Written evidence submitted by the National Youth Agency

The National Youth Agency is the national body for youth work, and the Professional Statutory Regulatory Body (PSRB) for youth work in England.  We have been transforming lives through youth work for over 50 years. By championing, professionalising, and enabling youth work, we strive to find better, more inventive ways to empower more young people.


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

-       Disadvantaged pupils,

-       Pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds,

-       Pupils with SEND and those who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19,

-       Pupils in alternative provision.

Over the past three years, young people and families have experienced negative impacts on their health, education, aspirations, finances, personal development, social connections and more. The impact of lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and now the impact of the cost of living crisis has affected all young people, with the contextual factors surrounding young people the key to understanding persistent and severe absence from school.


The mental health and wellbeing of young people has dramatically decreased since lockdowns with November 2022 data stating that 1 in 6 young people have a probable mental health disorder[1]. Young people with low mental wellbeing will struggle in participating and attending school which can result in persistent and severe absence due to poor illness.


For disadvantaged young people from low-income households in the bottom 20% of incomes, 75% are going without essentials with 25% going hungry often and 53% in arrears on one household bill[2]. Almost every low-income household on Universal Credit is going without basics (90%) whether that’s experiencing food insecurity, not having a warm home, and/or avoiding essential journeys[3].

According to Citizens Advice, ethnic minority households are more likely to be in ongoing monthly debt compared to other ethnicities[4]. School absences increase from challenging contextual factors of financial pressures and health, lowering engagement with school.


The stigma surrounding poverty cannot be underestimated. Transport poverty will limit young people on their journey to school. We’ve known of a young person’s bus pass being used by the parent as their transport entitlement had been cut from their benefits. The young person had to walk a longer distance to school incurring lateness marks, adding to their absence record. Young people may try to support household funds, but with the minimum wage at £4.62 for 16–17-year-olds, young people can become targets for child criminal exploitation[5] leading to severe absence from school.

Homeless young people aged 16-17 years old can be placed in unregulated accommodation by local authorities instead of care regulated accommodation. From the environments young people are placed in (bedsits, hostels, B&Bs) some young people choose to sofa surf with friends instead and refuse engaging with local authority support. This challenging situation can increase absence from school.

Young people from minority ethnic backgrounds can experience racism from both staff and students in education settings making it an unsafe and unwelcome environment. A Leaders Unlocked report of 2,373 young people aged 16-25 across England said that 58% of negative experiences took place in secondary school, 23% in college and 17% in primary school[6]. There is a lack of training around anti-discriminatory practice when considering needs and behaviours of young people from minority ethnic backgrounds and this needs to be addressed through a whole school approach[7]. An unsafe, unwelcome, racist environment can lead to severe and persistent absence.


An increased presence of police in schools has added to the distrust and criminalisation that young people from minority ethnic backgrounds experience[8]. From the experiences of Child Q, the Children’s Commissioner initiated an investigation of children’s experiences of policing, with a focus on strip searches, which found that between 2018 and 2020, 650 children were strip searched, 25% were between ages 10-15 years old, 58% of children were Black boys, and 23% of all strip searches were not attended by an Appropriate Adult[9]. Police should not be present in schools as they lack the skills and expertise in working with young people and delivering appropriate safeguarding practices, effecting the attendance and behaviour of young people[10] [11].


There is a national lack of funding, training, and specialists to support those with SEND and/or ECH plans to access education[12]. Many children and young people are transferred to alternative provision without having had a statutory assessment and without the stable funding or quality to meet individual needs[13]. Those who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19 aren’t going to enter a school that is a risk to their health. If sufficient provision is not being met, persistent absence will increase.


In alternative provision young people who have complex needs can co-plan schedules with staff to meet their individual needs and continue their education. If this plan isn’t co-designed and co-agreed with the young person and supportive adults (teachers, family), this could lead to distrust especially if mainstream education failed to meet their needs. Young people in alternative provision need trusting relationships with trained professionals who act as supportive role models that can enable them to reach their goals through targeted support. The Department of Education understands the impact of youth workers in alternative provision from its Alternative Provision/SAFE Taskforce project[14].


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.

To improve attendance targets, government need to offer a range of support from multi-agency services to identify contextual factors to enable young people to attend and thrive in school.

The Department’s ‘Working together to improve school attendance’ guidance explains the need to work with families to build relationships and understand needs before taking further action. Some families may have past negative experiences and distrust of local authority services (social care). A VSCE youth organisation can step in to bridge the gap between local authority services and the family. A support plan of action would be co-developed and agreed on with a qualified youth worker, the family, and the young person to meet their needs and ensure they can attend school. The Centre for Social Justice outlined this approach under the job title role of school attendance practitioner[15]. Whilst this mirrors a youth workers approach, a qualified youth worker can deliver holistic wrap around support for a young person (not focusing on attendance alone).

