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Almost 1.8 million children persistently absent from school

Almost 1.8 million children are persistently absent from school, the children’s commissioner for England has estimated.

The 1.78m children who were persistently absent were missing over 10% of school sessions while a further 124,000 children were severely absent in the Autumn 2021 term, missing more than 50% of sessions.

The office for the children’s commissioner sent a survey to all local authorities in England asking how many children are enrolled in education, estimates of the number of children persistently absent and severely absent in the autumn term 2021 and the number of children home educated for the 2021/22 academic year and registered with the local authority.

Local authorities were also asked whether they have an estimate for the number of children home educated who are not registered with the authority, the number of children who missed a week or more of school in the Autumn 2021 term due to waiting for a school placement, the number of children missing from education aged 11-15 and the number NEET aged 16-17.

Dame Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England, said: “From the survey we have conducted we have found that local authorities do not have an accurate figure of how many children there are in England – let alone the number of children not receiving education.”

“Many local authorities rely on time lagged population estimates to tell them how many children there are in their area, but migration and other factors mean this information is often inaccurate.”

“This is an urgent problem. It is crucial that we know where all children are, and that we develop the necessary infrastructure to maintain this understanding. We need to recognise the barriers to attendance that individual children face so we can build a system that will enable them to thrive,” she added.

The survey revealed that:

  • While all local authorities knew how many pupils were registered in local authority maintained and academy schools in Autumn 2021, just 18% provided an estimate of the number of children in mainstream Independent Schools.
  • Half of local authorities provided estimates for persistent absence and severe absence. The average rate of estimated persistent absence (missing over 10% of sessions) was 22% and the average rate of severe absence (missing over 50% of sessions) was 1.5%.
  • In total, it is estimated that there were 1,782,000 pupils persistently absent and 124,000 pupils severely absent in the autumn 2021 term.
  • All local authorities who responded were able to provide estimates of the number of registered Elective Home Educated (EHE) children, but only 8% provided an estimate on the number of home-educated children not registered with the authority.
  • 39% of authorities provided data on the number of children who missed more than a week of school in Autumn 2021 waiting for a school place.
  • 92% of local authorities could estimate the number of Children Missing Education aged 11- 15 and 88% provided estimates of NEET.

Schools need to review how they collect data and how this is used, the report recommends. Attendance codes, such as the use of the B code, and review of the new Covid 'X' code and the management systems for attendance need to be rationalised.

Furthermore, data collection around attendance needs to be reviewed and improved at local authority level. A unique identifier for children should be implemented and the protocols for sharing data between Multi-Academy Trusts and local authorities need to be improved and standardised. Local authorities should also share what works well in terms of good data collection.

Roles and responsibilities should be clarified resources aligned in terms of data and accountability on attendance. This includes setting clear structures for who does what in schools, local authorities, health and police. Partnerships at a local level should promote what ‘good’ looks like, including safeguarding partnerships and schools role in those. Multi-agency working should continue.

Finally the report recommends making attendance everyone’s business by making sure all government departments work together to improve attendance and making sure that all professionals working with children prioritise attendance as a key outcome.

Children have told the children’s commissioner’s office that they face a number of additional barriers to attendance, including lack of support around mental health, emotional and care needs, and problems around feeling safe and supported in school. Therefore, as part of this work around attendance, the children’s commissioner is conducting deep-dives into 10 chosen local authorities to understand the story behind the attendance survey statistics.

Children labelled ‘hard to reach’, such as children with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), children who have been excluded or who are at risk of exclusion, children in alternative provision (AP), children in pupil referral units (PRUs), young carers and children in care are being targeted in this work to properly understand their experiences with attendance.

“Through these conversations, we hope to build a real picture of the enablers of, and barriers to, attendance at a local level. Some of our initial reflections from the deep dives are included within this report. All potential solutions discussed this report will be further investigated in the second phase of our work, after we have completed the deep-dive analysis and evidence review,” the report concluded.

Where are England’s Children? Interim findings from the Children’s Commissioner’s Attendance Audit

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