Written evidence submitted by No to Schools Bill Campaign

‘No to Schools Bill’ brings the expertise and experience of a number of academics, organisations and grassroot groups - from across different disciplines and areas of focus - together around the matter of the government’s measures around attendance and children ‘not in school’.

Organisations and those supporting ‘No to Schools Bill’ in an individual capacity are: Dr Chris Bagley; Big Brother Watch; Professor Andy Bilson; EOTAS Matters; Dr Naomi Fisher; Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury; Kids of Colour; Emeritus Professor Eileen Munro; No More Exclusions; Not Fine in School; Parents Petition (No School Fines); PDA Society; Parents, Families and Allies Network; Dr Harriet Pattison; Square Peg; Suitable Education; The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK; York Travellers Trust.

Response submitted by Rose Arnold on behalf of ‘No to Schools Bill’.



The reforms introduced by the Department for Education (DfE) - including the non-statutory guidance Working together to improve school attendance[1], which was brought into effect September 2022, and the live attendance tracker, trialled from January 2021 - are not supported by a robust evidence base and risk harm to children and their families. Indeed, there are already reports from both families and from professionals and organisations which support these families of deeply negative impacts. 

We are furthermore concerned that these measures are set against a backdrop of continued support for the ‘children not in school’ registers, as well as calls for a unique identifier for every child which the government says could be added into such registers[2]. The measures - which the DfE remain committed to - will negatively impact not only individual children and families, but also society more widely. 


Factors causing persistent and severe absence. 

Understanding the problem – who is absent and why.


There has been an unhelpful lack of accurate information in the public arena around children not in school, and those absent from school. Statements have been made by high profile public figures and MPs, which has included derogatory and offensive language such as 'ghost children' along with figures for different groups being mixed up, conflated and taken out of context. 


As Professor Alan Barr of Oxford University in a Freedom of Information request[3] to the DfE on their claims explained "It seems likely that some factor (such as socio-economic conditions, parental support, or geographic area) is responsible both for lower attainment and lower school attendance.”  


2021/22 6.9% absence, 4% absence for illness, includes covid, 1.6% unauthorised absence.

2020/21 4.7% absence, 2.1% illness (but 21.3% because of Covid) 1.1% unauthorised absence










Evidence shows that amongst other factors the school system itself is a significant barrier to children attending.


Specific factors identified within the school system as problematic include the narrow curriculum, focus on testing, ever earlier formal education, zero tolerance behaviour policies, inflexible attendance policies and the school environment.


Issues identified by the committee in their report Exclusions:  Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions[6] included a narrow curriculum, zero tolerance behaviour policies, Progress 8 as amongst factors which increased exclusions and off-rolling. “Off-rolling is in part driven by school policies created by the Department for Education.” 

Dr Chris Bagley writing on the experience of Educational Psychologists (EP) who spend much of their time working with young people and families who struggle to cope with the school environment. “An inflexible, narrow curriculum, school competition, discriminatory assessment practices and explicit efforts to ‘remove the bias  towards  inclusive education’ have presaged an era where school policies are increasingly less accepting of difference and neurodiversity. Combined, these factors create a climate where more and more children cannot cope, stop attending school and are met with growing suspicion and threat of punishment. At the same time, attendance policing has ratcheted up exponentially. As if forcing someone to do something that harms them is an educational tool.”


Clinical psychologist Dr Naomi Fisher has written extensively about the damage of school system is creating. “There’s nothing wrong with the children. They are put in a system which prioritises curriculum and test results over flourishing.  The system uses anxiety, comparisons and removes their autonomy.  These aren’t healthy conditions for young people to grow up in.  They cause distress. No amount of psychology or mental health training will solve that.”  “A serious mental health intervention needs to look at the school system and how it creates problems.” 


“94% of all respondents reporting school had negatively impacted their child’s mental health and well-being. Clear evidence pointed to the harm coercive attendance policies have with parents citing both Local Authority and school responses as escalating needs and exacerbating mental ill health.” 


They went on to say that the reason for their support for the No to Schools Bill campaign was that: “The Schools Bill doesn’t acknowledge this but instead prioritises school attendance over the needs of children and seeks to blame and fine parents and carers when their children cannot attend. This will only create more stress for families already in crisis and doesn’t address why the education system isn’t working for these young people.”  


No steps have ever been taken by the government to address any of these systemic issues. Reforms focusing increasingly on the individual child and family as the locus of problems and therefore the solutions do not address the real needs. While the guidance includes welcome language on support for families the reality is that although need is escalating there is little support. The impact of governmental policies is ongoing austerity and cuts at a time of great need and of wages not following the rise in living costs. SEND provision is far outstripped by need.

The lack of real support available combined with the relentless focus on attendance has resulted in negative outcomes for the target group.  


Impact of the DfE proposed reforms.


Impact of the ‘Working together to improve school attendanceguidance.

Whilst the DfE has positioned the national guidance as being about ending the “postcode lottery” there has been clear direction from the department that schools are to “make full use of enforcement actions where appropriate”.[7]


Letters threatening further action and fines are being issued at surprisingly early points – for example following three days absence for sickness or following unavoidable hospital appointments. Families report that children who have attended family funerals are not being included in attendance awards and that children are being told that if they can’t get to school parents might be fined or go to prison, understandably leading to high levels of distress. Parents are being told by schools that they have no choice, that their hands are tied.


It may be that these are not the results intended by the department or perhaps there are those who would describe repeated letters, phone calls and in person visits to the home as ‘support’ but it is clear that for the families involved their experience is that this is a considerable source of stress.



