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Children’s commissioner launches inquiry into school absence rates

A new inquiry into pupil absence from school has been launched by the children’s commissioner for England.

Dame Rachel de Souza said even taking disruption caused by COVID into account, there are too many children on school rolls who are persistently absent, and whose absence is insufficiently understood.

The children’s commissioner’s office will work with a number of local areas as part of a wider effort to work out why young people have disappeared from view.

Dame Rachel de Souza said: “The Children’s Commissioner’s office will audit a cross-section of ten local authorities to find best practice – to find out the drivers for both high attendance and persistent absence – and I will be speaking to children myself so I can respond to their experiences directly.

“A foundational aspect of my role as Children’s Commissioner is to take steps to ensure the welfare of children in England, including using statutory powers to carry out investigations if necessary,” she added.

The children’s commissioner highlighted the “horrifying reminder” of what can happen to vulnerable members of society when the protective network of safeguarding and social care is breached.

“Let me be clear – the issue of increased pupil absence during the pandemic should not be simplistically conflated with the tragic and extreme case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes,” she said.

“But it is right to reassert the need for urgency in efforts to keep all children safe, and understanding persistent school absence is part of that,” she added.

Ms de Souza emphasised that schools have been doing, and continue to do a fantastic job, having coped admirably during the pandemic, including providing education for vulnerable children during lockdown.

The Big Ask Survey conducted b y the children’s commissioner earlier this year revealed that being back in school and getting a good education was an overwhelming priority for young people.

The Big Ask survey was conducted earlier this year, and while it was at a different stage of the pandemic, the data may help the office to understand some of the remaining persistent absence. The children’s commissioner received responses from around 4,500 children who were being home educated and nearly 1,900 not in education at all to see if had mentioned any potential barriers to attending school or college.

Some families choose to home educate for philosophical reasons and have the resources and ability to do so. However, other responses spoke of challenges including bullying, poor mental health, poor physical health, having a special educational need, but feeling unsupported.

“We know that we’re still dealing with disruption, and the news is full of uncertainty. But we also know that school is the safest, most stimulating place for the vast majority of children to be,” she concluded.

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