Written evidence submitted by the National Education Union (NEU)


The NEU brings together the voices of more than 450,000 teachers, lecturers, support staff and leaders working in maintained and independent schools and colleges across the UK, to form the largest education union in Europe.

It is important that children and young people have regular school attendance in order to ensure robust educational opportunities and social development as well as enabling life chances. For most children and young people school is the best place for them to thrive both academically and socially. However, this is not the case for all young people and the pandemic has exacerbated many of the issues that were already leading to persistent absence for this group.

Before the pandemic many ‘Not Fine in School’ members and parent carers from across other social media and grass roots forums reported escalating mental ill health in their child arising from high stakes testing, unsupported SEND or medical needs, coercive behaviour policies, sanctions or threat of sanctions (punishments) for very minor offences.[1] These perceptions, widely shared, provide a context for our comments.

It is disappointing that this Inquiry does not include young carers and children who are Looked After (LAC) as many persistent absentees fall into these categories.


The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils, in particular:

Poverty can affect students' capacity to concentrate and complete their work, can impact their behaviour and attention in lessons, and add additional barriers to learning. NEU members surveyed in 2022 reported that their students showed signs of fatigue or an inability to concentrate in lessons as a result of experiencing poverty (NEU, 2022)[2]. Two thirds of teachers reported in 2022 that they had students reporting to school in ill-fitting or damaged clothing or shoes, while 58% said students didn’t have well-fitting or appropriate school uniform or PE kit[3].

Poverty can have an impact on a child’s home environment and social life[4]. Economic hardship can also affect the mental health of parents, making it harder for parents to engage in school activities and monitor and support attendance[5].

Many students face additional costs in getting to school, which are not adequately covered by available support. Pupils living in rural areas or those with caring responsibilities, to name just two examples, will struggle to achieve the same attendance rates as their peers. This is illustrated in conversations with NEU members:

“Some of my college students are young carers, some are in care themselves and others feel they will fail any way so do not feel motivated to come to lessons.” - FE teacher

“Sometimes, if they get up late, there is no way to get to school in a semi-rural area like where I teach” - secondary school teacher

The reasons for lower attendance amongst disadvantaged pupils cannot be separated from the challenges facing schools serving the most disadvantaged communities. Schools serving high proportions of disadvantaged students face additional challenges in supporting the needs of their communities and must invest greater resource in supporting attendance and ensuring school is accessible. This could include employing community liaison officers or working with local organisations to signpost families to the right kinds of support. Such interventions require greater investment of time and resources.

More than a decade of underfunding, combined with a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, has diminished schools’ capacity to respond to challenges such as low attendance, and affected schools with the most disadvantaged intakes disproportionately. Declining per-pupil spend[6] and increasing pupil-teacher ratios[7] play a considerable role in determining schools’ capacity to deliver effective interventions to boost attendance.

In an NEU survey of members, carried out in 2019, 62% of those responding had witnessed an increase in child poverty in their school or college since 2015. More than a third had bought food for pupils who could not afford it, 57% had bought school equipment, such as stationery and 20% had bought items of school uniform[8]. Working in this context is extremely challenging and means the resources needed to tackle low attendance are stretched very thinly.

There are further psycho-social dimensions to poverty and disadvantage. Poverty can stigmatise children who feel singled out as ‘poor’ for needing Free School Meals (FSM) or other types of support, damaging students' relationships with school and jeopardising attendance further[9]. In addition, research commissioned by the NEU suggests that educational outcomes and motivation are improved when students feel a sense of belonging in their school life - and disadvantaged pupils are twice as likely to feel they don’t belong as their better off peers. A sense of belonging can improve educational outcomes and motivation, as well as reducing absenteeism, but the effects of poverty outlined above serve to undermine that sense amongst pupils[10].


It is essential to distinguish between different minority ethnic experiences. According to government absence statistics Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy/Roma pupils had the highest overall absence rates at 20.7% and 16.5% in Autumn 2021 and Chinese and Black African pupils had the lowest rates at 3.4% and 3.9%. This follows similar trends to previous years.[11]

Consideration therefore needs to be given to the way in which GRT young people in particular are further supported to increase school attendance. Young people will experience multiple factors and deprivations which lead to persistent absence, which is why understanding family circumstances and a pastoral team with the time to listen to and work individually with young people and families is the approach most likely to be successful.

The teaching profession is much less diverse than the population as a whole[12], and an even smaller proportion of school leaders are from non-white backgrounds[13]. Research suggests that this means students both from white and from minority ethnic backgrounds do not have ’role model’ figures through much of their education. Teachers also report feeling a sense of isolation when working in predominantly white schools and cite this as a reason for feeling unsupported in their schools[14]. Compounding this, there is a lack of racial literacy amongst many teachers that can leave students feeling as though their experiences of racism aren’t being taken seriously. Teachers with low racial literacy may not have the tools to foster an inclusive culture and tackle individual instances of racism.

