PA0151

Written evidence submitted by Simon Edwards, School of Education and Sociology, University of Portsmouth

 

Introduction

The body of evidence submitted in this report addresses issues surrounding persistent and severe absence among three particular groups of pupils within the 11-16 age range;

Evidence Is drawn from the following sources;

The body of evidence submitted is drawn, with the exception of one study in London, from research and practice carried out within coastal towns on the South East coastal region of England consisting of predominantly but not exclusively white working-class populations. The evidence presented in this submission does not represent teacher perspectives of the issues that have been identified. This is deliberate addresses limited research that considers parents’ and pupils perspectives.

Evidence drawn from research includes data from focus groups, interviews and a brief literature review related to pupil absence. Evidence also includes parents’ experiences and understandings of their child’s absence from school. The body of research extends from 2016 – 2019 and has been published in reports, academic journals and articles.

Evidence drawn from practice-based interventions includes session recordings and data from pupil / parent evaluations, vignettes and some statistical information. The practice-based intervention, called Beyond the School Gates, was established by the submission author, former head teacher, Ofsted chair, youth work colleagues and community members in 2020 as an extension of a research project carried out through the authors academic institution 2017-2019.

Evidence drawn from personal experience includes the submitting author’s first-hand accounts of situations that have influenced pupil absence. Contexts include schools, family and community sites and accounts are drawn from the author’s role as youthwork mentor and advocate (for parents and pupils) with the Beyond the School Gates (2018-present).

Presentation of Evidence

Evidence from research, practice and experience identifies disadvantage as a key component related to absenteeism. However, it is not disadvantage per se that is a cause for absenteeism but rather, factors that emerge within these conditions that contribute to pupil absence. The following evidence is drawn from a range of research, practice-based evaluations and practitioner experiences that have been undertaken by the author with his colleagues.

A literature and policy review carried out as part of a wider qualitative study in 2019 (See Edwards and Parmar 2020) identified absenteeism as coinciding with curriculum reforms (House of Commons 2017a) and falling attainment levels (DfE 2018). Punitive measures in the form of fines and threats of imprisonment that corresponded with pupil absence were having little effect (DfE 2017b).

These findings guided qualitative interviews and focus groups with 40 year nine and ten students across two secondary schools in a South Coastal town, both of which were located in high deprivation areas. Year nine and year ten students (approximately 50% male / 50% female) formed the research cohort in line with DfE (2018a; 2018b) statistical data that identified this age range to have the highest levels of absenteeism nationally. Attendance figures for the pupils were between 78-87%. The study explored;

  1. The value students placed on education and how they felt about attending school
  2. Their motivation to access education and the support they experienced
  3. Future aspirations and the role they believed education played in this

Findings showed that attending lessons that pupils did not like or for which they couldn’t understand the content and understood approaches to behaviour and discipline to have little impact on, or relevance to, their educational attainment. This impacted their motivation to attend and subsequently their attendance at school. The findings also evidenced student attendance was, in line with wider research (see DfE 2018a), influenced by family illness, anxiety related to school or family issues and bullying (see 2.4), the findings also correspond with national statistics that show an increase in unauthorised absences (DfE 2018a) and concerns that students are refusing to attend GCSEs due to lack of understanding of content, subsequent anxiety and fear of failure. Examples of evidence are below and correspond with each of the areas explored in sequence;

  1. The value students placed on education and how they felt about attending school

25% of the pupils said they were bored of lesson content or could not understand it. An evidence example is below;

Tia: Some of the lessons don’t even teach me nuffin. Honestly, I already know it!

Tami: The teacher does the same thing over and over again.

Kat: They don’t even make it fun or different so you wanna do it.

(Year 9 group)

They were then asked: How much do you enjoy school? (0 = Not at all/10 = A lot). Twenty-eight students responded with a mean average of 4/10 and a modal average of 6/10, indicating that for most of these students attending school was not highly enjoyable. All the pupils said they valued education as a means to gaining a good job but it needed to be meaningful to the employment goals they had. An evidence example is below;

Otis: I don’t have much interest in creativity anymore. The only reason I come here is to do the work (. . .). I have two skills maths and music. I can’t get a decent career in maths at the moment so music is the best option

(Year 10 group)

  1. Pupils’ motivation to access education

A modal average of 35 pupil responses to the question ‘How important is education to you?’ showed (on a scale of 0-10) 10/10 where 10 indicated education as highly important. Students also evidenced willingness to attend extra-curricular activities. However, coinciding with a further research study carried out by Edwards and Brown (2020) in an although academy in a city in the South East of England, they became demotivated to learn and subsequently attend lessons and school primarily when they were not supported to learn in these classes. An evidence example is below;

Joe: If you don’t know something then it’s your responsibility to know it but most of the time it feels like you can’t ask for help (. . .). It’s just sometimes you have to tread carefully with what you say around teachers because if you tell them too much then they could like give you a tick on your CV card or something stupid like that.

