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Children’s Commissioner’s Attendance Audit

Earlier this week, the Children’s Commissioner published her report ‘The Voices of England’s Missing Children‘ – an audit into attendance in England’s schools.

Whilst identifying some of the issues surrounding school attendance and the challenges thrown up by experiences of many during the covid pandemic, the report calls for 100% of children to be back in school at the start of the new school year in September. Perhaps best regarded as a “call to action”, this will be impossible to achieve between now and September and carries significant risks for children and young people with SEND.

If the schools’ system focuses crudely on attendance, the wrong solutions will be pursued and punitive measures used to coerce families to make their children attend school when they are not ready, not properly supported, enrolled in an appropriate setting or in some cases not even assigned to any school. The report has its sights only on school attendance, not the very valid
reasons why many children are not attending school and the steps necessary to support schools and families in getting a child into school – for example a whole school approach or the strategies adopted by the autism in schools project

The report lays out six recommendations for the system relating to attendance covering a wide range of reasons why children may be out of school from exclusions to children who cannot attend because of caring responsibilities at home. We are very supportive of some of the recommendations in the report,
most notably the recommendation that decisions about children’s education need to be made “with children, their families and other adults in their lives.”

However, we have serious concerns about other aspects of the report:

  • Whilst we agree that school is the right place for the majority of children, for some children this is only true if they have access to the right school and / or the right support. The shortage of suitable school places means that many children with SEND are not in the right environment and the well documented issues with the SEND system mean that even those that struggle because they cannot access the right support from education, health and social care services.
  • The report talks about “exclusion as a trigger for intervention” – this is far too late. By the time a child is excluded, the damage is done. The NNPCF have consistently argued for a clearer framework that guarantees early intervention when families identify concerns – NOT when a child reaches crisis point. This principle has formed the basis of our input into the SEND review.
  • The report asks for school leaders to have a “relentless focus on attendance”. This puts the cart before the horse. All system leaders, school, health and social care need to have a relentless focus on the right support – for many children, poor attendance at school is a symptom of poor support. Moreover, additional pressure on children to attend when they are not able to will do nothing but further damage relationships between schools and families and amplify any existing anxieties children may have.
  • Throughout the report, the emphasis seems to be on the child and family to change with little attention given for the need for the school or health and social care services to change, make reasonable adjustments or step up earlier to provide the right support. The Equalities Act is unequivocal that schools must not disadvantage children with protected characteristics, sadly too many do just that

For more of our representations on school attendance see Attendance, behaviour and exclusions – National Network of Parent Carer Forums C.I.C