Miscellaneous

– in the House of Commons at 3:23 pm on 23 January 2024.

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Today, we seek the permission of the House to make time in the weeks ahead to pass legislation to protect the interests of children who are not in school; to use a day of parliamentary time to put their concerns first and them at the heart of our work; and to make real for one day the promise that only a Labour Government can bring—the promise of a Britain where children come first—because it is a national scandal that every day and every week so many children are not in school.

Absence from school is not simply a problem in itself; it is a symptom of deeper problems and a cause of further problems. While the package of measures that should tackle those problems—and under a Labour Government will tackle those problems—must be detailed and comprehensive, a key part of it is knowing where children who are not in school are instead.

Before I go further, I should emphasise that some parents choose lawfully and properly to educate their children at home. Many of them do so very well, very effectively and to a very high standard. Those children are not the focus of our concern today. Their parents do not have anything to fear from a register of children not in school—the register of the sort that the Leader of the Opposition and I seek the permission of this House to consider in a Bill next month.

Until very recently, support for that register of children not in school was a cross-party endeavour. Politicians across this House agreed with it. It was an element of the Schools Bill, which the Government introduced in the other place in the summer of 2022. The register also received support from professionals in children services. However, the Schools Bill disappeared from Parliament, but I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) who has pressed this cause so hard among Members of her own party and brought her own Bill to this place.

The hon. Lady’s Bill had wide support outside the House too. Many supportive comments were offered to the hon. Lady on the legislation that she proposed, but the words of Julie McCulloch, the director of policy for the Association of School and College Leaders, bears repetition. She said that

“the Government really should be making the parliamentary time available to ensure that this simple and necessary measure passes into law. Frankly, the public will find it astonishing that there is no such register already.”

It is for exactly that reason that we today seek parliamentary time to put it into law as soon as possible. Of course, the hon. Lady and voices outside this House are not alone in recognising the crucial importance of the register. There were many distinguished supporters of that Bill, including on the Government Benches. I have informed all of the following hon. Members that I intend to reference them in this debate as a courtesy to them. They included the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Dame Andrea Jenkyns), the hon. and learned Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who all went on to serve as Education Ministers. There was also the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who is not merely a former Education Minister, but is today Chair of the Education Committee, and the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson), who is one of the Secretary of State’s ample collection of predecessors.

Support for legislation on children not in school is, of course, not limited to supporters of that Bill, none of whom was a Minister at the time. The hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), then a Minister in the Department for Education, was clear almost two years ago that he and his colleagues

“intend to legislate to ensure we have a ‘children not in school’ register.”

In respect of parents home educating their children, he rightly observed:

“That is something no parent who is doing the right thing should be concerned about”.—[Official Report, 14 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 605.]

The right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) was admirably honest when still a Minister last summer. He said:

“We think a register of children not in school is important.”

We agree with him.

The right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who is now back as a Minister, spoke, when launching a consultation, of the Government needing a register of children not in school

“to prevent vulnerable young people from vanishing under the radar.”

I could not put it better myself. Does he still hold to those words? If so, when will the Government get on with it?

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, has repeatedly called for a national register. Of course, we know from her words in this place last month, that the current Secretary of State herself takes the view that

“it is my priority and I hope to legislate on it in the very short term.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 607.]

Sadly, she is not here today to lend her support to the motion. It is also sadly the case that she has been unable to convince her own Prime Minister, because he—as he never hesitates to make clear—is never very interested in the welfare of other people’s children. This failure by the Government to address the most serious and urgent barrier to learning in our schools—that children are not there—exemplifies a broader failing and tells a wider story.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Shadow Minister (Investment and Small Business)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on exposing this scandal that is affecting children across our country. In my borough, the problem has gone up significantly since 2016-17. Does she agree that, given what happened during the pandemic and the failure of the Government to meet the requirement of additional funding, with a shortfall of £10 billion, young people are suffering? It is vital that there is mental health support along with the register to ensure that young people are supported in going back to school, because mental ill health is a significant barrier to their returning to school.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I agree with my hon. Friend. She makes an important point about the wider pressures that children and young people are facing. I will come on to precisely that point a bit later, but it is why I was so delighted that Sir Kevan Collins, the former Government catch-up commissioner, backed Labour’s long-term plan to ensure that we do address those challenges coming out of the pandemic.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on raising this important issue. Analysis by Labour estimates that more than 1,300 pupils in Wirral will miss half their lessons by 2026. That is an absolutely staggering figure. The National Education Union has pointed out that the scale of the impact of poverty on persistent absence should not be underestimated. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that this Government have failed massively on child poverty and that they should listen to Labour, cut the cost of school uniforms and provide free breakfast clubs in every primary school.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support. Those are precisely the kinds of measures that a Labour Government would take right now to back families, cut child poverty and ensure that children are set up to succeed.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

One reason why children might drop out of the school system and, as my hon. Friend says, go under the radar is because they have had a parent sentenced to imprisonment. The charity Children Heard and Seen tells us that we know exactly how many Labradors are in this country but have no idea how many children are affected by parental imprisonment. We know it is a six-figure sum. Does my hon. Friend agree that we could use a register to try to get some data so that those children get the help they need, whether that is mental or physical support?

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all her campaigning work on the important issue of supporting families and children where imprisonment is a factor in their lives, such as when a parent is spending time in prison or is in the criminal justice system. She raises the important issue—one that I will come to in the debate—of the need to get a better sense of all the information around a child so that we can better support all children and families.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I will give way one final time, then I must make some progress.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. It is important that she has brought this critical issue to the House. Many groups of young children, as we have heard, are not in school for many reasons. One group that is particularly close to my heart is young carers. I am sure that she will know from all the evidence and analysis that, on average, young carers miss 27 days of school a year. That shows the absolutely urgent need to have a national carers strategy with a focus on young carers. Does the hon. Lady agree and will she commit her party to push that forward in government?

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I agree that we absolutely must do more to support young carers, and I give the undertaking that a Labour Government would ensure that young carers’ voices, needs and rights and the support that should be made available to them are taken seriously.

Members on both sides of the House will be familiar with the view widely held by those on the Conservative Benches that whatever damage they might have done to our country, whether it be laughing in the face of voters waiting year after year for NHS treatment, as the Prime Minister did last week, the sewage that fills our rivers and seas, or the growing crisis their party has created in provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities—separate from all that—at least the education that children receive in our country is something the Conservative party has not yet damaged beyond repair. The trouble with that belief is that if it were ever true, today it is no longer.

At the end of last year, the OECD’s programme for international student assessment 2022 results came out. Conservative Members have for many years taken a keen interest in the results, which I should say at the outset are based on such a small sample in England that they may not be altogether robust—a point to which I intend to return. Close observers will have noticed that, over a number of years, the intellectual effort by the Conservative party and its apologists has moved from explaining to concealing what the results show, and from regarding them as a spur to action to taking them as an excuse for complacency. We are in a debate on an education matter, so I hope that Members across the House and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will forgive me if I briefly adopt a didactic tone.

