PA0138

Written evidence submitted by the Local Government Association (LGA)

 

9 February

 

9

 


 

  1. About the Local Government Association (LGA)

 

1.1.            The Local Government Association (LGA) is the national voice of local government. We are a politically led, cross-party membership organisation, representing councils from England and Wales. 

 

1.2.            Our role is to support, promote and improve local government, and raise national awareness of the work of councils. Our ultimate ambition is to support councils to deliver local solutions to national problems.

 

  1. Summary

 

2.1   Councils have a statutory duty, working with schools, communities and families, to ensure that all children of compulsory school age receive a suitable, full-time education. They are committed to supporting children who are missing out on school, tackling the disadvantage gap in educational attainment, and ensuring every child has the support they need to achieve their potential.  

 

2.2   We have long raised with Government that there are significant omissions in the current powers that local authorities have to exercise their statutory duties in this space, which means that it is possible for children who are missing school to slip through the net. 

 

2.3   Despite having a duty to ensure a school place for every child, councils do not have the ability to direct academies to accept pupils, even if they are identified as being the most appropriate school for a particular pupil. It is therefore imperative that the Government introduces a back-stop power for councils to direct academies to admit pupils, as soon as reasonably possible.

 

2.4   While having a duty to ensure every child is receiving a suitable, full-time education, councils do not have the full powers to fulfil this duty. Under the current arrangements, many children who are not attending school are invisible to local authorities and the services that are designed to keep them safe. We are calling on the Government to legislate for a register of children who are not in school to improve data and visibility of these children, combined with powers for councils to meet face-to-face with children. This measure is vital to allow councils to verify that children are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment.

 

2.5   Local education systems are seeing increasing numbers of children in the mainstream school system with additional needs that can cause barriers to school attendance. These can relate to deprivation and poverty, poor mental health, trauma, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and communication and interaction needs.

 

2.6   There is an urgent need for a cross-government, child centred-strategy to tackle rising disadvantage and the wider factors that are contributing toward causing persistent absence and for children to miss out on school. This must include reforming the SEND system so that it delivers the support all children need to thrive; expanding access to mental health support and youth services; and ensuring schools are resourced, supported and incentivised to create inclusive learning environments that enable every young person to reach their potential.

 

2.7   The LGA is broadly supportive of the proposals set out in the Department’s consultation on improving the consistency of support for school attendance. However, the proposals will mean a significant increase in workload for councils. School attendance teams are already stretched to capacity, and we are concerned that the new burdens assessment does not accurately capture the level of resource that will be required to deliver the reforms effectively.

 

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

 

 

3.1   LGA- commissioned research on children missing mainstream education concluded that there are three main factors which explain the rise in the number of children who are persistently absent, or not receiving a suitable formal, full-time education:

 

3.1.1         The changing nature of the needs and experiences that children are bringing into school;

3.1.2         Pressures and incentives on schools’ capacity to meet those needs; and

3.1.3         The capacity of the system to ensure appropriate oversight of decisions taken regarding children’s entry to and exit from schools.

 

3.2   Local education systems are seeing increasing numbers of children in the mainstream school system with types and combinations of needs. Broadly, these needs can be grouped into three categories, but often children do not present with one type of need exclusively, but have a combination of these needs:

 

3.2.1         Needs related to experiences of deprivation and poverty, including access to and support for learning at home, basic needs like food and hygiene not being met, and disrupted living arrangements where children may have experienced multiple re-locations and consequently multiple school moves and disruption to their education;

 

3.2.2         Needs related to adverse childhood experiences, including poor mental health, high levels of anxiety, attachment issues, and the after-effects of trauma, abuse or neglect; and,

 

3.2.3         Special educational needs and disabilities and communication and interaction needs, specifically relating to children with neurodevelopmental conditions or delays in developing language and communication skills.

 

3.3   Schools are facing a range of pressures which can impact their ability to identify and support children with these needs. School leaders and local authority officers report that financial pressures compound challenges around maintaining a broad-based curriculum and additional options for more vulnerable, disengaged or at-risk pupils. Schools have also been forced to make savings by reducing non-teaching staff capacity, such as pastoral support, which can impact the support available to keep vulnerable children in formal, full-time education. Councils want to work with schools to develop a preventative approach to ensure that these children can remain in the mainstream school system, but they need to be adequately resourced by the Department for Education for this to happen.

