Written evidence submitted by the Education Select Committee

Persistent absence roundtable – Summary note

On Thursday 15th June 2023, the Education Select Committee met with school and community leaders and young people to discuss factors affecting school attendance and best practice in addressing persistent absence.

The discussion was held across three breakout groups. The first group consisted of five members of staff from the Northern Education Trust, a multi-academy trust that runs 22 schools (10 primary and 12 secondary) across the North of England. Participants included senior leaders and pastoral staff.

The second group was a mixed group of professionals, including the Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner, the CEO of the Inspiration Trust, and representatives from education charities: the Head of Evaluation at Place2Be, the CEO of Action Tutoring, and the Head of Policy at School-Home Support.

The third group consisted of seven young people from a range of backgrounds, all of whom had experienced barriers to attending school, including challenges associated with mental and physical health, special educational needs or poverty.

The following key themes emerged from across the group discussions.


Local authority provision and coordination

In all three groups, participants spoke about a need to coordinate services on a local level so that they could effectively support young people. Participants expressed the view that academisation had affected schools’ ability to communicate and share resources with one another; this view was held by those in senior roles within academies and those working outside the academy system.

For example, participants noted a loss of roles at local authority level such as Education Welfare Officers, Parent Support Advisors and Educational Psychologists, reporting that this had led to a range of models including schools developing in-house nurturing provision, schools using service-level agreements (SLAs) brokered by local authorities to access Educational Psychologist services, and local authorities charging individual schools for Education Welfare Officer support. One participant suggested that this was leading to unequal provision and inefficiencies in the system:

Where some local authorities can't provide that Ed Psych support… schools are buying in and taking it in-house on SLAs. So you've kind of got this system fighting against itself, where some schools get offered an SLA and they say, “Yes, we’ll pay £25,000 and that'll give us this amount of Ed Psych hours”. So that school gets that specialist provision for their young people. The LA is the one that brokers that SLA but then when the school down the road puts a referral in for a statutory assessment of a young person that might need an EHCP, the same LA will say, “We haven't got any Ed Psychs, and we can't give you the support.”

However, the same participant reported that they had achieved very positive results from taking nurturing provision in-house, for example by creating Education Welfare Officer, Safeguarding and Wellbeing Officer, and Attendance Officer roles within schools to coordinate support for mental health, SEN assessments, bereavement and family engagement.

Another participant raised the issue of the decline of cluster networks of primary and secondary schools in a local area since academisation. They suggested that this affected schools’ abilities to coordinate support to families who might need it:

“I do think there's a bit of lost data there as well because essentially a lot of the time it's the same families. X primary school down the road will have children in the same family as Y secondary school. The problem ultimately could be the family, but X and Y don't know that the primary school is doing something and the secondary school might be just doing something as well, because we've lost that coordination because there are no cluster networks anymore.”

A young person also expressed the view that poor coordination of local support between school and social services had led to unsatisfactory support for them as they tried to negotiate staying in full-time education while living in poverty and experiencing pressures from family members to leave school and take up full-time employment.


Family engagement

The way we approach attendance is any conversation is worth having”. (School leader)

Across all groups, the importance of family engagement in addressing attendance issues was emphasised. One school leader described their approach as follows:

The approach is very, very much based on: what's best for that particular family? There's not a ‘one rule fits all’. Sometimes we have to be quite forceful with parents when we’re having conversations, at the family home, at the door, and say, “It's time for your child to actually jump in a car with members of staff because we are taking them up to the school.” With others, the parents are doing everything possible in order to get that child to school, and we understand that and realise that. So it's building up relationships with parents and knowing what approach is going to work best for that particular family when we knock on that particular door.

Another participant agreed that approaches should be tailored towards not just the particular family but the age of the children involved, noting that while using minibuses to go and check on children not in school and take them to school has worked with primary-age children, the approach does not work with secondary-age children. Overall, the participant concluded that this approach was most effective as a safeguarding check rather than a measure to improve attendance itself.

