Written evidence submitted by Barnardo’s


About Barnardo’s

Barnardo’s is the UK’s largest national children’s charity. In 2021/22, we reached 357,276 children, young people, parents and carers through our 794 services and partnerships across the UK. Our goal is to achieve better outcomes for more children. To achieve this, we work with partners to build stronger families, safer childhoods and positive futures. 



Barnardo’s is concerned that significant numbers of children are missing out on significant parts of their education due to permanent school exclusion, temporary suspension or because they are persistently absent from education. Time spent out of school damages children’s long-term prospects, reducing the likelihood of them gaining good qualifications[1], and can provide an immediate safety risk, since being absent from school is highly correlated with risks such as exploitation and involvement in knife crime[2]. Given these risks it is concerning that evidence shows levels of persistent absence from school are significantly increasing – in Autumn 2021, 1 in 4 children were persistently absent compared to 1 in 9 in 2018/19.[3]


Barnardo’s services have experience of supporting children who are not consistently accessing education. This is often due to failure to address significant underlying challenges that are acting as an barrier to attending and achieving in a mainstream setting. Such underlying challenges include:



We believe that the key to reducing rates of children missing from education is to ensure that the right joined-up support is provided for pupils and families which crucially addresses wider needs. School attendance policies need to take a wide range of potential challenges into account, and schools should work closely with the local authority and other agencies and provide appropriate referrals to services where appropriate. As part of this joined-up approach to supporting children who are missing from education we would like to see:


Better mental health support as a means of improving participation in education.

Approximately one in six children and young people in England between the ages of 6-16 have a diagnosable mental health condition, equating to around 1.3 million. This rises to one in four young people aged between 17 and 19[4]. The increasing prevalence of mental ill health poses a public health issue, resulting in long term health, social and economic impact[5].


The crisis in children and young people’s mental health threatens the prospects of a generation and risks impacting their education. In a YouGov poll commissioned by Barnardo’s in August 2022, 61% of parents said mental health issues affected their children’s attainment at school. 41% noted a drop in concentration and focus on schoolwork. Children and young people with mental health issues are less likely to feel safe at school or to enjoy their learning[6]. Improving support for children with mental health concerns should therefore be a key element of any strategy to reduce absence from school.


Mental Health Support Teams were an initiative developed as part of the 2017 Green Paper ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision’[7]. Each MHST serves an average of 8,000 children across 10-20 schools and further education settings. They work together with mental health leads and wider school staff to:


MHSTs are well positioned to identify at-risk children and provide early intervention. Services also play a key role in identifying children and young people in crisis and referring onwards for appropriate interventions in a timely manner. All of which can help and prevent problems escalating to a level where persistent absence is likely. They are also a cost-effective solution - analysis in our recent ‘It’s Hard to Talk’ report[8] demonstrated how for every £1 invested in Barnardo’s MHSTs, there is a return of £1.90 to the state.  This is likely an underestimate as analysis was conducted based only on the service’s one-on-one CBT therapies, which represent one third of the MHST’s overall offering.

However, the Government’s current plans for MHSTs lack ambition with only 35% of children and young people expected to have access to MHST support by 2023[9], leaving 6.5 million children and young people without vital support.


As part of a strategy to support children with mental health concerns and prevent this escalating into problems with attendance the government should commit to funding and delivering an accelerated roll out of Mental Health Support Teams in all schools and colleges in England to ensure access for all children and young people.


In addition to specific mental health teams, it is also imperative that schools have the support needed to implement a ‘whole school approach’ to mental health and wellbeing. This includes ensuring that bullying, but also sexual harassment and abuse, have no place in the classroom or the playground; that all school staff understand their role in creating a supportive and inclusive culture; better understanding of the causes for challenging behaviour – including the links with SEND and mental health needs; and crucially that exclusion is a last resort. 


Improving schools understanding of trauma is key to improving absence rates.


The underlying causes of persistent absence in vulnerable children can often be linked to their experience of past trauma. Children who have experienced significant trauma such as abuse, domestic abuse, or living with a parent with drug or alcohol misuse issues can exhibit behaviours that some schools may respond to punitively. For example, research by SafeLives found that 39% of children who had experienced domestic abuse found it difficult to adjust to school[10]. This can lead to child feeling alienated and disengaged from school as a result of isolations, exclusions, or being put on a part-time timetable, increasing the risk of them missing a significant part of their education. It is important that these children have the right support in place to address their underlying trauma and to enable staff to understand the roots of their behaviour.


