on young peoples lives, I would be overwhelmingly more positive around the holiday activities programmearound the de-stigmatisation of young people engaging with a programme that is dressed as a holiday club as opposed to a free school meal setting. We have seen good success and we are getting in front of the right children that we would not usually expect to see at a programme like this by working with a wide range of partners like Nottinghamshire police. We are seeing young people who would not usually engage in a programme like HAF, so I would be overwhelmingly more positive about the HAF programme, having worked on it for the last two years.

Q146       Kim Johnson: We currently have 4 million children living in poverty. I think you have all alluded to the fact that there are children who should be eligible but are not eligible. Leigh, I just want to know whether you feel that free school meals and the projects that are available at the moment are meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged children.

Leigh Middleton: They are set up to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged. Whether the most disadvantaged are accessing them—because of stigma or other barriers to access such as parental interest or engagement informationI think is to be seriously questioned. That cohort who should be able to access those services is a much larger pool of young people who desperately need help and support.

I want to see a greater join-up of all these activities and programmes. There are pots in all sorts of places, from anti-social behaviour pots to DWP. If we could draw all this funding together, we would make a much greater impact on children, young people and families, but because it is all disparate and Departments do not necessarily get the opportunity to talk and share as they might, there are so many things falling through the cracks that are just missed opportunities.

Q147       Kim Johnson: In terms of what this inquiry is looking at, what do you think needs to be done to ensure children go to school and to challenge the persistent absence issue?

Leigh Middleton: It is about truly understanding why children are not attending. Picking up on the points already made in some respects, there will be a whole series of layers: need that is going unmet, or barriers holding those children back from going to school, whether that is poverty, special needs or, frankly, their Xbox, depending on their age. It is an onion, and we have to pick away at those layers to get to the core. Fundamentally, it comes down to helping and supporting parents and families and communities to support those children back into education. I go back to what I said about the 85% of their time out of school. It is about actually engaging them in non-educational time, but reinforcing the importance of their education, understanding why they are not attending and what is getting in the way there, and then removing those onion layers to make sure they get back in.

David Holmes: Could I just add that there is some learning here from the national school breakfast club programme? It is actually not anything to do with the provision of food, but it is learning from a national programme. Over 2,500 schools that are all members of the same programme, it is like a community of learning. There is not one set model of how this should be delivered. So much time and attention is spent enrolling schools in the programme to work out what is going to work for that school. Can we take a similar approach to school attendance, school by school, to really understand what the issues are in that school? They will be different, school by school. What are the different cohorts of children who are missing school or who are persistently absent in that school? We then need to come up with strategies to tackle the different groups of children, recognising that that will probably need to draw on expertise because there is specialism here from other agencies: a national school attendance programme, maybe. It is about making this a national priority. We know it is a big issue post-pandemic, so how can we put together a programme that on a school-by-school basis will actually grow that enthusiasm and expertise to be able to tackle it?

Q148       Chair: On Leighs point about the 85% of time out of school, one thing that this Committee has previously recommended is piloting attendance mentor schemes outside the school system, to work with children and encourage them to understand those sort of things. Is that something that Family Action has looked at as something that you could potentially do with the expertise that you have?

David Holmes: There are lots of different models, and I am aware of that programme. The pilot in Cumbria that I alluded to is actually working with, I think, eight secondary schools, working with groups of children where absence and attendance are an issue. That is all about instilling ambition and aspiration in those young people and really enthusing them about the future and why school is a really important part of reaching those ambitions. There would be lots of different interventions that you could put in that would address all those different reasons why attendance becomes an issue, but it requires that holistic thought about bespoke approach and recognising that all the expertise to deliver those interventions will not be in the school; some of it is specialist family support.

Q149       Ian Mearns: Apart from the national school breakfast programme, there are other schemes providing breakfasts in schools: there is Magic Breakfast, there is Greggs—in the north-east of England, but it goes beyond that—and there is Kellogg’s. Between them, they are helping to provide breakfasts in literally thousands of other schools. Is there no drive from the DfE or from your own programme to try to do some assimilation so that the different programmes can learn from each other about what works, what does not work and what the shortfalls and any potential pitfalls are?

David Holmes: Family Action is already meeting with Magic Breakfast, Greggs and Kelloggs to talk about where our programmes overlap, where there is a shared evidence base and what we know together. I can tell you that there is consensus across those providers. Between us, we are probably providing breakfast for over 4,000 schoolsprobably the best part of 4,500 schools. There is not a piece of paper you could put between us in terms of the fact that this has positive outcomes. Yes, there are different providers, but there is absolute consensus about the fact that this makes a difference to children.

Q150       Ian Mearns: I have no doubt about that at all, but the thing that strikes me is that between the four programmes that you have talked aboutyour own and the others—there are 4,500 schools, which means that something like 18,000 schools are not involved.

David Holmes: Many of those other schools will have their own provision already, but there is a bigger conversation—I am really glad you are raising thisabout how you maximise the effectiveness of breakfast provision. If you have 16 or 20 children sitting down in a school hall, having a paid-for provision which is all about childcare, that is very different from having a whole-school approach to making sure that no child is too hungry to learn. That is why, to Kim Johnsons point, there is learning from a national programme here about what works and how to maximise the benefit of these interventions so that we are really getting the best value for money.

Q151       Mohammad Yasin: Moving on to youth services, the youth sector offers a wide range of provisions that may support school attendances. Leigh, what interventions provided by the youth sector have improved school attendance rates?