 

3.4   We have long highlighted that there is a need for a cross-government child centred-strategy, backed by concerted action, to improve outcomes for children and young people across all services. This would help totackle rising disadvantage and the wider socio-economic factors that are contributing to children and young people’s persistent absence from school. This must include reforming the SEND system so that it delivers the support all children need to thrive; improving access to mental health support and youth services; and ensuring schools are resourced, supported and incentivised to create inclusive learning environments that enable every young person to reach their potential.

 

3.5   The current accountability framework, and particularly the focus of current measures of school performance, is also creating pressures within schools that impact how the education system is responding to the needs of pupils. The current accountability system places greatest weight on specific measures of performance and achievement, which places the focus on the highest achieving pupils rather than holding schools accountable for the support that is available to ensure all pupils reach their potential. In some cases, it has been reported that some schools have managed these pressures by practices to influence which students are admitted or practices designed to manage children out of the school, such as the inappropriate use of attendance codes, part-time timetables, informal exclusions, off-rolling, and inappropriate use of permanent exclusion.

 

3.6   Councils are concerned about the growing use of school exclusions. Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that up until the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, there was an increasing trend of children and young people missing out on access to mainstream schools as a result of permanent exclusion and suspension. Moreover, research commissioned by the LGA found that there had been a 67 per cent increase in the number of children permanently excluded from school between 2014 and 2018[i]. These figures demonstrate decreasing inclusion in mainstream schools, which is driven by shortfalls in school and high-needs funding and pressure from school league tables.

 

Improving support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities

 

3.7   It is widely recognised that the current system is not meeting the needs of all children with SEND, which can result in these children missing school due to not having their needs met both within and outside of the school environment (for example, having unmet health needs.) LGA research found that parents reported a relationship between SEND, bullying, needs not being met in school and consequently deteriorating mental health.

 

3.8   Councils share the Government’s ambition of making sure every child with SEND gets timely and high-quality support that meets their needs. We welcome the Government’s review of the SEND system and believe that the proposals set out in the Green Paper will help improve the way that SEND support is delivered to the benefit of children and young people and their families. However, it will take several years for the proposals set out in the Green Paper to be taken through the legislative process, before becoming law. In the meantime, government must go further and ensure all local authorities and schools have adequate resources to support all students with SEND. This must include bringing forward a plan that eliminates council Dedicated Schools Grant deficits which currently stand at an estimated £1.9 billion. Without intervention, these deficits will rise to £3.6 billion by 2025, which could further undermine the efficacy of the system and the support that can be provided.

 

3.9   Just under 50 per cent of children with special needs and Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) are now being educated outside of mainstream schools. Statistics show that 172,437 of the 355,566 children and young people with an EHCP were placed in state special schools, alternative provision, or independent and non-maintained special schools in 2021-22.

 

3.10           The SEND and Alternative Provision Green paper rightly identified the importance of increasing levels of mainstream inclusion for children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) as a means of improving outcomes for those children. The Government’s response to the Green Paper must set out how this can be achieved, including through regulation of academies and free schools.

 

 

Local authorities role in supporting pupils with persistent absence

 

3.11           Councils have a statutory duty, working with schools, communities and families, to ensure that all children of compulsory school age receive a suitable, full-time education and they play a vital role in supporting children who are missing out on education.

 

3.12           LGA-commissioned research includes a number of case studies which highlight the considerable best-practice in the system and different approaches that are in place across the country. These include early intervention approaches to identify children who are at risk of missing out on formal, full-time education and offer targeted, multi-agency support; managing pupil movement and working with schools to ensure a school place for all children; working with schools to broaden their understanding of how to identify children’s underlying needs and how to support them effectively and re-engaging pupils who are out of education; and putting in place robust processes for tracking children who are not in formal, full-time education or are at risk of missing out.

 

3.13           We have long raised with Government that there are significant omissions in the current powers that local authorities have to exercise their statutory duties, which means that it is possible for children to slip through the net.  Moreover, many councils report that the safety net that the services which are there to ensure that all children, but particularly the most vulnerable, do not miss out on their entitlement to education is stretched to capacity.