(Year 10 group)

Pupils were asked specifically why their attendance was low for which medical reasons were cited most commonly but the following factors were also identified;

An evidence example is below;

Arnold: Mine’s like worry about coming into school a lot cos of the lessons that I had and the teachers I didn’t like either so it used to like stop me coming in.

Researcher: What made you worried?

Arnold: Not really sure, just school in general. My lessons, that I wasn’t gunna understand the work, get in trouble or something.

(Year 9 group)

Despite these reasons for non-attendance though, the pupils said they did also complete homework, as education was still important to them where accessible. However, some pupils valued being happy now and enjoying friendships and being with family members who were ill or separated more highly than attending school, for which its use to help them achieve future goals was not easily seen at the time.

The above evidence also corresponds with the current practitioner experiences and session records maintained by mentors (including the author of this submission) on the Beyond the School Gates project. The team have supported fifteen pupils between 2018 - 2023 who have been excluded temporarily or permanently from mainstream schools or alternative provisions or who refuse to attend school. It is not easy to separate the two characteristics of these pupils, as school exclusion often coincides with and precedes later school refusal. Further, SEND and disadvantage also coincide with these characteristics and behaviours that lead to exclusion and subsequent school refusal. Moreover, adverse childhood trauma, often with social services and CAMHS involvement, has been seen to be an additional influencing and contextual factors;

  1. In one family two brothers had not attended school for 8 and 5 years respectively following multiple exclusions and then school refusal. The third (younger) brother had successfully integrated into his school. The mother held a Phd in micro-biology but was diagnosed with a brain tumour when the boys were very young. Her husband had mental health issues. Consequently, the family had sold their privately-owned house and moved into council-maintained accommodation. Neither were able to work. The two older boys had attended primary and secondary schools and experienced multiple school exclusions and subsequent school refusals followed. The mother had then opted for EHE for these two boys and had them tested for ADHD and autism. These conditions were confirmed and appropriate support accessed to support their learning. Both are now attending alternative provision and colleges.

 

  1. In another family, a brother and sister had experienced school exclusion and subsequently refused to attend. The sister had been attending a secondary school prior to covid-19 and had made excellent academic progress. However, during covid-19 lockdown she experienced family trauma, which affected her behaviour during the transition from lockdown. A serious assault on another pupil led to permanent exclusion and placement in a pupil referral unit. The trauma of this led to school refusal and BSG involvement. The brother had refused to attend school after experiencing agoraphobia following a bicycle accident prior to covid-19, which was also exacerbated by covid-19 lockdown. He refused to attend school during the transition from lockdown as social anxiety was restricting his access to school, particularly as the small unit he had been attending prior to lock-down was now closed through lack of funding. The school were notified of his social anxiety and mentors requested an EHCP submission be considered. However, the school stated that they would only start the process if he attended. BSG mentors completed an EHCP submission with the family that was successful and which identified his social anxiety as a limiting factor to attending school.

 

  1. In another family, a female pupil had experienced school exclusion at secondary school and had been placed in a pupil referral unit for two years. Her mother was registered as disabled and her father, who did not live at the family home, was a gardener with little work at the time. Following further exclusions for a range of behaviour issues she had become reclusive, socially anxious and refused to attend school. BSG mentor support had then been requested by the pupil and her parents in order to support her re-engagement with her education. Following the initial mentoring intervention that established trust between mentors and the pupil she disclosed a serious sexual assault that had occurred a year before. This coincided with increased exclusions, subsequent refusal to attend school and increased social anxieties. However, when this was shared with members of the pupil referral unit leadership and teaching staff this disclosure was seemingly not taken seriously. After the meeting one member of staff took the BSG mentor to one side as said the pupil was manipulative and to be aware of this when listening to her conversations. The pupil later made a statement to police who confirmed that a number of other statements had also been made about the person whom this pupil had alleged to have assaulted her. Further attempts by the teaching staff to help her sit baseline tests had been met with her walking out of class and refusal to return to school. Consecutive absences were recorded and the pupil disclosed to mentors that they had struggled with being locked in a small room with a teacher and being told to do a baseline test. She had walked out just before the teacher had locked the door (2nd November 2021). The pupil increasingly refused to attend the pupil referral unit at all and her parents were finally sent a letter threatening a fine if attendance did not improve. The parents and pupil opted for EHE instead in June 2022. The pupil since started to attend (Dec 2022-resent) an EHE pathway provision at college.

