Written evidence submitted by The Children’s Society


About The Children’s Society

The Children’s Society is a leading national charity committed to improving the lives of thousands of children and young people every year. We work across the country with the most disadvantaged children through our specialist services. Our direct work with vulnerable young people supports missing children, children with experiences of sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation, children experiencing and witnessing violence and abuse, children in or leaving care, children experiencing poor mental health and well-being and refugee, migrant and trafficked children. We work to champion the rights of young victims in all that we do.


The following response is informed by:


1. Summary of key points and recommendations

In this response we have chosen to focus on the potential factors that may cause a young person to be absent from school for short or extended periods of time, including criminal or sexual exploitation, poverty, and poor mental health and wellbeing. We highlight the need for education professionals to be aware of the potential risks outside of school by children and young people who are absent. We also advocate for schools to approach pupils who are failing to engage with education or who go missing from school with a trauma-informed approach, rather than a punitive one. We then propose ways in which children and their families can be supported to improve school attendance, and we discuss the evidence on interventions that are shown to decrease absenteeism by addressing barriers to school attendance.


Key recommendations:




2. The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils

Children and young people going missing and at risk of exploitation


2.1. Our report, Lessons to Learn, found a clear link between children absent from education and running away from home or care. In fact, children who were absent from school were three times more likely to have run away from home or care, and these links were rarely picked up or identified.[2]


2.2. Our practitioners report that children may go missing from school during school hours and be coerced to deliver drugs by criminal groups. Understanding patterns of a child’s attendance and speaking to police and social care to understand the circumstances of child’s life, may help schools to spot the pattern of abuse and respond to absence in less punitive ways.


2.3. The Children’s Society works with many young victims of sexual or criminal exploitation who may also be seen as perpetrators of crime by law enforcement agencies.


2.4. School staff should recognise that unauthorised absence from school may be a warning sign of running away from home or care and act immediately and contact parents and carers and signpost young people they consider to be at risk to relevant professionals for support. Children going missing from home puts them at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation. This can be exacerbated with suspension or exclusion – no longer obliged to attend school, children are more likely to go missing.


2.5. Our research and practice show that children may not be able to disclose experiences to adults due to variety of factors – e.g. manipulation, shame and fear of being blamed. Moreover, children may not always see themselves as victims, and we know that statutory bodies, including schools and colleges, often treat children who have been coerced into criminal activity as perpetrators.


2.6. Our work shows staff should be trained to recognise signs of risk. These include disruptive behaviour in the classroom resulting from trauma of exploitation or abuse, or children going missing from education.


2.7. Where possible, schools should always aim to make the parent or carer aware of a suspension or exclusion within a day, especially if the young person has a history of missing episodes and/or frequent absences from school.


Key Recommendations

2.8. Trauma informed training and practice. Schools should embed high quality evidence-based training on trauma- and youth-informed practice and on all issues relating to safeguarding, including on risks of going missing, child sexual and criminal exploitation. Staff must treat all potentially exploited children and young people foremost as victims.


2.9. Changes to behaviour management guidance. The government should make clear through the ‘managing behaviour’ and ‘school suspensions and exclusions’ guidance that child-centred trauma-informed approaches should be applied when children are absent from education, instead of a disciplinary one. Children’s needs should be assessed through multiagency joint working and appropriate help offered to children and families.


2.10. Risks associated with exclusion or suspension. The guidance on school suspensions must stipulate the risk of harm outside of school premises associated with a suspension or exclusion, and a 24-hour window for notifying carers.


2.11. Information sharing. Where school staff suspect a child’s persistent school absenteeism is linked to criminal or sexual exploitation, robust procedures should be in place to share their concerns with relevant authorities.


Children and young people in poverty

2.12. Our report, The Debt Trap, explored the impact of problem familial debt on children and young people.[3]


2.13. We found that these periods of hardship can have a real and prolonged impact on the mental and physical health of children. They can undermine children’s relationships with their peers and their school experiences.


2.14. Our more recent research, The Damage of Debt, further highlighted the link between family debt and children’s mental health and well-being. Furthermore, it was found that regardless of how many debts their parents had, children in poorer families were more likely to suffer worse mental health than their peers.[4]


2.15. Moreover, in an open event, The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults heard anecdotal evidence about the link between poverty and grooming for child criminal exploitation, e.g. young people being targeted by those seeking to exploit them based on their low socio-economic status.[5]


Key Recommendations

2.16. Awareness of families living in poverty. School staff should be made aware of the impact of problem debt or poverty on a child’s mental health and be trained to spot the signs that a child is experiencing poor mental health early so that they can signpost them and their families to relevant support.