Attendance issues should be brought into local authority safeguarding meetings to create a plan of action with a range of partners (local authority services and VCSEs). Young people need safe spaces to talk through and reflect on why they have been missing from school, with and without family, to talk openly about their challenges. The ‘No Wrong Door’ project showcased an example of working with schools and other multi-agency partners to improve attendance and behaviour whilst supporting on contextual safeguarding issues that teachers and pastoral staff were unable to do from lack of trust[16].

The school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) has an important role in attending local authority multi-agency safeguarding meetings whilst updating the School Attendance Support Team though attendance can be unreliable. Government must ensure that DSLs can attend safeguarding meetings to bring attendance cases for multi-agency action. Meetings must include multi-agency local authority services (education, social care, health, justice, youth service) as well as local VSCEs to ensure collaboration at a local level.

For those who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19, plans need to be flexible whether that’s 1-2-1s in school, group online learning, at home tutoring etc. SENCOs have an important role in ensuring SEND and EHC plans are met, but SENCOs need more time to be able to do this appropriately. In a 2018 study, 74% of SENCOs said they did not have the time to ensure that young people on SEN support are able to access the provision they need[17]. This is especially important as more multi-academy trusts start to form, with past research outlining the under identification of SEND during the academisation of schools[18].

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

The proposed registration reforms will mean additional administration time for schools and increase the focus on numbers rather than individual people. The registration coding will not explain the support and engagement given to young people who are missing school.

We have concerns around how sufficient support for young people and families would be interpreted by each school and local authority. Local authority social care teams are dealing with high thresholds and caseloads whilst struggling to employ and retain local authority social workers. Local authorities and schools may resort to fining the parent rather than to support young people and families to understand the contextual factors surrounding absence from school.

With the subjectiveness of what ‘support’ and ‘engagement’ could be and the inclusion of ‘lateness’ as unauthorised absence, a fixed penalty notice issued to parents in complex cases will not support or help the young person. For example, parents may not know about extra-familial harms. Fixed penalty notices will decrease trust of the school and the local authority, alienating families who need the most help.

The Department believes that a child 8 years old or older can walk three miles to school every day which would take approximately an hour. We would be concerned for a young person’s wellbeing if they walked 6 miles every day to and from school, which would affect their level of engagement and attainment. With families going through a cost of living crisis, this is more likely to increase with families unable to afford transport. We would suggest that the Department reviews this distance and offers schools and local authorities guidance on addressing transport poverty.

The Department must acknowledge the increase in home schooling since lockdowns[19]. There is a duty for local authorities to understand the trends behind home schooling whether there are issues with schools, illness, ECH plans or other. There should be consideration on how home schooling might affect a young person’s development and life skills. The department should engage youth services in the local community to ensure a young person who is being home educated is supported to develop life skills, make social connections, establish a sense of belonging and are safeguarded.


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

School breakfast clubs and free school meals have been a lifeline for young people and families who are struggling financially. In September 2022, 4 million children lived in households that had experienced food insecurity in the past month[20].

Free breakfast clubs are more than just food. They give every young person the best start to the day alongside their peers and offers an environment of inclusion. Attendance improves, but so does the young person’s concentration, behaviour, and attainment. The Magic Breakfast partner schools reported breakfast provision increased attendance by 79%, energy levels, engagement, and readiness by 94% and attainment by 81%[21].

However, the majority of schools pay for breakfast clubs out of their own budgets especially when all pupils can access it to decrease stigma and other barriers for the most disadvantaged. Currently 73% of schools do not have breakfast provision or there are barriers in accessing it, with Government funding for breakfast provision in England stretching to just 1 in 4 of the most disadvantaged schools[22].

There are numerous studies on Free School Meals (FSMs) improving attainment of young people. However, there are barriers on accessing this entitlement which is why there are varying findings on how FSMs effects attendance figures. There is stigma around accessing FSMs with 200,000 young people who are entitled not registered[23]. Additionally, FSM entitlement is based on household income which does not address other issues surrounding that young person. As well as FSMs, a trusted, trained professional like a youth worker needs to support each individual to help with attendance.


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.

We cannot underestimate the social development and life skills that the Holiday, Activities and Food programme (HAF) can offer young people. HAF offers the opportunity for young people transitioning from Year 6 to Year 7 to form social connections with new people and across school year groups. Programmes delivered on school grounds or in the local community create a sense of belonging before starting the school year. Confidence of young people increases before going back to school with social connections formed in the local community. This decreases the number of school absences that could be linked to illness (social anxiety) and moving schools.