The PISA score for each country shows how well that country is doing at educating its children across reading, maths and science. The PISA rankings are about how well the children in that country are doing relative to children in other countries. Rather obviously, that ranking is affected by not merely how well children do in other countries, but how many other countries are involved. Going up or down the rankings need be no measure of changing outcomes for children in England, nor of any success for this Government. It is therefore the scores, not the rankings, that are the proper focus of Government attention.

It is not enough that our children are doing better than children elsewhere if they are doing worse than their older siblings, nor is it a comfort that their reading is better than that of children in another country if it is worse than their brothers and sisters. Education is not a contest between nations, but a shared endeavour in every country and across our world to give children the very best start—not some of our children, but all of them.

The PISA results showed that standards in England’s schools are going backwards in science, in reading and in maths. They may not be going backwards as fast as they are elsewhere, but the pace of failure ought not to be a source of pride. Some 14 years into a Conservative Government, they focus carefully on the rankings, not the scores, and their proudest claim is that other children for whom they are not responsible are getting an even worse education overseas.

It beggars belief—and it is no good blaming the pandemic. The pandemic was worldwide, but not every country has gone backwards. That slow failure is not a story of poor teaching, of staff not pulling their weight or of leaders not rising to the challenges they face. It is structural, reflecting choices made in Downing Street and the priorities of the Conservative party: tax breaks for private schools, not standards for state schools, and smaller bills for the super-rich, not better starts for children. The one area in which this Government excel is the creation and maintenance of fresh barriers to learning.

Schools may crumble—indeed, despite the Secretary of State’s well-publicised view of the quality of her own work, the BBC’s “Panorama” programme last night showed powerfully that schools do crumble—but nothing seems to stop Ministers putting fresh barriers in the way of our children getting the education they deserve. There are barriers because the children are neither at school nor in home education; barriers because children are not ready that day, or that year; barriers because children have not slept and cannot concentrate, do not succeed when they should and are not learning when they ought; barriers because children simply are not well; and barriers that speak to the wider failure, and the piling of expectations on schools alone that schools alone can never meet.

Child poverty’s effects do not end as the classroom door closes. The good night’s sleep, the space to do homework and the quiet undisturbed time at home are all missing from far too many of our children’s lives. As I mentioned earlier, the PISA results are based on such a small sample in England that they may not be altogether robust, and that points, indirectly, at the problems we face—the problems with which the next Labour Government will and must contend, because this Government have not, are not and will not. Teaching children who come to school does not help those who do not, supporting children we know about will not bring in the ones we do not, and the results for children who are there are not meaningful for the children who are not. That is true for PISA, true for GCSEs and true for A-levels.

Labour’s belief is simple: excellence is for everyone—not just for those who are in school every day, but for those who are not. High and rising standards must be in every school, in every classroom and for every child, but today, all too clearly, they are not. Across the autumn and spring terms last year, more than 1.5 million children were persistently absent from school. That is, roughly speaking, one in five children, or more than double the number who were absent during the same terms five years ago. If that rise goes on, the number of children persistently absent will rise to more than 2 million in 2025-26, or one in four children missing at least a day each fortnight. That is a disaster, and the Government are doing as close as they can to nothing at all.

Let me quote to the House the words of the headteacher of a state secondary school in the north-east, earlier this month:

“Today, an unremarkable Wednesday in the second week back after a two week holiday, 10% of our students are absent from school. 17% of Year 11 students, those in the most important examination year of their lives, are absent. We’ve become used to these statistics and sadly, these patterns of absence are now considered normal in schools. Indeed, our attendance is higher than national and local averages.”

Ministers will doubtless tell me they are proud of their attendance hubs, and the 10 councils in which they are set to deliver attendance mentoring. The Secretary of State might as well be proud of the water pistol she brings to a wildfire. School leaders know it is a disaster. They can see the catastrophe unfolding around them.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

My hon. Friend is giving a truly excellent speech. She has talked about barriers; does she agree that one of the big barriers is the fact that children with a neurodivergent condition cannot get a diagnosis and, even if they do, they cannot get an education, health and care plan or a SEND plan? That is creating huge barriers for children with neurodiversity and autism to access school in a safe environment.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the challenges right across our SEND system—a system that the Secretary of State herself has described as “lose, lose, lose.”

School leaders know that this is a disaster, yet earlier this month the Department updated us all on the work of the workload reduction taskforce. It is not the work of teachers, the taskforce clarifies, to investigate a pupil’s absence. Teachers may do it—it is vital work that needs doing—but it also depends on our amazing support staff.

Labour’s plan to tackle the attendance crisis starts with our smallest children. It includes a childcare system modernised from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school, high-quality early education, a focus on life chances for children—not just on work choices for parents—and high and rising standards right from the start, with early language interventions to identify and remove barriers to learning, and a determination to reform the SEND system, to put money behind children, not lawyers, and to tackle issues before they hold children back, with a new focus on primary numeracy so that children love maths at six, never mind at 16—excellence for everyone; not for some of our children but for all of them. There will be free breakfast clubs in every primary school, because it is about the club, not just the breakfast. Every day, every child, every life and every start.

There will be 6,500 new qualified teachers and a new national voice for our support staff. Ofsted will be reformed and improved. We will end the high-stakes, low-information culture, with annual checks for attendance, safeguarding and off-rolling. There will be mental health counsellors in our secondary schools and new community hubs outside them, joining up the information that we have on our children so that every child can be supported between schools and services—every issue caught, shared and addressed. And we will fulfil the cause for which we asked for time today: a law to register and count the children who are out of school.

Labour is clear on how we will fund that package and the change that we need: by ending the tax breaks for private schools and the mega-rich. We will invest in what we most believe in: our children and their futures, excellence for everyone, high and rising standards, and a Britain where background is no barrier to opportunity. The legislation that we will introduce next month, with the House’s permission if today’s motion is agreed to, will be simple: it will be part 3 of the Government’s own Schools Bill from 2022, which provided for a register of children not in school. That is nothing that Conservative Members would not have been prepared to vote for had it been tabled by their own Ministers, so there can be no reason or excuse for Conservative Members who care about this issue not to support the motion today and the Bill next month. They can choose their party or our children. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

As I said, I will need to put on a time limit if the next debate is to have any kind of parity with this one. The limit will be five minutes, and I will ensure that it is put up on the board so that Members are aware of it.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education) 3:42, 23 January 2024

I warmly welcome the Opposition’s focus on the vital subject of school attendance. It is a big issue that we want everyone to talk about. Being in school matters for children—for their education, for their development, for being with their friends and for all else that school brings. As our campaign says “moments matter, attendance counts.”

Everyone will be off school at some point through illness, and sadly some have to be off for extended—sometimes very extended—periods, but we absolutely want children to be in school as much as possible and to cut out avoidable absence. I am sure that Bridget Phillipson joins me in celebrating the success in cutting absence since 2010 and prior to the pandemic. Attendance levels improved significantly, with absence falling from 6% in 2010 to 4.8%, representing 15 million more days in school. Persistent absence, which was at 16% in 2010, came down by almost a third by 2015, and stayed around that level until the pandemic.