 

3.14           Local Fair Access Protocols, overseen by councils, make sure that children without a place, including those who have been excluded from schools, are quickly placed in suitable settings. These local arrangements rely on the goodwill of partners, as councils cannot direct academies to accept pupils, even if they are identified as being the most appropriate school for a particular pupil. The LGA are calling for councils to be given adequate powers to protect the interests of all pupils. This must include the power to direct academies and free schools to admit pupils that need a school place, when they are identified as the most appropriate choice.

 

3.15           The Government has committed to consulting on a new statutory framework for pupil movement, which will introduce a new backstop power for local authorities to direct trusts to admit children ‘as a final safety net’, with the right for the MAT to appeal to the Schools Adjudicator. However, councils’ ability to meet local needs will be increasingly undermined as more schools convert from local authority-maintained schools to academies. It is therefore imperative that this backstop power is introduced as soon as reasonably possible.

 

3.16           Under Section 19 of the Education Act 1996 councils have a duty to make arrangements for the provision of a suitable education for all children of compulsory school age. The LGA has long-raised concerns that councils do not have the powers to fulfil this duty and ensure home-schooled children are receiving a suitable education. This is primarily because councils have no powers to meet face-to-face with children who are out of school, to identify whether they are receiving an effective education or where the family may benefit from additional support.

 

3.17           We welcomed the proposals in the Schools White paper and Schools Bill to introduce a register of children who are out of school. This would have placed a duty on parents who electively home educate (EHE), or whose child is not in regulated education, to register their child with their local authority and provide details of how their child is being educated. Under the current arrangements, many children who are not attending school are invisible to local authorities and the services that are designed to keep them safe from harm. The introduction of the register would help improve data and the visibility of all children who are out of school within a local area, allowing councils to share information with specified agencies in relation to safeguarding concerns.

 

3.18           We are disappointed that the Department has taken the decision to abandon the Bill, including the clauses relating to the register of children. We recognise that most parents who choose to educate their children at home provide a quality education designed to meet their child’s needs. To improve support for children where this is not the case, it is vital that the Government implements the register through other legislative means and gives local authorities adequate powers and flexibilities to meet with children who are out of school, to verify they are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment. This would need to be matched with adequate funding.

 

Out of school settings

 

3.19           DfE-commissioned research on the oversight of out-of-school settings (OOSS), which reported on a Department-funded pilot in 16 council areas into the oversight of OOSS over an 18-month period, identified multiple safeguarding risks in OOSS. This included physical chastisement/corporal punishment, grooming/sexual abuse/child exploitation and extremism/radicalisation. The research also found that the current legal powers to act are also not widely understood, making it difficult for councils to intervene.

 

3.20           The LGA is calling for councils to be given tougher powers to tackle OOSS where concerns are identified, including; requiring OOSS to register with their council and; ensuring settings comply with all safeguarding checks; and being able to legally act on any concerns and close down unsafe premises as a last resort option

 

  1. 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.

 

4.1  As children face individual barriers that impact on their ability to attend school, there is no one-size-fits all approach. The Education Endowment Foundation published a rapid evidence assessment, which examines available research to identify the most effective interventions to improve attendance. The review looked at the evidence for eight different approaches – including incentives, disincentives and mentoring – to identify strategies that could help.

 

4.2  Overall, it found that the research on how to improve attendance is weak, but some approaches did have a positive impact. Positive impacts were found for both parental communication approaches and targeted parental engagement interventions. Responsive intervention in which a member of staff or team use multiple interventions targeted specifically to individual pupils’ needs are found to be effective. The study found that for interventions to be effective, they need to be targeted to individual pupils needs; there was not enough evidence to conclude that interventions that were not targeted (such as the whole-class teaching of socio-emotional skills, for example) had a decisive impact alone.

 

Creating inclusive schools

 

4.3  Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) will in many instances need additional support to attend school. Councils want to see more children and young people with special needs educated in their local mainstream wherever possible and it is crucial that parents have confidence in the quality of local provision. This will result in both improved outcomes and a reduction in the use of special and independent and non-maintained special school places that are by their very nature more expensive than mainstream provision. The Department for Education’s ongoing regulatory review of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) must include measures to hold MATs to account for their mainstream inclusion. A requirement for all mainstream schools to deliver high-quality and inclusive education will be crucial to the success of reforms to the SEND system, as set out in the SEND Green paper.