Ongoing staffing issues related to Covid-19 and top-down pressure on getting students academically caught up as quickly as possible has made it harder than ever for schools and teachers to prioritise student wellbeing. Our experience suggest there is significant variation in schools’ approaches, where some are very committed to providing a nurturing environment that prioritises pastoral care while others are focused on academic achievement, league tables and Ofsted ratings and are therefore much more reluctant to make allowances or support children with additional needs.


It is important that schools are well equipped to act on warning signs of behaviour which is the result of past trauma and introduce effective interventions. This is key if we are to keep vulnerable children in mainstream education. Understanding the impact of trauma enables teaching staff to work effectively with the child often by including outside agencies such as family support workers or community policing teams. However mainstream teacher training currently does not include ensuring that teachers have this in-depth understanding of the impact past trauma and effective strategies to tackle it. Trainee teachers are also not currently required to undertake any teaching practice in a non-mainstream setting which can be helpful in helping gain and understanding of how to support children who have suffered past trauma.


To help tackle issues of persistent absence mainstream schools need to build their understanding of vulnerability. All professionals working with vulnerable children should be trained in trauma responsive practice and there should be better coordination and sharing of what works in supporting vulnerable young people between mainstream and alternative provision.


Developing bespoke support programmes for families who have or are at risk of disengaging in education.


Barnardo’s believes that it is important to develop interventions which stop children from developing problems with persistent absence as outlined above. However, tackling persistent absence issues should also involve considering how to effectively support families for whom problems with persistent absence have become entrenched.


In considering how to do this effectively Barnardo’s encourages the Committee to look at learning from initiatives developed specifically in response to the pandemic. Experience of education during the pandemic was difficult for many children and while evidence shows that some children did well with online learning many struggled and disengaged completely for example because they lacked appropriate technology or spent time supporting younger siblings’ learning at the neglect of their own. Helping families adjust to education following this has been challenging but we believe that some positive approaches have been developed which could provide useful learning.


Notably Barnardo’s was involved in this work through the DfE funded, pandemic-response programme See, Hear, Respond which was delivered through over 80 partners[11]. One of the key themes of this work was about helping children to return to school. Some key principles of this work included: 


An important lesson from the programmes is that access to education cannot be seen in isolation. Children and families need holistic support that helps them address multiple, inter-related challenges, through a child and family-centred approach. A package of support should be offered to the family, which focuses partly, but not exclusively, on supporting children to return to school. If it is only focused on return to school and underlying causal factors are not addressed, the absence is likely to return. 


 Preventing absence from education for children in the care system.


Children in the care system are particularly prone to having disrupted education including periods of time missing from school. This is often due to a disrupted care experience – 21% of children in care experience at least two placements in a year and one in ten children experienced high instability (three or more placements) in a year[12]. Multiple moves of placement particularly mid school-year can make it difficult for children in the care system to access a school place (even though this group is given priority for school admissions) and many experience time out of the education system as a result.


This issue is particularly prevalent for those who are placed in residential care homes. Research by Ofsted for example found that of a sample of 2,600 children living in children’s homes, 9% (234 children) attended unregulated education provision (for example online schools, or in-house tuition) and 6% (156 children) were accessing no form of education or training at all since they were not able to access mainstream school for various reasons[13]. It has widely been accepted that these unregulated education placements are “utterly unacceptable as a practice[14], and this was recognised by a report by the education select committee in 2022 into the education experiences of children in residential care[15]. However, the same Committee commented that there are currently no formal processes for local authorities to ensure that unregulated education is short-term, and no national system for monitoring where a looked-after child is being educated.


Barnardo’s supports the recommendation of that Committee that the Department should commit to collecting and publishing data on how many looked-after children are missing education or being ‘educated’ in unregulated education provision or not at all. This data should form part of a regular statistical release, published at minimum, annually.


In addition, the system needs to consider how to better support this vulnerable group of children when they do attend school to help ensure they experience education as a positive experience reducing the risk of disengagement and persistent absence. As highlighted above, effective mental health support is a key factor in helping to reduce persistent absence rates – this issue is particularly pronounced in children who are looked after - currently, an estimated three quarters of children raised in local authority residential homes meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis.[16] Children who have suffered significant past trauma and abuse in their lives need time to settle and adapt to new placement and surroundings before they can learn successfully.


The education system has made important steps to better support children in care in recent years, with the introduction of virtual school heads and the Pupil Premium Plus. However more needs to be done, particularly to support care-experienced children with the highest level of support needs. Services report that while virtual school heads can be an important source of support, good practice does not always filter down to day-to-day practice in the classroom. The system is further hampered by virtual school heads being increasingly overstretched given the significant increase of children in the care system in recent years, while other wrap-around support services, including mental health, are not always available in school or more widely.