School leaders and education charity representatives stressed the importance of specialist practitioners to facilitate communication and collaboration between schools and families. Some school leaders emphasised the good outcomes they had achieved through in-house EWOs, Safeguarding and Wellbeing Officers and Attendance Officers who are working at the chalk face day in, day out, visiting families” and have shifted the dial on persistent absence. However, they note that severe absence has been harder to shift in their context.

A representative from the charity School-Home Support, which employs expert practitioners to work with families to address issues affecting children’s engagement with school, such as poverty, mental ill-health and inadequate housing. They described the need for expert practitioners as follows:

We've got to recognise that schools just can't do it allMost people want the best for their kids, but sometimes they lose their way a bit and they need support; if through support you can earn trust, by listening, that’s a good start. When we start working with a family we don’t start saying, “Why wasn't he in last Monday?”, we focus on the wider issues at home first. “If your partner left you last night or you've been evicted, getting Jimmy to school on time is going to be quite low down the priorities list.” So we're talking about building trust with families, then building skills and resilience and know-how, so then, when we stop support, we leave that family in a better place than when we found them. 

They also noted that in many cases school staff are too stretched in terms of workload to provide family support with the intensity required to make a difference:

“When we approach headteachers about working with a School-Home Support family support practitioner, they’ll bite your hand off because they know they don’t have the resources to dig into the more complex cases. People in schools know what to do, but they just haven't got the time to do it.

Young people noted the importance of family engagement too. Some reported poor experiences in terms of family engagement, both due to lack of cultural sensitivity to different attitudes to mental health, or approaches that were, in young people’s opinions, overly punitive, such as fines or threats of fines. Two young people shared that they had felt a lack of support due to their schools not knowing that they were young carers: if this had been identified earlier, they felt, they would have been able to access the support they needed sooner.



Very worried that in some cases some schools will go to make a home visit, some schools will make phone calls, some will just rely on emails, and you could have a child being absent from school for, say, three or four days and no one from the local authority or from the school has got sight of this child.” (Police and Crime Commissioner)

Several participants expressed the view that the guidance wasn’t adequately supporting schools to take action to address persistent absence, and that very different approaches were being taken from one school to the next with little sense of best practice. One participant related this variation in approach to differing levels of resource locally, where some local authorities have put in place multi-disciplinary teams while others have struggled to do this. This participant also noted that there were very different approaches when it came to using fixed penalty notices, with some schools preferring to escalate quickly to these measures while others will not go anywhere near” these measures.

Participants from the Northern Education Trust in particular expressed support for the idea of some of the guidance being established on a statutory footing, where currently it is all non-statutory, in order to iron out some of these differences in approach. They also suggested that the guidance should be strengthened around how to support students when they report mental health difficulties, and how to authorise absences for mental and physical health issues when families are not able to secure medical verification, sometimes due to long waiting lists for health services.


SEND support

“I think the baseline foundation comes from the fact that schools need to be more supported when it comes to kids with special educational needs. That department needs more funding in itself, and teachers need more training.” (Young person)

Participants’ comments supported the evidence that persistent absence is more prevalent amongst pupils with special educational needs. North Shore Academy, a school within the Northern Education Trust, has achieved positive outcomes from its attendance approach, including above-average attendance rates amongst SEND students. However, a senior leader from North Shore remarked that: “If SEND attendance nationally has dropped by 7.5% and North Shore has only dropped by 1.5%... It's kind of a relative game but it doesn't feel like we should be celebrating only being on 90%.” In terms of approaches that they find work with SEND students, they say that it is important to maintain up-to-date individual learning plans for all SEND students, ensure that teachers are trained and able to identify students with special educational needs, and take care to prepare SEND students for any upcoming changes that will affect them.

One young person described how they struggled to engage with school because it wasn’t meeting their needs as someone with autism (which at that point was undiagnosed):

I was in a busy environment with layers of noise I couldn't filter out. The teachers wanted eye contact that made me physically uncomfortable. I could hear the lights and it hurt my head. And you can’t fidget and move around, and moving on from tasks so suddenly didn't work with my brain. And I didn't have time to process and I got overwhelmed. And it was 8 months like that until I was taken out and it's left me with long-term trauma - just like panic attacks, even on weekends and holidays, because I knew I'd have to go back into that environment.