Many education systems are dealing with increases in absence since the pandemic. That is true of jurisdictions far beyond these shores. It is also true in all of England and Scotland, and in Labour-run Wales—where, by the way, the increase is from a considerably higher starting point to a considerably higher current point than in England. As such, I welcome the hon. Lady raising this subject. The actual motion, however, suggests that it is perhaps not a subject that the Opposition are taking properly seriously.

The motion starts by saying that the Government are not tackling persistent absence. Let us set aside for a moment that that is plainly nonsense, as I will come to shortly.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

Not at the moment. There then follows the most colossal conflation—a massive non sequitur—about a register of children not in school because they are home educated. Obviously, absence and “not in school” sound pretty similar, but if the hon. Lady really thinks that the issue around absence is all about children being home educated en masse, she has failed to grasp the issue. [Interruption.] I simply point the hon. Lady who speaks for the Opposition to the motion as it is printed on the Order Paper, which clearly connects the two statements with nothing more than a semicolon between them. We do think that local authority registers are important: they would help improve oversight of those children who are not on school rolls, but they would not directly address the larger group of children who are on a school roll but have been persistently absent from that school.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

No; I ask the hon. Gentleman to forgive me for a moment.

Before we go on, I would like to say a short word about children in home education. This is often done very well by parents, who make huge sacrifices for their children, often in particularly difficult circumstances, and I pay tribute to those parents. Let us be clear: parents also have a right to home school their children, and that is a right I defend. However, we do think it is important for local authorities to have a register, because we know that not all children who are not enrolled at school are in receipt of a suitable education at home. We also think it is important that parents who are home schooling should be able to source support from their local authority.

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South should know that that is Government policy because, as she said, it appeared in the Schools Bill. She may or may not have spotted that in the past few days the Department has completed a consultation on elective home education to inform new guidance. I know she has spotted that a private Member’s Bill has been tabled in the name of my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond, which will come before this House on 15 March. Both the Secretary of State and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend as she seeks to progress her Bill through this House. In the meantime, the Government continue to work with local authorities to improve their existing non-statutory registers.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

I give way to Paul Blomfield, just because he has had a go three times.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I thank the Minister for giving way. According to the 2021 census, there are over 197,000 young carers under the age of 18. That is recognised to be an underestimate, so when 85% of headteachers told the school census that they had no young carers in their school, that only illustrated how those carers are unrecognised within the system. Evidence submitted to the inquiry held by the all-party parliamentary group on young carers and young adult carers said that young carers have double the persistent absence rate of their peers—41.6%—but they are not recognised in the Department for Education’s guidance on working together to improve school attendance. When this debate has finished, will the Minister go away and review that guidance, and would he consider requiring all schools to have a lead for young carers in the way that they do for SEN, to make sure they are no longer unrecognised within our system?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the number of young carers growing up in our country and going through our school system and the particular needs they have, issues that are directly relevant in the case of absence. We are working to improve understanding of where there are young carers, including through the school census that the hon. Gentleman mentioned and also through the guidance that we issue. As he will know, “Keeping children safe in education” is the main guidance on that subject that is issued to schools: it requires designated safeguarding leads to be aware of the needs of young carers, but trying to understand those needs is something that goes broader within school communities. Of course, dedicated professionals working in our school system seek to do exactly that.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs)

It is so generous of the Minister to give way. In my constituency, families struggle. The cost of living crisis is ever present, and the housing crisis forces many families to move from house to house. Children end up quite a long way from school because parents, understandably, want their child to have some level of stability and keep them in the school where they know their friends and their teachers. To be honest, my schools are brilliant and the teachers are really committed, but surely we need recognition that cuts to council budgets, combined with the massive increases in need that there are at the moment, are a contributing factor to children being out of school. Does he accept that?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Can I just say to Opposition Members, first, that interventions should not be speeches; and secondly, that they are taking up their own time, and they will lose time on the second debate?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

Of course, I readily acknowledge that cost of living pressures and inflationary pressures have been difficult for families in many ways. It is also true that the single most important thing to underpin family budgets is employment, and we are benefiting from the still very high rates of employment in this country. We are also benefiting from the proportion of people in work on low pay having come down significantly as a result of the national living wage. Yes, there is much more to do, but there is also a great deal happening. I should now make some progress.

To go back to the children not on school registers, the Government continue to work with local authorities to improve non-statutory registers. I have already mentioned the consultation on revised guidance for elective home education. Through termly data collection, we are also increasing the accuracy of registers, improving the understanding of this cohort of children. However, true accuracy can only be gained with mandatory registers, stipulating the data to be recorded and an accompanying duty on parents to inform local authorities when they are home educating.

We often say that reading is the most fundamental thing in education, because if someone cannot read they cannot access the curriculum, and then nothing else in school really works. However, there is one thing that is even more fundamental than reading, and that is attendance, because whatever great things our schoolteachers do, they can only benefit the children who are there to benefit from them.

I am pleased that we have started to see some progress in this area. There were 380,000 fewer pupils persistently absent or not attending in 2022-23 than the previous year. I am not quite sure how the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South does the extrapolation to her figure of one in four—[Interruption.] Well, that is not what the data series says. On Thursday, we will see the first data published for persistent absence in this academic year. We shall see what that says, but I hope it will show some further improvement. In any event, we certainly know that there is further to go.

Our comprehensive attendance strategy includes a number of different elements. There are clearer expectations of the whole system, including requiring schools to have an attendance policy and to appoint an attendance champion, and for local authorities and schools to agree individual plans for at-risk children. My right hon. Friend Vicky Ford will be leading a debate in Westminster Hall very soon in connection with and in support of her presentation Bill on making such obligations statutory.

On data, which the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South spoke about, our attendance data tool now provides near real-time information, not once a year, to allow earlier intervention and avoid absence becoming entrenched. We already have 88% of schools taking part in our world-leading daily registers data pilot, and we want that to be 100% by September.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

I ask the hon. Member to forgive me, in the interests of time.

We have targeted support in which schools with strong attendance performance support others that need help, and we are expanding that so that almost 2,000 schools will benefit. Our mentoring pilot, which I think the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South inadvertently referred to, is delivering one-to-one support for persistently and severely absent children. That is currently taking place in Middlesbrough, Knowsley, Doncaster, Stoke and Salford, and it will be extended to 10 new areas, with a total of 10,000 children, later this year.

System leadership is incredibly important. That is why we have the attendance action alliance, which brings together leaders not only from the world of education, but from children’s social care, health and allied services. They are all working together to address the wider barriers to and enablers of attendance.

As I said earlier, we must be very clear that some children do need to be off school some of the time. That has always been the case, but there has been some change in attitude since covid, with a greater propensity to keep a child at home with minor illness, such as a cough or cold in some cases. We need to recalibrate at least back to where we were pre-covid. That is why we have launched the national campaign “Moments Matter, Attendance Accounts” to re-emphasise the importance of every day in school, not only for learning but for wellbeing, experiences and friendships.