 

  1. A step brother and sister who cohabited with the boy’s mother and girl’s father had experienced multiple exclusions and refusals. The boy had experienced informal exclusions (being sent home) or internal exclusions due to lack of uniform or for disruptive classroom behaviours. His lack of uniform was due to excessive growth over a one-year period for which his mother and step-father could not afford to pay for three consecutive uniforms. Further issues with bullying by peers about his height and weight led to school refusal. The step sister refused to go to school for much of a term recently when she experienced bullying at school. Both pupils are on free school meals and the mother has mental health issues and father has a low paid job. At Christmas last year they had no lighting, heating or food for three days. Access to food banks and fuel vouchers was sought and donations through local charities helped allow them to pay bills. This, in turn affected the pupils’ attendance in that the immediate effect was to attend due to getting a hot meal and warmth but soon led to refusal due to ongoing home pressures and bullying they received.

Each family had experienced social services involvement and had made excellent progress in their relationships with one another. CAMHS involvement was also particular to these families but in each case the parents had done everything they could within their capacities to encourage the pupils to attend school. The issue here was not poor parenting or pupils not wanting to participate in education or learn. Rather, the issues were largely beyond their control and included poverty, undiagnosed and diagnosed SEND, unwillingness or inability of school staff to address pupil concerns or listen to theirs and their parents’ concerns. The above vignettes form a small number of the stories encountered with pupils supported through Beyond the School Gates. However, some statics are presented below that provide some additional information on factors that impact absence that coincide with SEND, alternative provision and disadvantage. All had refused to attend school for periods following temporary or permanent exclusion;

 

 

 

 

BSG participant profiles 2018-2022

Students supported: n = 4 female / 11 male

Age range: 11-18 years

Average age 13.5 years

Temporarily excluded current provision (mainstream, alternative or Pupil Referral Unit): n = 15

Subsequent permanent exclusion: n = 3 female / 8 male with subsequent persistent absence

Subsequent (to temporary exclusion) total school refusal: n = 1 female / 3 male

Socio-economic status: eligible for free school meals: n = 11

Ethnicity: White British n = 14 / Asian British n = 1 male

Special education needs and disabilities (SEND): n = 6 male

Social services involvement: n = 4 male / 3 female

Police (crime related) involvement: n = 2 male / 1 female

Experience of sexual assault: n = 1 fm

Physical assault on peers or teacher (police intervention): n = 2 fm / 3 m

Bullied: n = 2 fm / 2 m

Families supported (n = 11)

Professional working parents (ie police, teacher): n = 3

Mental or physical health issues that affect parents’ ability to work: n = 4

Household with supported income: n = 8

Conclusions

The above evidence is not exhaustive but it does reflect wider research carried out by the author and other academics and practitioners in this field. For example, Shaalan Farouk’s (2017) work on auto-biographical memories of pupils attending a Pupil Referral Unit sheds further light on this issue alongside Fran Morgan’s (2021) work on Square Pegs. The evidence neither identifies a list of causal issues for pupil absence, although in some cases these have been identified.

Rather, when attempting to understand school absence, this body of evidence identifies complex issues that influence and can trigger absence that include personal and familial trauma, social and community pressures, consistent temporary exclusions, competing cultural goals, policy and curricula constraints. Additionally, the evidence suggests there is not always a clear distinction between groups of pupils who have high absenteeism, experience disadvantage, have SEND or who attend alternative provisions. However, the evidence in this submission suggests pupils with low and severe absence do fall into at least two of these groups.

The issues are not easy to address in policy contexts or practice but there are ways forward that can enable the issues at play to be identified in collaboration with the pupils, parents and schools and starting points for intervention explored. However, they require a mutual desire to listen to each participant’s voices and concerns and support for parents and pupils within these processes. In particular, it is recommended that the model of youth work embodied in the mentoring processes in this submission, which are representative of wider youth work practices, are revisited as a framework for these processes. Here, currently and historically, informal education demonstrates that responsibility for self-determination cannot be disassociated from the responsibilities of other participants within the pupil’s educational processes. Specifically, the participatory processes of mentoring using this informal model of youth work extends youth work principles and practices to align to mentors at the intersections of political, socio-cultural, gender, race, sex, disability and place-space factors that impact and orientate the developmental and education trajectories of the pupils.

February 2023