An increased presence of police in schools has also disproportionately affected the school experiences of ethnic minority pupils and can make school feel like an intimidating and unwelcoming environment. Any efforts to improve attendance among minority ethnic students must address the harm to community cohesion caused by over policing in schools[15].


Many pupils with SEND who are persistently absent are either awaiting assessment and diagnosis or are awaiting additional support from specialists which cannot be provided in school, such as speech and language therapy, educational psychology input or behaviour support services. With a crisis of inadequate funding for these services and frankly dangerous waiting times it is no surprise that young people are unable to cope within the education system and that absence, for a range of reasons, increases.

Increased and targeted funding for the specialist support services needed to work with schools and families on issues leading to persistent absence by some SEND students is essential to creating solutions and not creating further barriers for this group of young people.

SEND pupils are considerably more likely than their peers to be bullied (ABA, 2021) and in turn, bullying is a common underlying cause of school absences (ABA, 2022)[16]. These trends demonstrate the importance of gaining a deep, person-centred understanding of the causes of poor attendance, approaching the issue holistically, and posing at the outset the question: how might we make all pupils feel welcome in our schools?

We do not agree with the government premise highlighted in the SEND and AP Green Paper that schools and class teachers can do more - specialist - SEND support work in addition to their teaching responsibilities. This is impractical, and it will not provide appropriate or adequate support for SEND students: teachers cannot replace specialist professionals.

For students who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19, school remains a high risk to their health and one which for many young people and their families is seen as not worth taking. Until the government invests in HEPA filters in schools[17] and properly advises schools on health and safety issues around covid-19, disabled young people, for whom catching covid-19 could be life threatening, are effectively being excluded from the school system.


Given that young people who attend pupil referral units (PRUs) and alternative provision (AP) are more likely to have special educational needs, be entitled to FSM, and to have had a negative experience in mainstream provision it is not surprising that for many their confidence in the school system has been dented. Their SEND needs may not be addressed fully or at all until they receive the individual support that is possible in AP.

AP can provide the bespoke support that is vital to increasing student and family confidence in the school system. This is why it is essential that specialist staff and separate smaller provision remain at the core of the AP offer and continue to provide the safety net for young people who find mainstream provision difficult for a range of reasons. We are concerned that the proposals in the SEND and AP Green Paper will dilute the offer for these young people and lead to more students being lost to the system rather than receiving the specialist support they need to keep them within it.


How schools and families can be better supported to improve attendance, and how this affects pupils and families who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19.

We do not agree that fining parents supports improved attendance and are concerned that this sanction has a disproportionate effect on mothers[18]. The DfE have provided no evidence of the positive outcomes in terms of student attendance of fining parents. We would like to see evidence of the extent to which enforcing legal powers on parents actually improves attendance.

The biggest reason for absence is the social, emotional and/or mental health challenge for the child and /or family arising from unmet, unrecognised, or undiagnosed SEND need. Many children remain on the growing waiting lists for specialist assessment and support and are unable to attend school during this period.

The minimum expectations on attendance that the NEU would wish to see include ways in which schools:

Schools need the following measures in place in order to support students at risk of persistent absence more effectively:

We believe that these measures if funded properly would better tackle the issues of non-attendance than policies based on fining parents and would remove some of the barriers to attendance that children and young people face.

Neither the government nor the Children’s Commissioner recognise that school can be the ‘problem’ for many persistent absentees. Over-testing and an inflexible, narrow curriculum can lead to increased anxiety and disaffection.

The NEU/UCL/IoE research ‘Creating a sense of place and belonging in schools’ found that schools which had a whole school approach to belonging and leadership committed to this approach reduced exclusions, improved staff and student well-being and increased staff retention[19].

The government approach is weighted in favour of changing parental approaches rather than offering advice alongside this to schools on ways in which they can make adjustments. The principles used to improve attendance should be based on a Social Model of Disability rather than perpetuating the approach of forcing square pegs into round holes.

The impact of the Department’s proposed reforms to improve attendance.

Updated advice for schools on when absence should be authorised is needed. The current system, which treats all children and young people in the same way regarding school attendance, and takes no regard of SEND, mental health, deprivation factors and other specific issues, is damaging young people. If this practice were to be continued, it would have a considerable negative impact on children and young people.

Our concern would be that where schools are more inclusive persistent absence could be higher for medical, SEND and other reasons. These students may be at greater risk from covid-19 and other illnesses due to weakened immunity and therefore likely to have additional, genuine, time out of school for reasons of physical or mental ill-health, which other students would not. The factor of inclusivity within a school culture therefore needs to be considered by the DfE and Ofsted when making judgements about attendance.

We are concerned that in many schools' behaviour for learning success is measured according to being present at school and rewarded with certificates and class treats etc. This approach is discriminatory and excludes the section of young people highlighted above who through no fault of their own could never be successful under these criteria and have the added burden of feeling that they have let classmates down as well. Inclusive schools will manage attendance in different ways and recognise the efforts of all young people, not add to the anxiety that they are already experiencing.