Alongside this, we have made attendance a key theme of school and children’s services reforms. We have provided additional funding for recovery, including for tutoring and direct funding for schools. To help families, we have committed an additional sum of £200 million to scale-up the Supporting Families programme, which of course has a specific requirement on school attendance. We are also spending on the national school breakfast programme to provide around 350,000 breakfasts on a school day in over 2,500 schools, targeted at the most disadvantaged areas. I also say to the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South that we should look at targeting secondary schools as well as primary schools, because persistent absence can of course be particularly concentrated in the secondary age group.

There are now considerably more children in receipt of free school meals than the last time a Labour Government were in office. This is despite the fact—[Interruption.] This is despite the fact, I say to the hon. Lady, that there are 600,000 fewer children living in workless households and that, thanks to the national living wage, the proportion of people in work but in low pay has halved.

Mental health barriers are also a very important part of this. That is why we are working with NHS England to increase the number of mental health support teams. They already cover 47% of pupils in secondary schools, and that will increase to at least 50% across all phases by March next year.

I am pleased to report that the latest data shows that, while there is still a lot to do, there is some cause for cautious optimism. Overall attendance last term was 93.2%, up from 92.5% in autumn 2022-23, meaning that pupils in England on average attend the equivalent of around a day and a half more across an academic year than they did the previous year. So while there is still a long way to go, this does represent progress.

To conclude, for the vast majority of children school of course continues to be the best place for their education, and it has never been more important to be at school. England’s primary school children are now the best readers in the western world, and at secondary we have made considerable progress.

The hon. Lady said some interesting things about PISA, the main international study of attainment—not the only one, but the main one—in which England has moved up the rankings, having previously come down the rankings before 2010. The hon. Lady says that in the end it is the score, not the rankings, that matter, and she is of course right. I am surprised she does not know this, however: she said education has not been badly affected by covid in every country, but I have to tell her that covid has given a real knock to education across most of the world. [Interruption.] I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon? [Interruption.] It has taken a great knock across much of the world and much of the world is now engaged in recovery programmes to make up that ground. But what the PISA results showed is that the knock sustained in this country was less than in very many other countries.

The PISA results also highlighted something else about education in England. It identifies this country as being in the relatively small set of what it calls “equitable systems.” In other words, as well as having strong performance relative to other countries, that performance is well spread out.

There have always been some children who are educated at home, and I repeat my earlier tribute to parents who, in so many cases, give up so much to do this and do it so well. However, covid created a big increase on top of what was already growth in the numbers, and it is important that we understand that.

The wider issue is that the legacy of the pandemic has also meant that school absence levels are too high. We remain committed to working with pupils, parents, teachers, local authorities, the health service and other partners to tackle these issues through our support-first approach, building on the strengths of the current system and the success achieved by teachers and leaders in our schools prior to the pandemic. Being in school has never been more valuable for pupils, with standards continuing to rise. I am hugely grateful to all our brilliant teachers, heads, partners throughout the system and everyone who has worked to create the progress achieved so far, and I am confident there is a great deal more to come.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 4:00, 23 January 2024

This is not just an education crisis; it is a health crisis and a crisis of equality, too. The number of children who are not getting the education they are entitled to has, as we have heard, hugely increased in recent years for a variety of reasons. It is therefore no surprise that the figures that my party has produced show that over the autumn and spring terms, more than 1.5 million children were persistently absent from primary and secondary school, which is more than double the number of five years ago. A huge number of children are being let down, and their entire lives will be affected. It will impact on the opportunities they may have, never mind the education they are losing. If we are not careful, this crisis could see an entire generation written off, yet the figures continue to rise and the system seems unable to cope.

In my local authority area, Cheshire West, absence rates for pupils have roughly doubled in the past three years, leading to the crisis point we have reached today. There are a number of reasons for that huge increase, but undoubtedly a major factor from what I am seeing is how we are dealing with children with special educational needs. The number of pupils with an education, health and care plan in Cheshire West has risen by nearly 50% in three years, and that is before we talk about all those children who are yet to actually get an EHCP.

As I recount the stories of some of my constituents, the House will see how this issue is growing and how a depressingly familiar pattern is forming. A child is struggling at school, and there is often an undiagnosed medical issue. It could be that the pupil needs an EHCP or a referral to child and adolescent mental health services. Neither is easy to get, and all the while the situation at school is deteriorating. Eventually, the school says that it cannot deal with the child anymore, or the child cannot cope with school. Relationships break down and education grinds to a halt. Far too often in those situations, the feeling that parents get is that they are on their own.

What I hear from these children’s parents is that they just want to do what is best for their children, but they feel that they are on their own. They are often exhausted, always frustrated, and they feel they have to battle the whole time—the school, the NHS and the system—just to get the education their children have a right to. I will quote one parent, because she is worth listening to. She said:

“There needs to be more pastoral and mental health support within schools. This Government need to understand that a one size curriculum does not fit all. Children’s mental health services are so overstretched and under-resourced that young people are on waiting lists for months on end and no support while they wait. All of the above have contributed to my girls having lots of absences. Lots of letters home with threats of further action not only cause distress to young people, but also the parents.”

I attended the National Autistic Society event on education this morning and a useful phrase was used: “collaboration, not confrontation”. That should be a useful guide for us moving forward. The same event revealed that a survey said that three quarters of parents of autistic children do not think their children’s school meets their needs. Shockingly, only 39% of teachers have received more than half a day’s autism training. Those figures tell us an awful lot about where we could put some things right.

Whether it is an autism assessment or support for a mental health condition, my constituents are often waiting a year or even more just to get that assessment. A year is such a long time in a young person’s life, and waits of that length or even longer do not help the children who are obviously suffering with a whole range of issues. They may have anxiety and depression to the extent that they are not able to attend school. They may be self-harming and they are having to wait to get that assessment because their cases are supposedly not serious enough. We have to wonder what kind of system thinks that a year out of a child’s life, when every day of their education counts, is not worthy of more priority.

Finally, I will say a little about the Children and Families Act 2014. If a child with special educational needs has a named school on their EHCP, that school must admit the child, regardless of whether places are available. That is the law, but that does not seem to be happening in practice. After the battle the parent has in trying to get the EHCP in the first place, which can go on for months, if not years, the battle is still sadly not over. We are now seeing a trend where parents are fighting at the consultation stage, with potential schools being identified but refusing to take the pupils.

We are getting more and more examples of children becoming education orphans because no school will take them. Their conditions are often too complex for a mainstream school, but all the specialist schools are full. We know of a 14-year-old who has been out of education for three months because all the specialist provision in the area is full. We are helping a six-year-old with an EHCP who is at a mainstream school that cannot support him. Consultations are ongoing with three other schools, but so far two of them have refused to take him. The question for him is: when will he get that education? The question for so many other parents around the country is: when will their children get the education that they deserve?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford 4:05, 23 January 2024

Education is key to young people having access to skills and opportunities in the future, so we are right to be concerned about attendance. In spring last year, nearly 1.5 million children were persistently absent from school, which means that nearly one in five of our children were missing 10% or more of their school time: the equivalent of an afternoon or more every week. The sudden surge in persistent and severe absence risks a profound impact on educational attainment and longer-term outcomes. That is why before Christmas I tabled a Bill to tackle this issue, and I will be leading a debate in Westminster Hall shortly.