Another participant described typical schools” as “sensory hell”, also stating that “half the time they aren’t wheelchair-accessible.”

A young person described being removed from mainstream school and placed in a special school due to their emotional support needs, and finding that this was not the right environment for them either; they believed that stronger mental health support around a mainstream education would have been the better approach. Another young person spoke about how difficult it had been to find specialist provision to meet their “complex physical health, complex mental health and complex neurodivergence; high support needs in all three, since settings tend not to be able to cater for complex needs while delivering teaching at the right academic level. They stated:

It has to be the right alternative provision; just because it's an alternative version doesn't mean it'll meet your needs, is what I’d like to make quite clear. Just because it’s a special school, just because it’s smaller class sizes, just because they’re teachers who should have more training doesn’t mean they actually understand your whole picture, because they need to understand everything: your cultural background, all the things, they can't just understand one part.




Mental health

How do we make sure kids are not missing school? I think the question should be: how do we ensure that schools are adequately equipped to help pupils who do have mental health difficulties attend school” (Young person)

Participants across groups suggested that mental health issues were key barriers to attendance, especially post-COVID. School leaders at the meeting expressed concern about a “self-diagnosis culture” around mental health, whereby children and their parents were citing conditions such as anxiety and depression as reasons for not attending school while school staff might interpret the situation differently:

“[There’s] a real issue around a lot of parents who will phone up and say, “My child can't attend school”. “Why?” “She's got social anxiety.” And then you’re in that world as a school of going, “Well, I'm very sorry but it is absolutely normal sometimes to feel apprehensive or nervous when you're in a building with lots of other people. That's not social anxiety. That is normal.””

Young people said that they sometimes felt a lack of understanding in their schools’ response to mental health concerns. For example, they felt that mental health issues were not viewed as on a par with physical illness. One participant also mentioned a situation with a teacher in which the teacher did not take into account that their family, who are of Pakistani heritage, were not familiar with mental health and how to support someone in their position: in the young person’s words, the teacher lacked “cultural awareness”. This participant shared that what worked in getting them back into school was their own initiation of collaboration between their school and mental health services:

“They all had a meeting together and they really identified what my needs were and what kind of support I needed. That’s what made it easier for me to come into school because I felt safe. We did it transitionally so I would go into school for a couple of hours, then I would go home until I felt ready to do a full day and it was at my own pace which really helped, and also they upped my support and gave me more in-school intervention, which was really good.

A representative from the charity Place2Be, which provides counselling in schools, cited research conducted in partnership by Place2Be and the University of Cambridge, which found that counselling helped to reduce persistent absence even though attendance is not the primary focus of the Place2Be approach. They also emphasised the importance of young people knowing that they have “a supportive person at school. They also mentioned that parental mental health also affected young people’s engagement with school.


Fines and prosecution

“Some schools actually will call the police if a child has not been in school or the child has walked out of school for whatever reason and I don't see the reason why we should be getting these kids into contact with the criminal justice system for not being at school.” (Police and Crime Commissioner)

Several participants noted that there was a lack of a common approach to the involvement of the police in attendance matters, with some schools more inclined to use these measures and others less so. Two participants suggested that where schools were less well-resourced in terms of pastoral roles, including EWOs, they would be more inclined to reach out to police to address attendance issues. Some participants expressed the view that fines and prosecution were likely to be counter-productive, whilst others felt that they were a necessary part of a suite of measures.

A young person recalled that their schooldid not react well when I started missing. They blamed it on bad parenting on my mum's part. They called me ‘manipulative’ and ‘devious’. Those are the exact words my head teacher used. They said they'd put support in place, but they didn't really follow through with it. And a lot of the time that just kind of broke more trust there… eventually they threatened to fine my mum, so that's when she took me out.”


