Written evidence submitted by Square Peg


The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services

The evidence presented here addresses the effect and long-term impact of COVID-19 on a specific disadvantaged group: those children and young people who face barriers to school attendance and become, or are in danger of becoming, persistent absentees.


  1. Square Peg

Square Peg is a parent-led Community Interest Company, set up in 2019 to effect change for children and young people experiencing barriers to school attendance.  It works alongside another parent-led organisation, Not Fine In School, which supports the same children and families.

There are an unquantified (but we suspect significant, and growing) number of students with school attendance difficulties. Their experience of lockdown has been largely positive, with the pressure of attendance and the suspension of parental sanctions reducing anxiety for both children and parents. We intend to undertake an academic research project to evidence the experiences of this cohort and to demonstrate that in many cases these children have not only ‘healed’ but have also been able to access learning in a way that was impossible for them under normal circumstances.


  1. The statistics

There are 771,863 persistent absentees[1], 10x the number of students with more than one Fixed Period Exclusion, yet the spotlight remains on challenging behaviour and exclusion rather than on masking, withdrawal and persistent absence. Neither are mutually exclusive; rather they are two sides of the same unmet need coin.

Despite 23 absence codes in the school census, we simply don’t know why these 771,863 pupils are absent; for 42.8% of these absences there is no recorded reason for their absence (generally coded O, C or N). For exclusions there is a far more detailed ‘log’ of the reason for exclusion, despite this not being a legal requirement.

There is a dangerous assumption that the majority of these persistent absentees are truanting, but this is an assumption. It is our belief that many experience barriers to school attendance. The causes are many and varied, but as the Education Select Committee will know from its SEND Inquiry, a significant percentage of these students have undiagnosed or unsupported SEND. According to the official data on persistent absentees, 27.3% have SEND (with an EHCP or on SEN support), 30.2% are minority ethnic pupils and 33% are eligible for Free School Meals


  1. Reasons for absence, pre-pandemic

Mental health and SEMH often plays a key role when a student faces barriers to school attendance. Reasons for persistent absence vary and are likely to include[2]:

a)      undiagnosed SEND and their needs are not currently being met in school

b)      diagnosed but unsupported SEND as their needs are still not being met

c)      past or present bullying

d)      trauma which is not being properly supported/has not been properly diagnosed

e)      pupils seeing no relevance in the current education system and curriculum

f)       experiencing far more significant problems in their home lives (poverty, abuse or neglect) than making it to school 5 days a week on time

g)      more exciting/financially rewarding/emotionally fulfilling options elsewhere

The effect of Covid on these different groups of persistent absentees will vary enormously.


  1. The consequences of Covid on students who experience barriers to school attendance

This is easier to quantify.

Square Peg works closely with Not Fine In School, which runs a closed Facebook Group for parents of pupils experiencing barriers to school attendance.

It currently has 12,575 parent members (at the time of our SEND Inquiry submission on 5 March 2019 this stood at 7,172 members, a 75% increase in just over 19 months).


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This group was growing at a rate of 600-800 new members per month pre-pandemic, but flatlined in March. It lost 87 members in lockdown, in the three months between 18 March and 18 June. In contrast, between 1-30 September there were 651 new members.


We also ran a survey with NFIS parents in April 2020, 790 of whom responded. The key findings are included on the following page. Of note is the longer term requirement for flexibility, a wider variety of provision and permanent online provision options, with many asking for radical reform of the education system. In the short term, requests were for mental health support, support with transition and an absence of punishment. Nearly a quarter of parents were either home educating already, or were planning to deregister their child. We believe the DfE expected the number of home educated children to double when term restarted in September, but this data is not being collected so we have no idea how many pupils have been deregistered since 1 September. 

Anecdotally, parents told us in lockdown “I got my child back” as both student anxiety and parental anxiety reduced to manageable levels; the former as attendance was no longer being forced, the latter as there were no threats of fines, prosecutions or social services referrals.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Many of these parents had already been forced to give up work to care for their children. Most pupils were receiving no education, despite local authorities’ S19 duties. Many were (and still are) stuck in the EHCP process, with the majority of local authorities failing to adhere to the statutory requirements of the SEND reforms. This was exacerbated by the relaxation of legal SEND obligations as part of the Coronavirus bill, with the legal 20 week timescale only now reinstated.