Children in care would of course benefit enormously from other measures proposed in this response, including the roll out of Mental Health Support Teams in schools and trauma-informed training for those involved in education. However we would also advocate for a more integrated approach to providing additional support services specifically aimed at these children. To do this the Government should seek to build on the success of the virtual school head with the introduction of a similar role in local authorities of a ‘virtual mental health lead’. This role would work closely with virtual school heads to ensure that looked-after children in a local authority are able to access the support they need for their emotional wellbeing in way which supports their education. The Government is currently consulting on its Strategy for Children’s Social Care and we hope they will look again at this proposal.


Preventing absence in children at risk of sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation


Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) can take many forms, including ‘county lines’ (where young people are coerced to carry drugs and weapons from one area to another to service complex drug supply chains), stealing cars or alcohol to order, cannabis cultivation, and forced begging. Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse, where a child is groomed or forced into sexual activity, often by adults not known to the family. CSE and CCE are intrinsically linked, and often overlap, including in how children are recruited. Absence from school can be a trigger point leading to children being victims of exploitation or can push a child further into the hands of exploiters.


It is difficult to assess the scale of child exploitation, largely due to its hidden nature and because authorities often fail to identify children. In 2021/22, there were over 16,000 instances in England where CSE was identified by local authorities as a factor at the end of an assessment by social workers. In addition, there were 11,600 instances where gangs were a factor, and 10,140 instances were CCE was a factor.[17] This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.


Children who have been excluded from school are vulnerable to exploitation, and being in school can act as a protective factor to exploitation. A Government report on the protection of children from CCE found that “even being absent from school for a short time, such as being missing for part of the school day, can increase the risk of both sexual and criminal exploitation.”[18] Further, children who have experience of exclusion are overrepresented in the criminal justice system; 86% of boys and young men in youth offender institutes have been excluded from school at some point.


Just as being excluded from school can make a child more vulnerable to exploitation, being exploited can make a child more vulnerable to being excluded. In October 2022, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Criminal Exploitation and Knife Crime, which Barnardo’s are co-secretariats of, held a meeting on school exclusions, severe absence and the risks of CCE.[19] At the session, participants shared examples of where a child’s exclusions were orchestrated by exploiters, in order to further isolate them. In some cases, schools were excluding children for behaviour that they were coerced into doing, even on occasions where police confirmed that a child was exploited.


Excluding a child from school should be an absolute last resort and should not be a knee-jerk reaction, in particular where a child’s behaviour is the result of exploitation. Exclusions in this situation can play into perpetrators’ narratives and lead to further exploitation. Schools need to have more awareness and confidence to identify child exploitation and understand how to spot warning signs.


Barnardo’s is calling for the introduction of a statutory definition of CCE in England. Our research finds that CCE is widely misunderstood and can result in children being criminalised rather than treated as the victims that they are. A definition would raise awareness of the problem amongst professionals and ensure the effective identification of children at risk with the implementation of timely and appropriate support.


Too often, the first time that children who are victims of criminal exploitation are identified is contact with the police. Intervening at critical moments – such as school exclusions – is vital. The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s report, It was hard to escape,[20] reviewed a number of cases involving children who died or were seriously harmed where criminal exploitation was a factor, detailed the importance of not missing opportunities to safeguard. They highlight being excluded from school as a prime opportunity for a multi-agency safeguarding intervention.


February 2023







[1] The link between absence and attainment at KS2 and KS4 (

[2] APPG-on-Knife-Crime-Back-to-School-exclusions-report-FINAL.pdf (

[3] '01 - Absence rates by school and geographic level' from 'Pupil absence in schools in England: autumn term', Permanent data table – Explore education statistics – GOV.UK (

[4] Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2022 - wave 3 follow up to the 2017 survey - NHS Digital.

[5] Ma, K., Anderson, J. and Burn, A., 2022. Review: Schoolbased interventions to improve mental health literacy and

reduce mental health stigma – a systematic review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

[6] hardtotalk-expandingmentalhealthsupportteamsschools-MHSTs-report-jan2022.pdf (

[7] Department for Health and Social Care, Department of Education, 2017; Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: a green paper

[8] hardtotalk-expandingmentalhealthsupportteamsschools-MHSTs-report-jan2022.pdf (

[9] NHS England, 2022; Mental Health Support Teams in Schools and Colleges.


[11]See Hear Respond England: Evaluation Report | Barnardo's (

[12] Children looked after in England including adoptions, Reporting Year 2022 – Explore education statistics – GOV.UK (

[13] The education of children living in children's homes - GOV.UK (


[15] Children's Homes (


[17] Characteristics of Children in Need October 2022