We should be proud of our nation’s young people. We should be proud that children in England now rank 11th in the world for maths and 13th for reading. Back in 2010, when today’s school leavers were just starting out in reception, the same league tables placed those same cohorts of children at 27th for maths and 25th for reading. There has been phenomenal progress; we must not let it slip.

The reasons for increased levels of pupil absence are often multiple and complex, including issues such as support for those with special educational needs and disabilities, anxiety and mental health. We know, for example, that if a child’s special educational needs are unmet, that can lead to them missing out on education. Changes in attitudes towards minor ailments may be another driving force behind school absences, and there may be other changing societal issues. It has been suggested to me that increasingly more addictive online gaming is impacting negatively on mental health and resulting in more children and young people missing school. I would like to see more research on that. For the most vulnerable pupils, regular attendance is an important protective factor. Absence from school can expose young people to other harms, such as being drawn into crime or serious violence.

In addressing school attendance, it is important that we do not simply lay the blame at the door of hard-working parents. Most parents want their children to do well, but many need help to support their children to fulfil that aspiration. Securing attendance requires an holistic approach, bringing together schools, families, the local authority and other local partners.

Much detailed work has already been undertaken on this issue. As the Minister said, in 2022, following a detailed consultation, the Department for Education published new guidance entitled, “Working together to improve school attendance.” It is over 60 pages long and extremely detailed, with a lot of emphasis put on early help and multidisciplinary support.

Last year, the Education Committee did a detailed inquiry on the issue of attendance. Witnesses agreed that the guidance needs to be put on a statutory footing, and that was a major recommendation from the inquiry. The Children’s Commissioner, the Centre for Social Justice and the Select Committee all support making it mandatory to follow best practice. Therefore, before Christmas, I tabled a private Member’s Bill that would make that happen.

The Bill would make the guidance statutory so that all schools, trusts, local authorities and other relevant local partners would need to follow it. It would introduce a new general duty on local authorities to use their functions to promote regular attendance and reduce absence, and require schools of all types to have and publicise a school attendance policy. The DFE has said that it will publish a revised version of the guidance ahead of the new provisions coming forward.

I note that the shadow Minister—who is not listening—has called for the introduction of a register of children who are out of school due to elective home education. I fully agree that improving the data and visibility of these children, so that councils can verify that they are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment, would be a good step forward. That is also supported by the Local Government Association. It is not part of my Bill, but is part of a separate Bill tabled before Christmas by my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond, a former Ofsted inspector.

In order for the shadow Minister to get what she wants, all she needs to do is support the private Member’s Bill. If she really wanted it so much, why did she not ask any of the Labour Members who topped the private Member’s Bill ballot, coming in first, fourth and fifth place, to table it? It would have had its Second Reading last Friday and already be in Committee. My School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill is scheduled to have its Second Reading on 2 February. I hope it will get cross-party support from MPs, including the shadow Minister, so that it can move forward swiftly.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome 4:10, 23 January 2024

First, I extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Sir Tony Lloyd. I would also like to mention that, as Members will know, I am a proud Somerset councillor. Tory cuts to local authorities have had far- reaching consequences. In Somerset, that has been mixed with a toxic cocktail of the previous Tory administration’s financial ineptitude. This perfect storm has vastly increased the burden on local authorities to deliver high-quality statutory frontline services, which residents should expect.

Particular pressure is on education. In the 2022 autumn term, Somerset state schools had a primary school absence rate of 5.3%, including 3.2% due to illness. At secondary level, there was a 10.2% absence rate, including 4.9% due to illness. The statistics do not reflect what the illness is—acute or chronic, covid-related or not. That reflects a wider problem. We are treating children with SEND as a homogenous identity. I fully support a “children not in school” register, which reflects that data, as Bridget Phillipson proposes.

One of my constituents is 13-year-old Otis. He has a diagnosis of autism and Tourette’s syndrome. Otis first attended a mainstream school, but his parents told me that, despite the school’s best efforts, it did not work out for him. Otis then moved to a special school, the Mendip School in Prestleigh, but that did not work either, despite the school doing everything that it could. Otis’s parents said:

“Otis felt that he was placed with pupils with much more significant, and much more visible, needs. His education offer was gradually whittled until he did not go to the school site at all.”

If Otis takes up a rare special school place in September, he will have been out of school for two and a half years. The trend is clear. Pupils with SEND start school with absences and are either officially or effectively suspended or excluded.

Mind’s 2021 report “Not Making the Grade” showed that 68% of interviewed pupils had at least one absence due to mental health. We need top-down direction from the Department to ensure that schools do not unfairly penalise pupils with SEND for low attendance. That includes children with possible mental health issues who have not received a diagnosis because of the NHS backlog that this Government have caused.

We simply cannot view all children with SEND as a conglomerate, in the same way that we would not group together numeracy and literacy statistics. Child A, who is non-verbal with autism, might be absent because she needs to be in a sensory tent without disruption. Child B, with ME, might be absent because he is not physically able to get out of bed. Child C, in a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy, might be absent because the staff member who helps them with sanitary needs is off that day. Meanwhile, children D, E and F are almost invisible in the system, because they are on a two-year waiting list for a diagnosis, they are the sibling of a seriously ill child and going without sleep, or they might have told their teacher they just had the flu to avoid questions about their mental health. I know all six of those children, and I suspect many colleagues know children just like them.

We need the Government to recognise key differences in the SEND acronym; to set up a national SEND body; to have comprehensive training for all civil servants, Ministers and council and school staff; to have a mental health practitioner in every school; to ring-fence funding for local authorities to halve the cost of an EHCP for schools; and to reform the Mental Health Act. We need a children not in school register that is sensitive and informed. These policies will help to ensure children are not alienated from their peers or shut out of education. We Liberal Democrats have committed to all those things.

When we really understand the reasons why so many children are absent, we can deliver effective and tailored solutions to level up our stratified society, and give all our children a grade 9 education.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley 4:15, 23 January 2024

As the Minister stated, the motion conflates two very important but distinct issues. “Absent” and “not in school” sound similar, but if the shadow Minister Bridget Phillipson thinks that absence is all about children being home educated, which is what my private Member’s Bill is about, she has failed to grasp the issue. Both are important and both need to be addressed, but the motion fails to do so. My right hon. Friend Vicky Ford is introducing a Bill to address school attendance, particularly persistent absence, and I am putting forward a Bill to introduce a register of home-educated children who are not in school, which is much more long term. I would like to address why I am putting my Bill forward.

The only thing on which I agree with the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South is that currently no one—Government, local authorities or schools—can honestly answer the question, how many children are missing from school? Therefore, how can we know that every child is safe and suitably educated? Equally concerning is the number of children who have disappeared from the school roll altogether. While we do not have the data to fully understand where these children are, it is thought that many may have moved into home education.