Pupils with low wellbeing or poor mental health

2.17. The Children’s Society annual Good Childhood Report in 2022 focused on children’s happiness with school and found a decline in children’s subjective wellbeing in the past 10 years. Unhappiness with school was a key aspect of this decline, with children reporting they were more unhappy with school than with any other aspect of life examined.[6]


2.18. Simultaneously, the percentage of children and young people with a probable mental health disorder rose by 4.6% for children and 15.6% for young people since 2017.[7]


2.19. Research has shown that children with poor mental wellbeing and mental disorders have lower school attendance.[8] The Children’s Commissioner found that mental health was a serious barrier to children engaging fully with their education; 12.6% of children with a probable mental health disorder missed more than 15 days of school compared to 4% of children unlikely to have a mental health disorder.[9]


2.20. The rise in poor mental wellbeing can be in part attributed to wider social circumstances, such as the growing academic pressures in schools, the impacts of COVID-19, and the cost-of-living crisis (children who live in a household experiencing poverty have significantly lower emotional wellbeing).[10]


2.21. We found that children with a long-term illness or a disability had lower wellbeing and higher probability of being physically bullied (25% compared to 14%), and consequently were more likely to report truanting (16% compared to 6%).[11]


2.22. Higher levels of bullying were also found among children receiving free school meals and children who had ‘a lot less’ spending money than their friends.[12] Some of this data could explain the high numbers of absentee pupils who receive free school meals.



3. How schools and families can be better supported to improve attendance, and how this affects pupils and families who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19.


3.1. The introduction of Mental Health Support Teams in schools is a welcome step, however the current limited roll out builds inequalities into student access, experience, and outcomes of mental health services. The Government should commit to funding and delivering an accelerated roll out of MHSTs in schools so that all children and young people have access.


3.2. Schools may not always be an appropriate place for pupils to seek support. Some may not feel safe at school or may have concerns about confidentiality. For pupils who have persistent absence, might benefit from having emotional wellbeing support hubs outside of an educational setting.


3.3. Parents’/carers’ wellbeing can impact the wellbeing of children. Community-based early intervention support hubs can offer easy-to-access, drop-in support on a self-referral basis, thus removing barriers to mental health support. Community hubs can support parents/carers as well as children within at-risk families, thus addressing wider social determinants of mental health and wellbeing.


Key Recommendations

3.4. Emphasis on wellbeing. The Department for Education (DfE) should encourage education settings to place equal importance on wellbeing as they do on academic teaching and learning.


3.5. Wellbeing data. Children’s wellbeing data needs to be collected more comprehensively and frequently to allow analysis of contributory factors and outcomes, the identification of priority areas of focus, and to enable progress to be monitored.


3.6. Accelerate delivery of mental health support. There should be a commitment to funding and accelerating the delivery of Mental Health Support Teams in all education settings. DfE must make support available to schools without support in the interim.


3.7. Early support hubs. A national rollout of the early support hubs model which would ensure that young people in every area across England can access early support for their mental health.


3.8. Research on family wellbeing. A greater focus on family wellbeing is needed in research and policy development to understand and respond to the impact of parent’s/carer’s wellbeing on that of their child.


3.9. Funding. Youth services must be made available to all children and young people, with funding ring-fenced and replenished to 2010/11 real terms levels.


4. The impact of school breakfast clubs and free school meals on improving attendance for disadvantaged pupils.


Free School Meals

4.1. Free School Meal (FSM) provision is one of the greatest levelling-up tools at the Government’s disposal. Free School Meals were first established in 1906 to provide a nutritional meal to children from low-income backgrounds to help them learn and develop in and out of school, on par with their peers.


4.2. The FSM mechanism is a tool that enables disadvantaged pupils to excel in the school environment, by supporting their attendance and engagement. Free School Meals have important health and educational benefits for the children that receive them, improving their concentration during afternoon lessons and classroom behaviour.[13]


4.3. In addition, FSM may promote other support, e.g. help with school uniform, trips or music lessons, or discounted access to leisure facilities, which is of great value to struggling families.


4.4. Disruptive behaviour and incorrect school uniform are often met with punitive measures but should be seen as safeguarding concerns eliciting a safeguarding response. Educational setting are responsible for ensuring pupils’ basic needs are met and that they are given the tools to excel in school.


