Written evidence submitted by Mrs Alison Sauer and

Mrs Nicola Price

About the Authors

Alison Sauer is chair of the Centre for Personalised Education – a highly respected charity dedicated to supporting diversity in education, supporting alternatives to mainstream education and providing critique of current accepted practices in mainstream education. She is also a Girl Guide and Ranger leader (girls from 10 to 18 years old) and co-runs a support group of over 300 families for parents of children with SEND who live within 5 miles of Barnoldswick. She has been supporting individual families for over 20 years.

Nicola Price is Head of Geography at a Burnley High School. She is also a trustee of The Centre for Personalised Education and a Girl Guide Leader in the Ribble Valley. She has a special interest in pupils with deprived backgrounds and those with SEND. Her pupil engagement is recognised as being excellent and her pupils frequently achieve better results in her subject than troubled pupils attain in other subjects. She has worked in education in East Lancashire for over 20 years.


This is an experience and opinion based submission, given from the point of view of experience supporting disadvantaged pupils and families with attendance difficulties on a daily basis.

Barnoldswick, where Alison lives and runs Girlguiding groups, is within an area of deprivation, Pendle borough is the 36th most deprived area of the 317 districts and unitary authorities in England[1]. Median salaries are amongst the lowest in the UK and unemployment rates some of the highest. The local High School currently has a Persistent Absence rate of around 36%, more than double we believe the national average to be.

In our work we liaise with an array of professionals from teachers to psychotherapists to social workers. This enables us to support individuals based on need and on their terms.

In our experience, persistent absence seems to come under two broad categories

1. Poor parenting/chaotic home environment

2. Unmet need (including mental health, language and SEND)

The second category, in our experience, is by far the larger. There is a third category that we know colleagues in other parts of the country experience which we would call the practical category. This is a category where the child does not attend for some reason that has a practical solution such as a new school uniform, access to facilities to wash clothes or free transport. This category is  one we experience rarely in our area as a reason for absence.

Unmet need is a huge issue. Our area (East Lancashire) has a vast number of pupils with SEND, much of it undiagnosed or unrecognised. Schools are overwhelmed with these pupils and do not have the time or resources to assess or meet the needs of all pupils

Difficulties in the transition from primary to secondary

Our experience locally is that primary schools meet most of the needs of most pupils, regardless of SEND, as they are more nurturing. This unfortunately means that many needs go undocumented and not investigated. When these pupils start secondary school, very little information is passed over and the secondary school is faced with dealing with a cohort of children with needs that are not identified, let alone met.

Resources in secondary schools are very thin on the ground and even where an EHCP already exists some schools are reluctant to put in place the measures in the plan. One child we know was told they had to wait 6 months before any support would be initiated despite an EHCP as the school wanted to ‘test how badly the help was needed and if they could cope without it.’ This is obviously not lawful.

Limited access to wider educational professionals/expertise

School has limited access to professionals such as educational psychologists. Lead times are long - sometimes years - and services are rationed. Sometimes an educational psychologist doesn’t even meet the child, but relies on assessment of documentation in existence, which is often poor or incomplete.

Expertise in trauma and neurodiversity is scarce in secondary schools. One boy we supported had extremely low attendance due to anxiety and autism. He managed one day to make it into school after huge effort on his part. Unfortunately a member of the senior leadership team took issue with his wearing of a hoodie. The hoodie was comforting and protective for this boy, however the teacher was so aggressive to the boy and oblivious to his needs that the boy simply turned and fled home again. This is not an unusual scenario.

There is a desperate need for training of all teachers in trauma and neurodiversity. Teaching and pupil management practices MUST in future be guided by psychology and not the outdated harsh practices currently in play.

School life: Potentially harmful daily practices

As mentioned above, when uniform is seen as more important than attendance and effort is not recognised, disaster ensues.

Over the weekend we heard from a parent a tale of a girl in Carnforth High School who, along with a number of her fellow female pupils, was ordered onto the stage during full school assembly where a teacher proceeded to measure the length of their skirts. Such humiliating practices contravene the UNCRC[2] and should be unacceptable in our schools, however humiliation and degradation seem to be tools often utilised in school rendering it a hostile and brutal environment not suitable for anyone who cannot hide their emotions and reactions to the environment.