HAF also provides food for young people. A Childwise survey of 1000 7-17 year olds across England showed that over the past two years (2020-2022), the percentage of children who experienced food insecurity over the Summer holidays has increased to over 25%[24]. It also found that nearly 1 in 10 children were hungry in the holidays, but didn’t eat to not use up household food[25].

Some youth services (local authority and VSCEs) deliver HAF whilst the majority deliver their own provision offering young people local safe spaces to go, someone to talk to and something to do outside of school. Youth services across the country have seen an increase of children in need of food with youth organisations using budgets for other activities to provide food at sessions to avoid stigma[26]. This shows that youth services are supportive lifelines for children and young people when they are out of school. The youth sector has the infrastructure in place for after school activities and providing food, but funding is needed to cover food costs so other activities do not have to be cut. The National Youth Sector Advisory Board is working on a collective response to the cost of living crisis to address issues that young people and the youth sector is facing. We hope to develop the recommendation of the HAF programme becoming the Activities and Food programme.

Services that take place out of school are crucial in tackling absence with 85% of young people’s waking hours outside of school. The NYA’s National Youth Work Curriculum[27] enables young people to develop a variety of life skills and personal development with youth workers whether this safe space is in school or out of school to engage or reengage them into education. The youth sector offers a wide range of provision which may support engagement and attendance to meet the individual’s needs with provision co-planned with the youth worker and young person.

Examples of best practice youth service and school partnerships are rare, but there is a need for these to be supported, strengthened, and replicated elsewhere. The NYA will be publishing a report[28] reviewing school and youth service partnerships in England at the end of March 2023. This will recommend factors to achieve best practice partnerships to address challenges around attendance, behaviour and contextual needs as well as other actions for long-term evidence and impact data. The National Youth Sector Census[29] will help in understanding the location of youth services throughout England and what youth provision is being offered to support the connection of services and impact.

In terms of wider benefits to parents and the community, if before and after school activities were funded it would support working parents to work fulltime hours and decrease the amount they have to pay for childcare[30]. The young person can take advantage of free activities which could cover sports, life skills, social connections and more, encouraging the young person to be at school whilst increasing income into the household.

February 2023

[1] NHS Digital (2022), Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2022 - wave 3 follow up to the 2017 survey

[2] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (2022), Going under and without: JRF’s cost of living tracker, winter 2022/23

[3] Ibid.

[4] Citizens Advice, (2023), Data Dashboard [Online]

[5] The Evening Standard (2022), Cost of living crisis pushing London children into criminal exploitation - full breakdown by borough [Online]

[6] Leaders Unlocked, (2022), The Student Commission on Racial Justice: A platform for young people’s voices on racial justice

[7] Ibis.

[8] Runnymeade Trust, (2023), Over-policed and under-protected: The road to Safer Schools.

[9] Children’s Commissioner, (2022), Strip search of children by the Metropolitan Police Service – new analysis by the Children’s Commissioner for England

[10] Runnymede Trust, (2020), Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools

[11] Kids of Colour, (2020), Decriminalise the Classroom

[12] Special Needs Jungle, (2022), No specialists = No support: The future for children with SEND is bleak without a trained workforce to support them, [Online]

[13] Special Needs Jungle, (2022), Ofsted and ONS offer further evidence that lack of funding, training and specialists damages children with SEND, [Online]

[14] Department of Education, (2021), Targeted support for vulnerable young people in serious violence hotspots, [Online],

[15] Centre for Social Justice, (2022), Lost, but not forgotten: the reality of severe absence in schools post-lockdown.

[16] No Wrong Door for Young People (2022), Schools project report.

[17] Bath Spa University and nasen, (2018), It’s about time - The impact of SENCO workload on the professional and the school

[18] Education Policy Institute (2021), Identifying pupils with special education needs and disabilities.

[19] BBC News, (2021), Covid: Home-education numbers rise by 75%, [Online],

[20] The Food Foundation (2022), Food Insecurity Tracker, [Online]

[21] The Magic Breakfast, (2022), Hidden Hunger: The state of UK breakfast provision, [Online]

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Guardian, (2022), Ministers criticised as 200,000 eligible children in England miss out on free school meals,

[24] The Food Foundation, (2022), Children’s experiences of food poverty in England, [Online]

[25] Ibid.

[26] London Youth (2022), London Challenge Poverty Week and the Youth Sector

[27] The National Youth Agency, (2022), The National Youth Work Curriculum, [Online],

[28] The National Youth Agency, (2022), Review of the role and contribution of Youth Work with Schools, [Online],

[29] The National Youth Agency (2022), National Youth Sector Census, [Online]

[30] Child Poverty Action Group and Magic Breakfast (2022), Children’s futures and the economic case for before- and after-school provision