 

4.4  The school system in England is not working for all children, particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Schools White Paper, which underpins the Bill, sets out the Governments proposals for reforming the schools system and ensure all children have equal opportunity to achieve their potential. The Levelling Up mission for schools is for 90 per of children to leave primary school having achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030, up from 65 per cent in 2019, and this will be the key measure of the White Paper’s success.

 

4.5  The Government aims to achieve this by driving high standards of curriculum, behaviour and attendance and providing targeted support for every child that needs it. The LGA supports these ambitions. However, it is important that they are delivered in a way that supports the objectives of the SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper to create a more inclusive mainstream school system in which all children can succeed. Numerous reviews and inquiries into the education system have found that the current performance and funding system does not incentivise or support schools to be inclusive or take responsibility for the needs of all children, and it is vital that this is addressed.

 

4.6  Moreover, LGA-Commissioned Research found that school leaders and local authority officers consistently reported that changes to the curriculum, with a focus on a narrower range of academic subjects and assessment through end-of-course examinations, meant schools were not in a position to offer the breadth of subjects that might provide alternative pathways for children disengaged from academic study or in need of a more personalised curriculum.

 

4.7  If academic attainment, behaviour and attendance continue to be the core benchmarks of school performance, there is a risk that the Government’s reforms will continue to dis-incentivise schools from becoming more inclusive of children who do not, or cannot, meet these standards, including pupils who have SEND, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils with other additional needs such as those with poor mental health.

 

4.8  There are various reforms that Government could consider to ensure schools have the flexibility to create a learning environment in which more children can succeed, including recognising and rewarding greater curriculum breadth; rewarding schools for inclusive practice through the accountability system; investing in pastoral and mental health support and significantly developing trauma-informed practice in schools.

 

 

Improving mental health support
 

4.9  Children with mental health needs often miss education. The number of under-18-year-olds in contact with NHS mental health services in England increased by 29.2 percent in the last year to 992,647 in 2021-22 – up from 768,083 in 2020-21 and 763,888 in 2019-20. It is vital that the Government commits to strong action and investment to meet current, unmet and new demand for children’s mental health support.

 

4.10          We support the White Paper’s commitment to ensure that there is a senior mental health lead in each school and welcome the recent announcement of further funding for mental health leads. However, these plans were laid out in the Children’s Mental Health Green Paper in 2017 and have been slow to progress. While the roll-out of mental health support teams in schools (MHSTs) has reached its target early, this was a target of having MHSTs in only 35 per cent of schools. This leaves significant numbers of the population without this support.

 

4.11          To complement the roll-out of mental health teams in schools, it is vital that school-based counselling is rolled out to all state-funded secondary schools and academies. This would ensure more than 90 per cent of schools have access to a school counsellor for at least two days a week.

 

4.12          It is also vital that there are services available for those children and young who are not accessing school or do not feel comfortable accessing mental health support in schools. To tackle waiting lists and improve timely access to mental health support, it is vital that the Government invests in open-access community services, which can support those with less complex needs. The LGA have long been calling on the Government to roll out Early Support Hubs in every community – which can be accessed without a referral – to meet the rising demand for mental health services and plug gaps in support.

 

 

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

 

5.1  The LGA is broadly supportive of the proposals set out in the Department’s consultation on improving the consistency of support for school attendance, published in February 2022. We welcomed the proposal to require all schools, irrespective of their status (maintained, single academy or part of a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT)), to have an attendance policy and have regard to statutory guidance on the expectations of schools, on the basis that a consistent approach across all schools will increase understanding of the role that schools play in raising and maintaining attendance levels.

 

5.2  We are also supportive of the introduction of a set of minimum expectations, developed in consultation with councils. The consultation rightly acknowledged that councils need the flexibility to develop their own arrangements locally and that the Department will not introduce a central ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is also helpful that the consultation acknowledged that it will take councils time to transition from their existing school attendance services to the minimum expectations proposed.

 

5.3  Raising and improving levels of school attendance is a key part of councils school improvement function. It is therefore disappointing that the Department has recently decided to reduce and then remove the Local Authority Monitoring and Brokering grant, which funds improvement work undertaken with schools. Removing the grant is at odds with the proposals set out in the consultation and will undermine councils work with schools and other partners to improve attendance. The Department must replace this lost funding to ensure councils can continue to play a meaningful role in this space.