Exclusion, both internal and external, is frequently used as a punishment. Not only is this proven not to work, but they target the already disadvantaged and ensure the child falls behind leading to more trauma and disadvantage[3][4]. Exclusion appears to be used as a first resort especially where pupils have undiagnosed or unrecognised SEND. Ironically many pupils also like being excluded to some degree as it provides respite from the unmanageable demands of a school that doesn’t meet their needs.

Hand in hand with the hardline exclusion policy adopted by many schools, is what appears to be a deliberate lack of paperwork documenting potential unmet need. This means poor behaviour is wrongly labelled as a choice rather than a response to triggers and unmet needs, meaning that exclusion is easier to justify. Permanently excluding a “troublesome” child is desirable as it improves GCSE league tables and saves money. A child we are currently supporting was discovered to be capable of year 2 levels in many subjects despite being in year 8. This was totally undocumented and, indeed, she was in the top set for English despite being unable to comprehend 3 lines of text set at a level for a year 8 child without SEND. Teachers had simply not taken the time to get to know and understand her and her mother was ignored for years by schools.

School culture

Many pupils report school to be boring and irrelevant. Given that children are born as curious, natural learners, is it not time to develop a curriculum that maintains that curiosity? If school was more interesting it would be more popular.This may seem like a trite statement, but if we want a population willing to learn, that is flexible in fast changing times, surely this is a given.

Many schools have an ingrained culture of bullying from both children and teachers. We have seen appalling practices from teachers such as implying to pupils that their needs don’t count, for example two weeks ago we heard of the following being said to a pupil with anxiety who had been given a “passport” to sit at the back as she felt safer there: “No you can’t sit at the back. What I say goes in my classroom. I don’t care what you want. Now sit down and shut up”. The abuse of power by some teachers is extraordinary. They seem to forget that pupils are people and require respect. Of course many teachers are not like this but the presence of one such teacher may lead to absenteeism on days the pupil may come into contact with them.

Bullying between children is also often downplayed. From tolerance of humiliating teasing in primary school to the gaslighting that happens frequently in secondary school where victims are told they need to be more resilient, our schools seem to have forgotten that if such things happened in the workplace between adults there would be severe consequences and sometimes prosecution. We recently came across a case of a child who had been assaulted in the local bus station by another child. The assault was such (the victim's head was smashed into the side of a bus causing concussion) that had it been between adults, the perpetrator would have faced prosecution for Assault occasioning Actual Bodily Harm. In this case, not only did the police not prosecute, despite reliable witness statements from a number of adults, but the perpetrator was allowed to remain at the school. She has since gone on to threaten further assault on a regular basis and the school seems to be oblivious that her attendance in the same classrooms as the victim is causing trauma leading to absenteeism. Today, her mother has been threatened with fines and prosecution for the absenteeism caused by this child being made to feel unsafe by the actions of the school..

Record keeping regarding bullying is very poor as there is no statutory duty to record bullying incidents. Also many incidents are dismissed by schools as “normal childhood behaviour” or “the rough and tumble between children”. This is problematic as these avoidable stresses - which can be trained out of those who bully at an early age if recognised - go unacknowledged.  Perhaps if there was a statutory duty to record and better recognition of what constitutes bullying our children would be happier and would not be avoiding school in order to avoid being bullied.

English schools are renowned worldwide for their pressure on vulnerable children to perform academically, regardless of ability, particularly around the ages of 11 and 16. Recently one very savvy grandparent in our area contacted us for advice on removing their child from primary school for the last 2 terms of year 6 in order to avoid the “unnecessary stress and pressure of SATs”. This child is now blissfully engaged in hands-on experiential learning for the next 6 months until he starts at the local selective grammar school. We see in our Guide units the pressure of SATs and how all the joy of learning is sucked away during year 6 in order to “train for the test”. Why do we do this to children?

Of course in year 11 it is even worse. The number of deregistrations in years 10 and 11 is increasing. Schools are simply putting too much pressure on children to obtain more GCSEs than they really need on average. We observe girls in our Ranger units who are of this age struggling to cope with mountains of homework on top of time in school. Some of our girls report that their total study time is over 50 hours per week - more than the average adult works in a week. The pressure of this is very damaging and, with no time to recharge, some children simply break down and find attending school very difficult. As they get further behind, they then find attendance even more difficult.