  1. Since the start of the new school term in September 2020

We were hearing many concerns from parents during the approach to the new school term, and were concerned about the DfE narrative around attendance, which seemed much more forceful than the existing attendance policy. We are also hearing worrying reports of an even less tolerant view on attendance after the October half term, apparently driven by OFSTED, although we cannot confirm this.

Any parents of children due to transition to a new school were extremely concerned, given the challenges in delivering transition support and many didn’t have places confirmed. It was also clear that schools would struggle to deliver SEN adjustments and provision where it conflicted with DfE Covid guidance. Examples include parents of extremely anxious children being unable to ‘walk’ their child into school, and SEN hubs unable to open because they comprised mixed year groups. Covid guidance appears to be ‘trumping’ everything else, even legal EHCP requirements.

We also believe there are now different cohorts of children experiencing barriers to school attendance:

  1. Those who were struggling pre-pandemic
  2. Those who were previously coping but are now struggling after lockdown, and with concerns over Covid
  3. Those who have suffered a trauma such as a bereavement during lockdown

We therefore launched a real-time campaign on Friday 11 September 2020, to highlight the scale of the problem, the length of time some of these children have had difficulties, the level of deregistration and the number of children for whom the barriers to school attendance are a post-pandemic issue.

The campaign offers parents the opportunity to submit their postcode and choose from a dropdown of 6 options that best describe their child’s school attendance difficulties. It then places a pin on the map in real time to represent their child/children (up to 3) and family. By Monday 14 September the map had  3,172 ‘pins’ and we had to cluster them to improve reload times. On 30 September, at the time of this submission, the number stands at 4,108. 55% of these children have experienced barriers to school attendance for more than a year pre-pandemic, 11% have deregistered as a result (‘non-elective’ home education) and 5% have only been struggling since September. This screen grab was taken 48 hours after launch, on Monday 14 September.


Graphical user interface, application

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A note on terminology: vulnerable’ and ‘disadvantaged’

During the pandemic (and even before this) these words have been bandied around, and each has become a catch-all for an eclectic mix of very different students, generally referring to any/all of the following:

They may all be vulnerable or disadvantaged, for different reasons, and it is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst, to group them all together under either term. This is an important part of unpicking persistent absence and in moving forwards if further local or national lockdowns are needed.


What we would like to see

  1. As per the open letter from Young Minds to Gavin Williamson on 18 August 2020, there needs to be a full review of the attendance policy and codes, and proper investigation into the persistent absence cohort using a new and proven screening tool to identify underlying causes. Only then can appropriate interventions be developed. This review MUST involve parents and young people as equal stakeholders
  2. Schools must prioritise mental health and emotional wellbeing over ‘catching up’, particularly at secondary level; the DfE’s £8m investment in mental health is 0.08% of the £1bn ‘catch-up’ funding and does not signal the right priorities to local authorities and schools. We recommend trauma-informed school programmes, a recovery curriculum and improved training for teachers and SLT in SEND, challenging behaviour and barriers to school attendance
  3. Fines and punitive measures and zero-tolerance behaviour policies do not work. We need to fund robust academic research as a matter of urgency to evidence this
  4. Covid has shown us that online learning is entirely possible and should form a permanent part of the education landscape, particularly for this cohort. But it could also do so much more to exploit technology and offer personalised, synchronous, monitored learning
  5. Online provision relies on equity of access, and the DfE needs to be held accountable for the current inequity, particularly if there are further lockdowns
  6. We completely concur with the evidence from Educate (CIE0143) in terms of technology use going forwards
  7. The national curriculum and pedagogy needs revision, to better target children’s individual talents and passions, reduce the reliance on academic subjects, increase engagement and better prepare children for a world in 2030 and beyond
  8. The reliance on examinations needs to be addressed. Exams increase pressure and anxiety and are not an accurate reflection of a child’s abilities. We must value skills as much as qualifications so that we provide businesses with the employees and potential leaders for future success


September 2020



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[1] DfE official statistics for the academic year 2018/19

[2] Evidence based on a Not Fine In School survey of 1,661 parents of children with barriers to school attendance, May 2018