I want to take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that I fully believe that parents have the right to choose what education their children receive. That right should be enshrined in law. Parents are in the best place to make informed choices about what their child needs, with many parents providing a high-quality home education for their child. However, that is not the case for every child in home education, with a worrying number being taken off roll for reasons other than their best interest, with the parents not having been able to make a fair and free choice.

Research by the Centre for Social Justice has uncovered a growing number of parents opting for home education because they feel that they have no other option due to their child’s needs not being met in school. That could be the result of difficulties in accessing SEND provision—many autistic children are in this category—a lack of support for mental health, unresolved bullying issues or health concerns following the pandemic. Most troubling is the evidence that shows some parents have felt coerced into home education for reasons other than the child’s best interest, through the scourge that is called off-rolling.

I would like to take a moment here to pay tribute to the many parents, including my niece, who are doing an admirable job of providing their children with a high-quality home education. However, that is simply not the reality for every child. With no comprehensive data collected, we do not know what proportion of children receive a suitable education. England is an international outlier in that respect. A number of organisations, including Ofsted, the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice, have uncovered worrying reports of home-educated pupils being left without access to an appropriate quality of education—one of my constituents wrote to me and said that he had been in that category—and parents are left struggling to cope with the demands of home education. As the numbers of home-educated children increase, so should our drive to ensure that parents are able to exercise their right to choose how best to educate their child, and that every child is supported to achieve the best educational outcomes possible.

Implementing a children not in school register is the natural first step to achieving that. A register would not seek to disrupt a parental right to choose where and when they educate their child. Quite the contrary, as a register can be used to offer resources to families, who are often home educating at great personal cost, should they want such support. The register would allow us to find and support those children and families who have been left on the fringes of the education system, and who may be at risk of harm. It is time to bring these children who are out of sight and out of mind back into the light.

Education is key to the country’s continued prosperity and must remain the focus of any Government. I would like to thank the Government for their interest in my Bill, and the Opposition, who appear to be interested as well, and I look forward to continuing my work with them as it proceeds through both Houses. I ask the Opposition to stop playing party politics with such an important issue, and I hope all sides of the House will back my Bill to introduce a children not in school register, which is so important for ensuring the welfare and education of every single child.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 4:19, 23 January 2024

It is good to follow Mrs Drummond, and I commend her efforts in producing a private Member’s Bill on this important subject, but I am a bit confused: if we all agree that it is important, why do the Government not just vote for our motion? My hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson, the shadow Secretary of State, showed us very neatly exactly who is putting party politics above our kids this afternoon, and it is not Opposition Members. Even better, if the Government are so much in favour of this, why do they not produce legislation in their own time? It is they who dictate the timetable of this place pretty much all the time, so if they are so concerned about our children, it surely should not have been left to the Opposition to put forward this motion. My hon. Friend made that case very well.

Underlying this issue, as I think many would accept, is the fact that the partnership between parents and schools is more or less broken. The team that our kids need to support them—their parents, their wider families and their teachers—are all struggling and finding life very hard. I want to make three brief suggestions for how we can put that partnership right and how we can all do some very simple things to help our children to have a better chance at school, reflecting in particular on my own experience in the Wirral.

First, breakfast clubs are extremely important to giving children the best possible start to the day. They are also very good for parents, especially those who are under pressure to get a decent job so that they can afford the dreadful rises in the cost of living that we have seen recently. If a school has a breakfast club, it means that the parents of the children there can choose a job that starts at 9 am, which can make all the difference in the world to a family. It can encourage mums as well as dads to take a job, and having a second earner in a home is a very good way of tackling poverty. Labour’s policy of putting breakfast clubs into every school is about ensuring not just that our children have an excellent start in every primary school, but that they have a great start to the day, and also about giving their parents that choice of jobs.

My second point is about mental health support inside and outside schools. A couple of Members have already mentioned this. I have witnessed for myself what is happening to our children in the Wirral, particularly when families are affected by disability or special educational needs, in which regard an excellent case was made earlier. The current SEND system is broken, and we do not know nearly enough to support children with those needs. Our problems in the Wirral are being exacerbated by a lack of educational psychologists, but ultimately the way to tackle the problem is to ensure that every child has access to good mental health support. Putting that base level of professionals in every school will help children to receive support earlier in their school journey, and will prevent the exacerbation of those mental health problems. Strengthening the mental health workforce in schools should be our first response to ensure that children’s problems do not become worse, because we know that many mental health problems start in the early teenage years.

Finally, I think that one of the most important things we could do to help rebuild the relationships between families and schools, and ensure that everyone is really giving our kids the best start in life—apart from excellent English and maths teaching, of course—is to provide a broader curriculum. When I see schools in the Wirral with fantastic sports teams, and great, active schools where children have the opportunity to perform on stage, perhaps to tell a story about who they are and what they care about through the performing arts, there is no doubt in my mind that those children are much happier at school. It helps to build the school community.

I am glad that the Minister seems to be agreeing with me from a sedentary position; my only regret is that the past 14 years have done very little to support that vision.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 4:24, 23 January 2024

I am pleased to make a contribution to this debate. The subject of school absence and levels of school attendance is a particular challenge we are facing at the moment in Cornwall, where rates of school absence are significantly higher than the national average. We have seen around an 8.5% level of absence in recent years, when the national average is about 7.4%. Nationally, about 24% of pupils are persistently absent, but in Cornwall that figure is almost 35%. I think that there are particular reasons why we are seeing that in Cornwall. We have seen a large number of people move to Cornwall in recent times, certainly since the pandemic, and many of them are coming because of the lifestyle Cornwall has to offer and the choices available to them when they move to Cornwall.

I have a number of concerns about how the situation that we are facing is being handled. For many years I have been concerned at what I see as the state encroaching on the role of parents, and that seems to be happening more and more. I was concerned about this long before I came to this House, and it does not seem to be stopping. I believe firmly that the primary responsibility for the welfare and raising of children has to lie with parents, and although the state can support parents and help them in that role, it should not seek to take over that role.

I was pleased to hear the Minister confirm at the Dispatch Box that the Government’s position is that they will always support the right of parents who wish to home educate their children to do so. That is absolutely the right position to take. Many parents choose to home educate their children for very positive reasons, and I have to say that some of the most mature, articulate, intelligent and well-rounded children I have ever met in my life have been home educated. However, many parents now regrettably find themselves having to home educate their children not because that is what they believe is right for their children but because they feel forced into that situation. They cannot find the right school environment and support for their children, who might have particular challenges such as autism or a mental health condition.

One particular factor that I think is driving this issue is the attendance targets. The overbearing, heavy-handed approach that many schools are taking to attendance targets is leaving no flexibility for children who are facing particular challenges, and parents are being threatened with fines for not bringing their children to school. I have even had one parent show me letters from their GP saying that their child was suffering with a mental health challenge and would therefore not be able to attend school regularly, but the school still fined the parent for that child not being in school regularly.

This whole drive to reach the attendance target seems to be the only thing that matters, with no flexibility and no allowance being made for the condition or circumstances that a family or child find themselves in, and this is creating tension and breaking down the relationship between the school and the parents at the very time that those parents need support from the school. I ask the Minister whether we can look at that situation. I know that the Government’s official position is that headteachers have discretion and flexibility, but I am afraid that that message has not got through to Ofsted, which I am told still regularly marks down schools that fail to reach the 95% attendance target even when the headteacher can demonstrate sensible reasons why certain children have not been able to attend school.