Best practice

Representatives from the Northern Education Trust shared key features of their approach that they found worked in their context:

The Northern Education Trust has been involved in pioneering attendance hubs as an approach for sharing best practice across schools. They shared that this has led to important knowledge-sharing on supporting vulnerable cohorts, as well as providing solidarity between teachers dealing with entrenched issues.

School-Home Support’s Head of Policy outlined the long-term savings of the family support approach, asserting that it was cheaper to provide family support (£1,000 per child) than to leave problems unaddressed and allow long-term problems to set in (£2,166 per child)[1].

Young people on the call identified specific approaches that had worked for them:




Participants across all three groups made recommendations for measures that schools could take to improve attendance, as well as further steps Government could take to improve the support available to schools and students.

Conduct an audit of local authority services. Both professional groups discussed the idea that services could be better managed on a local authority level. It was suggested that the Department for Education could co-ordinate an audit of local authority teams’ support offer: So if we start with LA ‘A’ down to LA ‘Z’, fill out an audit of, what does your local offer for vulnerable children look like around attendance? Coordinate that back to the Working Together guidance. That'll give us a holistic picture of perhaps where gaps are and whether these teams are big enough.

Fund key roles such as Education Welfare Officers, family support practitioners and mentors. Several participants called for more proactive and equitable provision of nurturing support. One participant stated: “The ability for local authorities to charge schools for the services of an Education Welfare Officer or EWO or an equivalent, for me, needs to be stopped, and these services funded centrally.” A participant supported the recommendation of the Centre for Social Justice for the national rollout of a family practitioner programme, consisting of 2,225 practitioners who could support 194,000 students and their families at a cost of £90.2 billion. Another participant emphasised the importance of funding mentoring to help with ongoing post-COVID recovery, including in terms of children and young people’s mental health.

Improve guidance around sickness absence. Some participants felt that there was ambiguity in the current approach to authorising absences for sickness. They felt that there should be stronger guidance to help staff know when to authorise absences for mental health and when to activate attendance procedures, especially in cases where it might be difficult to obtain medical verification. Some participants suggested that absence codes be split out further so that there is differentiation between a case when a staff member has to mark a sickness absence as unauthorised when the parent has notified the school but the student’s attendance has dropped below a certain level, and a case where the parent has not notified the school of the circumstances at all.

Training for school staff. On mental health, participants specifically mentioned that school staff should be trauma-informed, Mental Health First Aid-trained, and trained to provide counselling specifically for those from refugee backgrounds. A participant recommended that pupils in school should have access to a mental health professional, such as a counsellor, in school to address issues underlying persistent absence. One participant felt that their school staff had received only basic training on a small number of mental health conditions, and required more “nuanced training” beyond “minimal training on anxious feelings or aggressive behaviour”. One participant mentioned the programme HeadStart[2] as something that could help with early intervention. On SEND, better understanding of autism and atypical presentations was mentioned.

Review 16-19 student bursary in light of rising cost of living. One participant felt strongly that this scheme should be reviewed to ensure it provides adequate support during the school year to young people living in poverty, some of whom may not be living with family and therefore requiring further support for rent and other living costs. They stated that “£1200 for just over 30 weeks isn't enough at all”.

Improve the accessibility of school environments as well as teaching and learning. A participant suggested that this could be achieved by applying ‘universal design’ principles[3] in schools.

Better support for parents of SEND children. A participant suggested that this could start with bespoke information and training for parents, since “a lot of the information tends to be weirdly phrased and aimed at professionals, including signposting to the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).

Improve ESOL support for refugees and asylum seekers. One participant felt that ESOL courses could be more flexible and varied e.g. being delivered in person and online, being taught via apprenticeships as well as in traditional college courses.


September 2023



[1] See: (£2,166 Truancy Fiscal Cost/saving per individual per year missing at least 5 weeks of school per year; £1,000 = costs for SHS practitioner to deliver one tailored plan, per child per year)


[2] See: About HeadStart and the Learning Team | Evidence Based Practice Unit - UCL – University College London

[3] See: Full article: Universal Design for Learning as a theory of inclusive practice for use by educational psychologists (