PA0139

 

Written evidence submitted by the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS)

 

 

1.      The Association of Directors of Children’s Services Ltd (ADCS) welcomes the opportunity to provide a written submission to the Education Select Committee on persistent absence and support for disadvantaged students. ADCS is the professional association for directors of children’s services (DCS) and their senior management teams. Under the provisions of the Children Act 2004, the DCS is the chief officer responsible for the discharge of local authority (LA) functions regarding education and children’s social care and acts as a champion for children and young people living in the locality.

 

2.      The LA and DCS have a number of statutory duties relating specifically to children’s education including: to ensure fair access to school places, to deliver suitable home to school transport arrangements and to ensure high quality education for children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), plus securing alternative provision outside mainstream school. Further, the Children Act 2004 includes the statutory responsibility for the LA to ensure all children and young people receive appropriate quality education. This requires the LA to receive sufficient assurance information and have sufficient authority within the education system to be able to deliver on this responsibility.

 

3.      Persistent absence is strongly linked with fixed term or permanent exclusion. In secondary schools, the number of exclusions has continued to rise over the past decade alongside a year-on-year rise in the number of children being removed from mainstream school to become electively home educated. Addressing the reasons behind these rises, such as disincentives in the system for schools to become more inclusive environments will equally help address some of the underlying causes of persistent absence. For example, the growth of zero-tolerance behaviour policies in schools can marginalise children who experience vulnerability. By contrast, other schools have acted as a safety net for families by seeking to ‘poverty proof’ the school day via the provision of uniforms, food and other forms of informal help and support to pupils and their families. ADCS would therefore a welcome a greater emphasis on the importance of inclusive schools and for the Department to re-visit the recommendations made in the Timpson Review of School Exclusion (DfE, 2019). The recent Schools White Paper included a welcome focus on inclusion yet the status of the paper is unclear following the announcement from the Secretary of State that the Schools Bill will no longer progress through parliament.

 

4.      Alternative provision (AP) offers a valuable alternative to mainstream schooling for children and young people who, for a variety of reasons, find it difficult to access a full-time timetable or the national curriculum as well as those who have been excluded from school. However, ADCS members have raised concerns regarding schools with an over reliance on alternative provision or who are routinely excluding pupils as a result of challenging behaviour stemming from poor mental health. Further, children who may have special educational needs are, in some instances, facing permanent exclusion instead of having their underlying additional needs met. In short, ADCS is concerned that AP is being used as a shortcut to improve school performance. At present school leaders take the decision to exclude a pupil but the LA meets the costs of the new placement from the local high needs funding block. Whilst it is critical that learners continue with their education, the current arrangements allow schools to act with impunity and the pressures on LA budgets grow unabated. A growing number of schools are developing their own in-house AP, this approach seems particularly valuable for older learners preparing to transition from school to post-16 education.  The best AP units enable learners to stay for short periods during which the demand of a fulltime timetable is too great e.g. during family breakdown.

 

5.      A recent Ofsted report, Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence (Ofsted, 2022) found that while persistent absenteeism issues predate the pandemic, they have been exacerbated by it. The report notes that the provision of remote education during national lockdowns may have affected some pupils’ and parents’ perceptions of the need to be in school. There is a concern that missed face to face teaching has further disengaged hard to reach pupils and their families and therefore exacerbated these issues. LAs have a key role in oversight of persistent absence and the partnership between schools, the LA and other essential services, such as speech and language therapy, mental health and parenting support, enables wrap around support to be offered to children and families to enable them to access learning as well. However, sustained cuts to overall LA budgets, and the removal of dedicated funding for this purpose such as the Education Services Grant (ESG), have limited the level of support authorities have been able to provide.

 

6.      The Department for Education’s latest attendance guidance School attendance: improving consistency of support, introduced new duties on LAs to help improve school attendance and provide support where persistent absenteeism is identified. Whilst ADCS agrees with the principles of the guidance, some of the proposals present a significant unfunded new burden for LAs. If the Department is to set minimum expectations of attendance services, this must be accompanied by adequate funding that signals the central role of LAs in this space. Indeed, the imminent removal of the School Improvement Monitoring and Brokering Grant will impact many authorities’ ability to carry out their duties effectively. The Grant is often used to fund LA school improvement teams and its removal will have a negative effect on support provided to school leadership relating to attendance, exclusions, safeguarding and early help support. New expectations based on statutory guidance must therefore be accompanied by meaningful funding to allow LAs to effectively fulfil their statutory role.

 

7.      The new attendance guidance includes a welcome recognition of the importance of early help services in tackling persistent absenteeism. The sooner we are able to identify problems and provide the right support, the less likely they are to escalate and become entrenched. However, early help services have faced significant reductions to budgets as available resources have been re-directed towards high end safeguarding work to protect the most vulnerable due to a decade of funding cuts. The Department must recognise the need for adequate, long-term funding for early help services. Since the onset of the pandemic we have seen a new cohort of families becoming known to these services, those that were previously just about managing, which has placed additional strain on resources. Added to this, the long-term effects of the pandemic may result in higher rates of persistent absenteeism.

 

8.      There is a key role for individual schools and multi-academy trusts to create a more inclusive environment that endeavours to cater to the needs of all children and young people. We know that children’s mental health has been severely impacted over the past two years and this will have a long-term impact on absence. ADCS members are clear, the roll out of mental health support teams in schools (MHST) must be expanded to more areas and at pace to meet this growing need. Disadvantaged pupils (such as those eligible for free school meals) and those with special educational needs are also more likely to be persistently absent. It is important that there is a greater focus and outline of the role of schools in promoting inclusivity and reducing school exclusions.

 

9.      Clear, consistent messages from schools and LAs about schools being a safe environment and the social and emotional benefits of being in school have helped to raise attendance. Children’s mental health issues are rising up the national agenda with more children and young people suffering with mental health issues. Mental health of children and young people in England 2021, a national survey commissioned by NHS Digital (2021) shows that rates of probable mental disorder have increased: one in six (16.0%) children aged 5-16 years were identified as having a probable mental disorder, increasing from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017. The roll out of MHSTs has been a positive development but the government target to have an MHST in 35% of schools by 2025 is not ambitious enough. Many LAs are investing to expand the MHSTs offer across as many schools as possible in their area.

 

10.  ADCS would welcome the opportunity to attend a future meeting of the Education Select Committee to give further oral evidence on this matter. 

 

February 2023

3