Leigh Middleton: A lot, and it varies, so I will walk you through a few examples. One approach is placing youth workers into schools. The Oasis academy trust has trained, professional youth workers in every one of its secondary schools. They are there to be around young people, engage with them and talk to them, but also to be the link between the community side of the 85% of their time and their school provision. That is about helping those young people to navigate that and, when they are struggling, to have a friendly face.

It is often about the professional approach that is taken. We have all experienced having teachers who are there to tell you what to do and educate you, whereas with a youth worker it is the other way around: they will start from your developmental interests and what is going on for you, and then build their support around you as a young person. Because you are volunteering and choosing to participate in that provision, your personal engagement as a young person is far higher. Having that liaison between school and community can be really, really effective.

We have also seen provision where there are detached youth workers, as we touched on a little while ago. These are trained youth workers who are on our streets, walking around our parks, talking to young people, engaging them, finding out what is going on in their lives and working out how to support them. Often, they are putting them in groups because young people have the same challenges, the same needs, the same issues, and that enables them to support those young people in the most effective way possible.

What is really powerful about that detached youth work model is that you have to go to them: by being in the park, you are in their space rather than them coming into your space. If I have to enter a classroom, I enter the teachers space, with their rules, and I have to operate within the boundaries of that environment. If you are engaging me in the park or outside shops or wherever I am, you are engaging me on my terms, so the relationship and the nature of that interaction is very different.

Open access, drop-in youth provision such as youth clubs tails off at around 14: most young people over 14 do not want to go to a traditional drop-in youth club over 14. That is where we have more targeted provisionsocial action projects, volunteering projects, community projects, environmental projects. By engaging those young people with a trusted adult in the community, you can work out how we can support them to remain in education, to keep them attending, to work, to get ahead of the barrier, to make sure that that is not something that is stopping their learning or their ability to remain in school.

Q152       Mohammad Yasin: Thank you for that. Youth clubs are a very important service for young people, especially in deprived areaspeople raise that point to me again and again. Which of those interventions from the youth sector have best supported disadvantaged people?

Leigh Middleton: Goshthey are all very different and they all operate in quite different ways. On school liaison, we have a report coming out in a couple of weeks time which a couple of MPs, Tim Loughton and Kate Green, before she left, chaired for us around the role of youth work and schools and the interplay there. We can share the report with the Committee when it comes out; it is only a couple of weeks away. There is absolutely evidence that shows a really strong link between youth work and schools and provision.

It is also about where it is provided. In Nottinghamshire, they have 12 youth centres on school sites, so you can actually walk to the end of the driveway and meet the youth worker. It is slightly separated from school, and you can have that professional intervention. It is a mixture, depending on the challenges and the needs.

Q153       Mohammad Yasin: In your view, what can DfE do to support schools to engage with the youth organisations, to develop partnership and to support disadvantaged pupils?

Leigh Middleton: I would say that DfE could work with schools, DCMSbecause that has the duty brief for community youth work provisionand the local authority. The three parts all stitch together. I think there could be more guidance to schools and academy trusts on how to engage with community-based providers. Many schools are excellent at inviting in the community, youth projects and so on; others will not let you in at all and do not want to talk to you. The Government could issue guidance to schools and set expectations around this.

The extreme of that is that some of the Ofsted frameworks can be reviewed. Where youth workers are operating in and around schools, schools do not get credit for it. It is not in the framework, we do not give that credit, and yet it is some of the most impactful work that we have seen. The same goes for Ofsted inspecting childrens services: the best childrens services are employing youth work methodologies, but because it is not in the framework, it does not get recognised. They are quick wins, just to help boost that stuff and support it. I would agree with a national funding programme around youth work and youth prevention linked to attendance and other barriers that children and young people have.

Q154       Mohammad Yasin: Looked-after children are one of the biggest cohorts to be impacted by persistent absence. This is despite the pupil premium plus, meaning that there should be funding to better support them individually. What measures do you think would work best to improve school attendance for looked-after children?

Leigh Middleton: I would go back to first principles. What is holding those children back from accessing that provision? Is it that they have other caring responsibilities? Do they have siblings they are worrying about? Is it travel or transport costs? What are the other barriers holding those children back? In theory, if they are in the care system, there is a social worker and the system should be there to encourage and engage them and support them through. I would undertake an in-depth piece of research to understand what is holding those children back, what is preventing those children from accessing education, and move forward from there.

Q155       Mrs Drummond: I am very keen on the extended school day: you could bring in all the activities, enrichment activity and so on. Is that something that you would support, if we managed to get the youth services engaged as well?

Leigh Middleton: Where do I sign? Absolutely. It is the fundamental building block of communities for children and young people that is missing in many places. It is about out-of-school settings, enrichment, additional support and finding the right type of provision for each young persons interest. For some young people, uniform groups are spot on and work very well, but others are not remotely interested, so we may need to focus on more traditional youth work provision or volunteering. There are different types of community-based provision, but fundamentally it is about trained, trusted adults being able to support those young people where they need it.

Q156       Mrs Drummond: You mentioned that some children would do better outside the school, but actually if you could incorporate it then every child would then be looked after.

Leigh Middleton: What we hear from youth workers all the time is that a lot of children and young people really struggle with school, just because of the rigidity of it and the way it operates. I am always struck by the fact that one in five young people—20%—leave school at 19 without five GCSEs. That is a big cohort, so clearly something is not working in the way we educate our children and put them through that machine.