The Minister knows from his previous time in the Department that I have never agreed with fining parents when their children miss school. I believe it is a very un-Conservative thing to do. At least let us take away that threat of fining parents when there are legitimate reasons why their child has not been able to attend school. I could give him a long list. My office is now contacted almost every week by parents who are withdrawing their children from school because they want to avoid the fine when their children are not able to attend regularly, even with very good reason.

I have no more time, but will the Minister please look at this situation and how these targets are driving what I believe is counterproductive behaviour by schools? It is not the teachers’ fault, as I think it is coming from policy and from Ofsted.

Photo of Ashley Dalton Ashley Dalton Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) 4:30, 23 January 2024

I think we all agree on the value of education and how it can enrich children’s lives and give them the best possible start. I am proud that improvements and developments in education have been the legacy of every Labour Government to date. It therefore pains me that I am, yet again, rising to talk about an issue in which this Government have overseen almost a decade and a half of managed decline.

The numbers are terrifying. School absences trebled between 2016 and 2022. If trends continue, 200,000 children will miss half of their school time by 2026. School absences are a threat to the education that is so vital in setting up our children for life and giving them the best possible start, but it is not an isolated issue. Yes, school absences are a cause of increased barriers to opportunity, but they are also a symptom of wider issues.

In rural areas like my constituency, school absences are exacerbated by inadequate public transport and sparse special needs education. As other hon. Members have mentioned, there are a multitude of reasons why children are not in school. It is not just because they are home educated, but because they are affected by parental imprisonment, because they are young carers or because they have disabilities. We need a register that captures the barriers children face, otherwise we have no hope of breaking down those barriers.

I mentioned inadequate public transport. Skelmersdale in my constituency, as anyone who has heard me speak in this Chamber will know, has 40,000 people and no train station. It also has a woefully inadequate bus service, with my constituents reporting issues with reliability and frequency.

We can remove the barriers that make getting to school more difficult for those in rural communities if we focus on what really matters to them. Similarly, children with special educational needs must be able to get the support they need. One of my constituents, whose child has not been in school for almost six months, told me that the school identified by the local authority told them that their child was “unsuitable” for the school. There are no unsuitable children, only underfunded, overstretched schools.

The Government recognised the omissions in their SEND strategy when, in March 2023, they published their SEND and alternative provision improvement plan. However, the plan did not address how rural SEND pupils may risk falling through the net or how failures in provision may be contributing to school absenteeism. Mainstream schools are generally expected to use their delegated funding to meet the needs of students with special educational needs who do not have an education, health and care plan. If a school is unable to meet those needs within its budget, or if a pupil cannot be swiftly assessed and provided with an EHCP, we risk them being absent from the education they need and deserve, through no fault of their own or their parents.

I have been contacted by numerous parents in my constituency who essentially keep their children from school because they are fearful that the school cannot meet their child’s needs and truly believe that it is more harmful for their child to be in school than not. Improving school attendance and reducing absenteeism requires an holistic assessment of the barriers that children face. It requires timely medical care, shorter waiting lists when our children get sick, improvements to public transport and better SEND services to ensure that children’s needs are being met. How many children are not regularly attending school and are, therefore, listed in school absence figures because SEND provision is stretched and mainstream schooling is not meeting their needs? People in rural communities like mine understand that some children are missing school not through their own fault or their own choice but because they simply cannot get there or, if they can, because the school does not meet their needs.

Labour’s plan to address the issue of absences is simple: roll out breakfast clubs, put mental health support into schools, and make sure that SEND provision is joined-up and adequate. Under Labour, children will have a change to the schools system; we will nurture an environment and provide schools they can access and thrive in.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Flooding, Oceans and Coastal Communities) 4:35, 23 January 2024

By the time parents come to see me in the surgery about their children not attending school, it is clear that the system has already failed them. Parents come to see me in tears as they talk about their children being refusers and the difficulty they have trying to get them out of the door. Parents have told me how their children become aggressive towards the parent who is trying to take them or hysterical, and how some have threatened self-harm, all because—for whatever reason—they do not wish to attend school.

It can be because of overwhelming anxiety, with children feeling sick in the morning before they go into school, or because of mental ill health. Parents tell me that children are developing rashes related to anxiety because they do not want to go to school. It can be because of bullying, with the added element of cyber-bullying. Parents have told me about a young person being encouraged to take a photograph of themselves to send to their boyfriend at the time, only for it to go viral around the school. That young person then feels ashamed and humiliated, and is unable to go to school—in some cases, they do not even feel able to leave their house. As has been mentioned by Members from across the House, it can be because of an undiagnosed special need and the fact that the family have been waiting for two years for the EHCP that they see as their golden ticket to finally getting the help that their child needs.

What happens when these children are refusing to go and the parents—good parents—are trying, but are unable, to make them? The local authority has limited powers to intervene. As Steve Double mentioned, the school’s answer is sometimes to threaten to fine the parent, who is trying to do the best by their child. The local authority cannot insist on managed moves; it can only try to encourage schools to support them, but it does not have the power to do this. Up and down the country there is a lack of specialist places, and local authorities are unable to open their own special schools; they have to do this through the free school system, so they cannot manage adequately the demand in their area. As many people who work in local authorities tell us, their spending on their high needs block is way beyond the budget they have been given.

What would any of us do if our child was refusing to go to school, becoming hysterical, threatening self-harm and clearly suffering with anxiety, if the school was threatening to fine us and if there was nowhere else for the child to go? I can clearly see why parents say, “This is enough. I’m withdrawing my child from the system.” I have spoken to many parents who have made that decision. What happens next varies, depending on the child and the parents involved. In some cases, it is the best thing that happens to the child, as they regain their self-confidence and self-esteem, and start to mix again. Often, there is a happy ending and they go to the 14-to-16 college, which is a completely different environment from the school, and go on to thrive. Clearly, however, that is not the case for all children. Some drop out of education never to return, and never get the qualifications they need. Unfortunately, some children are then incredibly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

So what is the answer? Of course, the answer must always start with the early years and with communication skills. One of the first things I did on becoming a Member of Parliament was to set up the all-party parliamentary group on oracy. Equipping young people with the ability to communicate and express how they feel is crucial, especially for young children who are so upset and frustrated that they do not want to go to school. Giving them the right tools to express themselves can open things up.

The Labour party is also promising health visitors who support children before they go to school. We also need to focus on early years education to support children and prepare them for when they go to school, so that they know what to expect. Crucially—I am so proud that our party is supporting this—we need mental health professionals in every school. Teachers are not mental health professionals. When I was a teacher, I was not a mental health professional. These professionals are needed in school to support children; we cannot put that on the teachers. As has been mentioned, we need a curriculum review, so that we have a curriculum that equips children now and in the future—and, dare I say it, that makes school fun and makes the children want to go.