4.5. Not all struggling families get FSM support, and according to our research they spend an average of £21.54 during a school week on food for their eldest child during their time at school.[14] One in seven parents surveyed (14%) not in receipt of FSM support, say they struggled to cover their child‘s school food costs since schools returned (after covid restrictions).


4.6. To support an estimated additional 1.5 million 7-16 year-olds in struggling families, FSM should be extended to all families on Universal Credit. The current earning limit of £7400 created a cliff edge for support as parents earning over this are cut off from claiming FSM. This FSM poverty trap could negatively impact a total of around 280,000 low income working families in England, and over 700,000 children.[15]


4.7. We welcomed the government’s extension to FSM provision to families with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) in April 2022.


Holiday Activity Fund

4.8. FSM provision should be extended throughout the holiday period through the Holiday Activity Fund (HAF), a crucial mechanism provided by the welfare system to ensure families facing financial insecurity have access to at least one freshly cooked meal a day. Our research on local discretionary support found that 41% of the first tranche of the Household Support Fund (HSF) were delivered via targeted grants to families eligible for free school meals by local authorities.[16] Targeted grant and FSM meet fundamentally different needs: local welfare schemes deliver discretionary emergency support to help overcome a variety of short-term crises that may occur at any time, whilst FSM holiday provision helps specifically towards the cost of food for children eligible for FSM during term time.


4.9. The National Food Strategy (NFS) recommended that the government commit to annual funding of £449 million for the HAF programme.[17] However, this year the government extended the HAF for a further three years, investing merely £200 million for 2022/23. The NFS calculated this figure based on the number of children who were eligible for FSM in 2021, and we urge funding to take account of families excluded from the data, such as migrant families with NRPF, and all families on Universal Credit.


4.10. We believe that co-designing delivery with young people at a local level would improve engagement with programmes and optimise schemes to meet the needs and desires of young people and improve attendance.


Key Recommendations

4.11. Extend Free School Meals. DfE needs to better support low income working families by extending Free School Meals provision to families receiving Universal Credit.


4.12. Free School Meals during holidays. The Holiday Activity Fund should be extended as per the National Food Strategy recommendation.


4.13. Safeguarding response. Educational settings must respond to disruptive behaviour with a safeguarding response, understanding that pupils may be lacking adequate meals.


February 2023

[1] The Children’s Society. Case for children’s wellbeing measurement 2020. (accessed 03 Feb 2023). 

[2] The Children’s Society. Lessons to Learn 2013. lessons-to-learn_-_childrens_society_report_jan_2013.pdf ( (accessed 9 February 2023). 

[3] The Children’s Society. The Debt Trap. (accessed 3 February 2023). 

[4] The Children’s Society. The Damage of Debt 2016. basw_64530-10_0.pdf (accessed 3 February 2023).

[5] APPG on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults. Briefing report on the roundtable on children who go missing and are criminally exploited by gangs 2017. (accessed 5 February 2023). 

[6] The Children’s Society. The Good Childhood Report 2022. (accessed 01 Feb 2023).

[7] NHS Digital. (accessed 01 Feb 2023). 

[8] Lawrence D, et al. Impact of mental disorders on attendance at school. ACER. 2019 Mar; 63(1). DOI:10.1177/000494411882357610.1177/0004944118823576 

[9] The Children’s Commissioner’s Office. New NHS data shows school absence rates are higher in children with a probable mental health disorder.2022. (accessed 01 Feb 2023). 

[10] DfE. State of the nation 2021: children and young people’s wellbeing. (accessed 01 Feb 2023). 

[11] The Children’s Society. The Good Childhood Report 2022. (accessed 01 Feb 2023). 

[12] The Children’s Society. The Good Childhood Report 2016. (accessed 01 Feb 2023).

[13] School Food Trust (2007) School lunch and behaviour: systematic observation of classroom behaviour following a school dining room intervention.

[14] The Children’s Society. Free School Meals Poverty Trap 2020

fsm-poverty-trap-tcs-cpag.pdf ( (accessed 9 February, 2023) 

[15] The Children’s Society. The Free School Meals Poverty Trap. (2020)

[16] The Children’s Society. The future of local welfare – discretionary support for individuals and families facing crisis (2022) and End Furniture Poverty (2022) Resetting crisis support in 2022.

[17] The National Food Strategy (2021) Chapter 16 recommendations. (accessed 4 February 2023).