School statistics - comparing schools and their strategies

The statistics on attendance are very interesting. In one school (school A) we looked at we found:

        12 of 1200 on 0% mainly 10s and 11s

        16 of 1200 on 30% or below mainly ks4

        37 of 1200 on 50% or below, still largely 10s and 11s with a smattering of KS3.

        77 of 1200 on 75% or below.

        432 on or below 90%


These statistics reflect that attendance figures worsen the further up the school we look. We also observed that there is a mix of male and female though boy absence is higher than girl, but is boy heavy in quite a few year groups. This reflects national research on such figures.


A high proportion of these are free school meals or pupil premium, a high proportion are low prior attainment, including unmet needs, SEND and mental health issues.


In this particular school, exclusions count for a small proportion of the cohort. However, these students are supported. Some of those non-attenders are in alternative off site provision.


Barriers to school such as lack of uniform, food and shoes are provided by the excellent student support, which equates to them appealing to the local community for white goods, housing, clothing, food bank referrals. The school is forced to find grants, contributions and donations from the local community without wider government funding to meet this need.


Services the students get for help include

        Access to mental health worker

        Anger management

        Quiet space to complete homework

        Space to catch up work

        Space to develop strategies to cope


Each year group has a head of year and a pastoral head of year, supported by a support worker, careers worker and the support team. The designated safeguarding leads know exactly the situation of every vulnerable child and puts in place all available actions to support these children. The relations with the mosque are ever improving. But ultimately the biggest issue is funding!


The support services work closely with the LA and some of their work is regarded as best practice, so they are more likely to get the funding from the LA, but that money does not go far enough.


They have rigorous reporting systems and are actively encouraged to record every minor incident, to build a picture.


What is really interesting is that the statistics are near identical to a very poorly performing school (school B) in a similar demographic that we looked at. However the major difference is that the school B does not put in the extra measures. They do not take time to get to know the children and put in alternative provision themselves for those children. School A fast tracks into the alternative provision as soon as the persistent absenteeism is identified and that provision works hard to ensure that those pupils catch up in core subjects enabling them to more easily reintegrate into the main school where possible. With an ever decreasing fund to tap into this is becoming harder to maintain. School B


So in summary, the statistics on the surface are not reflective of the micro statistics at local level. The micro statistics speak to the widespread issue that some of the children in school A are simply getting the education through other means. This bodes well for their future compared to school B where the pupils simply slip further and further behind due to their absence.




English as a Second Language


This is also a barrier, again linked to absenteeism. Some of the children attending schools in East Lancashire are unable to access the curriculum as they cannot speak or read English, but can't be helped with translator apps as they can't read their home language either. So are illiterate to all intents and purposes. The reality is that school is tiring and trying when you understand nothing. Therefore skipping school is the unintentional outcome as these children are exhausted by a day in school and need to recover.


The main nationality we have experienced this with are children of Pakistani origin, of which there are many in East Lancashire. The area also hosts a significant number of refugees from Syria and some from the Ukraine. Particularly in the cohort that speak Urdu, many children have not learned to read Urdu and reading is not a feature of family life. Around 10% of the children in our schools have EALK which is English as an additional language plus a learning difficulty of some kind. This is an additional barrier to learning for the student and the school to overcome. In some schools in East Lancashire Urdu is the first language for some 20% of pupils.


There are 34 languages besides English in school A. They do well considering the lack of funding and resources available, but inevitably these schools are difficult places for children challenged with a lack of English to attend, and consequently many have very poor attendance. 




School is a brutal place for many. As flexibility reduces due to central drives for things such as Progress 8, budgets are squeezed further, waiting lists for autism diagnosis lengthen to ridiculous timescales and access to specialist services such as psychotherapy and educational psychology is reduced. The future does not look like it will improve and an increasing number of children are, essentially, voting with their feet.


Due to the challenges inherent in a "one size fits all" provision, there are many pupils who are currently unsupported by the current experience of education they are being offered. Obviously the effective cuts in funding created by the government's policy of offering un-funded pay rises to schools causes further issues due to less funding being available to fund services to support pupils and their additional needs. This leads to a reluctance/inability of some pupils to access their education in a school-based setting since there is little or no support to help them.


Where support services are available and in place to support pupils, attendance is improved since pupils are supported in feeling safe and in being able to access education, secure in the knowledge that they will be supported in doing so.


Finally, current statistics gathering is crude and does not paint a full picture of those who are receiving an education but may not currently be attending school.

February 2023


[2] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 28.2