The Victoria Climbie Foundation UK are amongst those who have spoken out against the use of such disincentives saying: “We are astounded at proposed penalties to be handed out by schools, for children who fail to attend for whatever reason, which will lead to fines and prosecutions for many parents, some of whom are already known to local authorities for Section 47 or 17 support per the Children Act. In addition, it seems likely that these proposals will further criminalise Black and minority ethnic children and families, specifically those subject to exploitation or disadvantaged by health considerations.” 


Research by the Crime and Justice Studies, Prosecuting parents for truancy: who pays the price?[8], recommended that criminal law should not be applied to parents whose children do not attend school regularly. The report described the current law - even before the government’s increased focus on attendance – as “cruel and discriminatory” leading to “harm for parents, children and vulnerable families”. The report concluded that the current law “does not achieve its purpose of reducing the number of children who do not attend school regularly”.


There is remarkably scant evidence base to support the use of fines and sanctions. In the words of Dr Chris Bagley, “the idea that disciplining families and exerting threats and fines supports attendance is socially repugnant and scientifically illiterate.” 


Furthermore, the lack of evidence is not a matter of dispute, nor a factor of which the DfE is unaware. At an April meeting of the Attendance Action Alliance meeting[9] - chaired by then Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi - those attending heard from Professor Becky Francis and Jon Yates of Education Endowment Foundation and the Youth Endowment Fund on their rapid evidence review of ‘what works’. The report identified 72 studies into attempts to reduce absence. Minutes from the meeting describe “the present evidence into what works” as “relatively weak” and that “there are no interventions that have proven strong effects”. Jon Yates stated that: “disincentives, such as fines, known to not work in boosting attendance”.


Impact of the live attendance register

Described by the ICO as “a high-risk data sharing exercise” the live attendance registers are deeply concerning. Data from which is shared with the DfE and bodies including the police.

We can see no justification for Whitehall to have access to real-time information about the whereabouts of eight million school children. The ICO is reported to have had considerable concerns around the register including the Department’s “failure to demonstrate the necessity of the data processing.”[10]

The DfE has a worrying track record around their management of children's data and certainly the roll out of this has been concerning. Active planning was underway with this data collection as early as January 2021, with schools invited to join a trial[11]. Freedom of Information requests show that the legally required Data Protection Impact Assessment was not carried out until February 2022 with a concerned ICO asking the DfE to immediately pause the collection, which the DfE would not do. Indeed while communications had gone out to schools claiming that “We have been working closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on our data impact protection assessment (DPIA)” records show this was untrue as at this point the ICO had not had sight of any DPIA.

Despite the detailing in the DPIA of a campaign communicating with parents and carers about the data collection, including a planned video and cartoon in May 2022, this does not seem to have materialised. While the DfE’s YouTube channel includes a playlist on ‘Attendance – guidance for schools’ there is no content aimed at parents or carers.

Contrary to the assessment of the DfE that this processing will have “no negative effects” on individuals we are concerned that the flagging of children as absentees on their records can lead to negative lifelong repercussions. While this is an existing risk, given the controversial school census data collection and National Pupil Database, a live attendance register amplifies these risks, especially given the increased potential for involvement with the police and other services.

Also concerning is that, despite the withdrawal of the Schools Bill, the current Secretary of State, Gillian Keegan MP has given ongoing support for the ‘Children Not in School’ registers. Together these registers give Whitehall an unprecedented and unwarranted level of surveillance over all children of school age in England. 


Impact of policy and narrative linking absence with criminality and serious violence

That absence has been repeatedly linked with criminality is stigmatising and harmful to children.

Minutes from the May meeting of the Attendance Action Alliance included contributions from the Home Office’s VRU Programme Delivery Team and from the Serious Violence Unit. In their own words “only a small proportion of students who have been truant have become involved in serious violence (2%)” 

When drilling down into the experiences of those who have been cautioned or sentenced for a serious violence offence “37% have been truant”.  

No explanation was provided as to why the teams involved have chosen to interpret the data in the way that they have – as supporting greater intervention, including from police, with children who statistically are unlikely to become involved in serious violence.  No statistical analysis has been carried out to examine whether there is any connection beyond that of weak correlation, let alone causation.

No evidence was provided to support the efficacy of the approach. Despite 300,000 children having already been ‘supported’ by VRUs the team claimed that the “small sample size in each VRU” meant that “it has been difficult to see” any statistical impact on serious violence.  

The minutes detail that “VRUs have been working very effectively with schools in Greater Manchester.” No further detail about what “very effectively” might mean. 

Manchester based organisation Kids of Colour and Manchester University academic Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury are involved in No Police in Schools and their report Decriminalise the Classroom[12] which focuses on the Greater Manchester community. It is notable that whist the Home Office claims the initiatives have been “very effective” the community response has been less favourable.

Headline statistics from the report include that 95% of respondents reported that they have not been consulted on the plans for more police in Greater Manchester schools and that almost 9 out of 10 respondents reported feeling negative about a regular police presence, with 7 out of 10 of these respondents very negative. Furthermore respondents overwhelmingly suggested that they would prefer other roles – including a counsellor, youth worker, teacher or teaching assistant – to be resourced instead of a SBPO.  



February 2023







[6] Education Select Committee report, 2018, Exclusions: Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions 2018 


[7] Letter from Zahawi to schools –

[8] Epstein, Brown, O’Flynn, Prosecuting parents for truancy: who pays the price? 2019

[9] Attendance Action Alliance meeting minutes (April 28, 2022)