The role of remote education in supporting students

The NEU is concerned that ‘approved’ remote education does not include an offer for children and young people who are ille.g. mental ill-health/anxiety-based/cancer treatment etc. In these circumstances it may benefit young people to be able to access learning, particularly at GCSE and A level to stay connected with the work their peers are doing. There is a further issue in the lack of digital devices and network access amongst poorer students. Getting back into school following anxiety-based absence can be more difficult if a young person thinks they are falling further behind their peers with schoolwork.


The impact of school breakfast clubs and free school meals on improving attendance for disadvantaged pupils.

Breakfast clubs and free school meals (FSM) are an important measure in improving attendance. The NEU believes that expanding the FSM offer is preferable to a further roll out of breakfast clubs. We further believe that breakfast clubs or FSM can best serve to improve attendance if they are offered as universal provisions rather than means-tested benefits.

Best available estimates, as of 2020, suggest that 89% of those eligible for FSM claim them. This means that 215,000 eligible children missed out in 2020[20]. Yet we know that eligibility criteria and lack of universal provision mean that, because of their eligibility status 800,000 students who are living in poverty are not receiving FSM (1 in 3)[21]. Divisions inherent in a means-tested system mean that stigma remains a barrier to accessing FSM, even for parents who are eligible and aware of their entitlement. This is a consequence of means-testing because schools are asked to treat these students differently[22].

Eating a range of nutritious food helps mood, attention and learning, and regular meals mean students can focus on their learning[23]. Since its introduction, the Universal Infant FSM scheme has increased take up of school meals amongst all pupils[24], including those missed by restrictive eligibility criteria and those at the threshold of eligibility. There is also good reason to believe that FSM for all in primary would reduce stigma, solidify a sense of belonging and increase uptake amongst already eligible pupils and encourage attendance[25].


The role of the Holiday Activities and Food programme and other after school and holiday clubs, such as sports, in improving attendance and engagement with school.

The NEU believes that the best way to improve attendance is to tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage and to support pupils with additional needs to engage with school, such as through greater funding for support staff.

The 2021 evaluation of the HAFP shows that its reach was very limited and didn’t reach many of the pupils it intended to. Only 29% of all children eligible for FSM attended a HAFP, and children attended only an average of 9.6 days over the summer holidays[26].

Additional funding for HAFP was put in place alongside the withdrawal of food vouchers for students on FSM during the summer holidays of 2020. As the Government’s data suggests, the HAFP has not reached nearly the number of pupils that require support and does not offer the consistency or length of provision over holidays to provide adequate support for families in need.

The NEU would support an expansion of HAFP funding to expand the reach of the programme but believes that the reintroduction of food vouchers for students eligible for FSM, alongside many of the policies outlined above, would stand a better chance of supporting the poorest families to improve attendance.

February 2023

[1] SP NFIS Attendance Consultation 28/02/2022 Appendix 3 and Annex docs 1-5

[2] NEU, State of Education, 2022

[3] NEU, State of Education, 2022

[4] Child Poverty Action Group, Living Hand to Mouth, 2019

[5] Cooper, K., Poverty and parenting in the UK: Patterns and pathways between economic hardship and mothers’ parenting practices, 2022

[6] Sibieta, Comparisons of school spending per pupil across the UK, 2021, Institute for Fiscal Studies

[7] Lupton and Obolenskaya, The Conservatives’ record on compulsory education: spending, policies and outcomes in England, May 2015 to pre-Covid 2020, 2020, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (LSE)

[8] NEU, NEU members poll on child poverty, 2019

[9] Child Poverty Action Group, Cost of the School Day

[10] NEU, Belonging, Behaviour and Inclusion in Schools, 2020


[12] DfE, School teacher workforce, 2023

[13] Runnymede Trust, Race and Racism in Secondary Schools, 2020

[14] Tereshchenko, A; Mills, M; Bradbury, A; (2020) Making progress? Employment and retention of BAME teachers in England. UCL Institute of Education

[15] Runnymede Trust, Race and Racism in Secondary Schools, 2020



[18] Revealed: Twice as many mothers prosecuted for their children's truancy than fathers, figures show | The Independent | The Independent

[19] NEU, Belonging, Behaviour and Inclusion in Schools, 2020

[20] LGA, Free School Meals: One million more school children could be fed if the sign-up process eased, councils urge, 2022

[21] Child Poverty Action Group, 800,000 children in poverty not getting free school meals, 2022

[22] i, Free School Meals: Over 100,000 children and parents could be shunning system due to stigma, analysis shows, 2022

[23] BDA, Diet, behaviour and learning in children: Food fact sheet

[24] Child Poverty Action Group, Universal infant free school meals, 2020

[25] Holford, A., Take-up of free school meals: Price effects and peer effects, 2015

[26] DfE, Evaluation of the 2021 Holiday Activities and Food Programme, 2022