 

5.4  While we are supportive of the principles behind the new duties to develop a minimum set of expectations for all council attendance services, which will include a closer working with all types of schools and maintaining a greater focus on attendance.

 

5.5  The reforms will mean a significant increase in workload for councils. The guidance sets out that all schools, irrespective of type, should be in receipt of support from school attendance support teams. Previously this support was targeted at schools where attendance data showed there were specific issues. Moreover, councils did not previously work with the independent sector on attendance, but these schools are now in scope as a result of the Department’s new guidance. This will radically alter the level of engagement many councils have with schools in their local area.

 

 

5.6  We are concerned that the new burdens assessment does not adequately capture the scale of the additional workload this will place on councils. The Government has undertaken a new burdens assessment for the duty to develop a minimum set of standards for all council attendance services. The assessment gathered evidence from a sample of just four councils. At present, there are only eight local authorities in England which provide the core attendance functions to all schools within their area from their existing budgets; yet all four councils the DfE took evidence from were from within this group. This sample, therefore, does not accurately reflect the level of service that councils are able to provide within their existing budgets and therefore does not capture how challenging it will be for councils to provide a significantly expanded offer within their existing budgets.

 

5.7  Many local attendance teams are already operating at stretched capacity. Councils have consistently fed back to us that they fundamentally lack the capacity and resources within their school attendance teams to fulfil the new duties given the increase in the number of schools they will be working with. To carry out the new duties effectively, it will be vital that councils are properly resourced.

 

 

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

 

6.1  Free school meals (FSM) can help build a more equal education setting and have been linked to improved health, socioeconomic, and attainment outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

 

6.2  In December last year, food inflation reached 13.3 percent, the highest rate since 1977. It is estimated that spiralling food costs meant that consumers paid £571 more on average for their groceries in 2022 compared to 2021.

 

6.3  Rising food costs are more likely to result in negative outcomes for lower-income households, who spent a greater proportion of their income on food. Therefore, in the coming months, an increasing proportion of households will find it difficult to consume a healthy, varied, and nutritious diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. This could lead to people becoming more reliant on cheaper, energy-dense, and less healthy options, to fill lunch boxes

 

6.4  In the UK, the gap in overweight and obesity rates between children from the least and most affluent families is larger than in any EU country (26 points compared to the EU average of 8 percentage points).

 

6.5  Evidence suggests that providing free school meals can contribute to an overall healthier diet, especially for students living in socioeconomically disadvantaged households. Child Poverty Action Group research found that the introduction of universal provision of FSM to infants on average reduced the chances of a child becoming obese by 0.7 percentage points relative to the pre-policy average. This equates to a 7.4 per cent reduction in obesity rates. With fewer than two out of every one hundred packed lunches meeting UK nutritional standards, evidence suggests that providing free school meals can contribute to an overall healthier diet, especially for students living in socioeconomically disadvantaged households. 

 

6.6  An OECD analysis based on Health-Behaviours in School-based Children survey data showed that children with obesity have significantly lower performance at school than their healthy-weight counterparts, and teenagers with obesity are more often absent from school. As well as improving educational performance and concentration, Free School Meals could contribute towards addressing obesity-related absences in the classroom.

 

6.7  The LGA have previously highlighted that the restrictive income criteria for FSMs means that a considerable proportion of children living in food insecurity are not eligible for the scheme. We are calling on Government to increase these eligibility criteria to include all children in poverty, alongside moving towards an automatic enrolment approach to the benefit to improve the take-up rate. This is particularly pertinent in the context of high food inflation and pressures on household budgets. By implementing both of these measures, we can ensure more children in food-insecure households have access to the scheme and its wider benefits, including improved attendance.

 

 

7        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.

 

7.1  According to research funded by the Nuffield Foundation (2016), participating in organised sports and joining after-school clubs has been found to help to improve primary school children’s academic performance and social skills.

 

7.2  Youth services are an essential part of supporting children and young people in and out of school. Having a strong relationship with a trusted adult can be essential for young people. Youth workers can play a particular role in supporting young people to reengage in school. The LGA has called for the government to recognise councils’ role in coordinating and supporting local youth services, however, to ensure support for all young people, a strong youth offer needs to be properly funded.

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[i]February 2023