Finally, breakfast clubs will help and encourage children to attend school. I visited Christopher Pickering Primary School in my constituency last week and heard about the breakfast club it offers for a limited number of pupils. Kids were telling me it was great. They do “Just Dance”—luckily, I was unable to join in—and dodgeball. They play with their friends and they start the day happy. With a Labour Government, that opportunity would be offered to every single child, and that cannot come soon enough.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 4:40, 23 January 2024

Across the House, I am sure we can all agree that providing our children with a high-quality education is one of the most important things we can do—an education that inspires them to learn, helps them to discover their interests and passions, and sets them up for life. But if children are not in school every day, they cannot access the opportunities they need.

School should not be seen as an optional activity, to be dipped in and out of. However, research by the Centre for Social Justice found that more than one in four parents thought that school is not essential every day—not just one in four adults, but one in four parents. That signifies a real breakdown in the relationship between schools, families and Government, because what example are we setting as a country if such a high proportion of parents are not prioritising getting their children to school every day?

Every child matters and, to those children, every day at school matters, but for years the problem of persistent absence has got worse on this Government’s watch. Last year, 21.2% of children were persistently absent from school—over one in five—which is double the rate from just six years ago. In my local authority of Newcastle upon Tyne, the number of children missing half their lessons rocketed by 282% between 2016 and 2022.

The Secretary of State said that keeping children in school was her “number one priority”, but absence rates have been rocketing for years and we have seen so little action. It only became a priority because the Labour party have consistently spoken about this issue and now, because of the Tories’ inaction, the situation is spiralling out of control, yet they still do not have a long-term plan.

The problem does not exist in isolation. Our children are facing a mental health crisis, record numbers are living in poverty and they are being taught in schools that one teacher recently described to me as “joyless”. What is at stake here is a lost generation missing from Britain’s schools, yet where is the Government’s plan to deal with it?

My hon. Friend Justin Madders spoke powerfully about the impact on families in his area, particularly families with children with special educational needs. My hon. Friend Alison McGovern made a powerful case for why the Government should back Labour’s motion today. My hon. Friend Ashley Dalton rightly identified that we need to break down the barriers to opportunity, which means breaking down the barriers to school attendance, as did my hon. Friend Emma Hardy. Unlike the Tories, Labour will work in government to break down those barriers to opportunity. We will get our children back into the classroom and we have outlined a plan to address the problem if we are in government.

We recognise that not every child learns in school. We support every parent to make the choice about whether they send their child to school or home educate them, but to ensure no child falls through the gap, we need a proper record of where our children are being educated. That should not be controversial. The Conservatives even proposed a register of children not in school, before shelving it when education was no longer a priority for them.

Mrs Drummond has campaigned on this issue and Vicky Ford spoke powerfully about her campaign on school attendance, but it is shameful that these matters about which Conservative Back Benchers are lobbying their own Government will have to wait for a Labour Government to fix them. We would get on with the job and introduce a register, allowing councils to request information on home education and the ability to visit premises. It is part of our plan to deliver high and rising standards for the next generation.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

The hon. Lady makes some great points. The problem with the motion is that it talks about persistent school absences. Persistent school absences relate to children who are already on the school roll, and schools are able to track them. A register of children not in school is purely for home-educated children, and not for those on a school register, which is for children who are persistently absent.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I thank the hon. Lady for her clarification, but we are not unclear about this. We do not disagree on the need both to tackle persistent absence and to have a register that identifies where children are being educated. That is something that the Government have pledged to do. The hon. Lady should continue to put pressure on the Government who have the power to do something about it right now, or Labour will do it in government.

We will also roll out free breakfast clubs in every primary school. Evidence shows that they improve children’s learning and development, and they have a positive impact on attendance and behaviour. We will fully fund those clubs by ending the non-dom tax breaks for the mega-rich. It is as much about the club as it is about the breakfast, providing children with a softer start to the school day, and with opportunities to play and socialise with their friends, setting them up well to learn throughout the day. When the Minister sums up, perhaps he can support Labour’s call for free breakfast clubs in every primary school, rather than the fraction that the Government’s programme currently reaches.

Labour is also committed to addressing the mental health crisis that our children are facing. It is a key barrier to learning, yet children remain on long CAMHS waiting lists, unable to access the support they need. We would recruit thousands of new staff to bring down those waiting lists and put specialist mental health professionals in schools and community hubs, so that children can get the help they need, solving problems before they get worse. We would tackle this issue head-on, not let it spiral further out of control.

We also need to see accountability in our system. Labour’s plan will involve annual school checks, which cover persistent absence, off-rolling and child safeguarding, so that problems are picked up early on, not left until the next inspection. In Wales, for example, Estyn has strengthened its reporting requirements on attendance, and all schools are now required to make available their attendance policies. We would reset the relationship that has weakened confidence in our inspection system by reforming the one-word headline grade with a report card, identifying areas where schools need to improve and delivering the support to do so through new, regional improvement teams.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

Does the hon. Lady support making schools responsible for the children they exclude?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The hon. Gentleman will know that that is part of his Government’s school accountability system. Obviously, we will undertake a full review of our approach to Ofsted. We will also include and address many issues on which this Government are currently failing.

If schools are to offer high-quality education, we must ensure that our children are learning a curriculum that best sets them up for life. The pandemic shone a light on how children’s early speech and language development was affected, and we know that stronger early communication skills boost outcomes and provide better engagement with schools. We would prioritise equipping primary schools with funding to deliver early, evidence-based language interventions. When it comes to the curriculum more broadly, we know that it needs reform. It is far too narrow and it is putting children off learning.

The life satisfaction scores of UK students have fallen through the floor in recent years. The UK now has the second lowest average life satisfaction of 15-year-olds in the OECD. We see that the opportunities for music, art, sport and drama are often squeezed. Opportunities for discussion and debate are few and far between. Our curriculum and assessment review would look at delivering a broad curriculum that prepares children for the future, reflecting the issues and diversity in our society. Assessments would capture the full strength of every child, giving them an excellent foundation in reading, writing and maths without sacrificing the things that make school fun.

To conclude, the difference Labour will bring is clear. Under the Tories, we have had 14 years of decline—of school standards slipping, teachers leaving in droves and education not even getting a seat at the table—whereas Labour will do what we did in 1997: bring education back to the centre of national life, with a focus on putting children first and ensuring that excellence is for everyone. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 4:50, 23 January 2024

This Government are committed to giving every child in this country a first-class education and every opportunity to make the most of their abilities. Although there is a small number of children who, for good reasons, need to be educated elsewhere, we want all children to be at school every day. That is key for their life chances. For children who are home educated—a right that parents have, and we do not question that most do a very good job—it is vital that we know that the education they are provided with is suitable and that the children are safe.

As my right hon. Friend the Schools Minister said, the motion conflates two separate things: the issue of persistent absence, which is when pupils miss 10% or more of their lessons, and the topic of home education for those who are not in school.[This section has been corrected on 31 January 2024, column 11MC — read correction] To take persistent absence first, the year the Government came to power, persistent absence was at 16.3%. We got that down to 10.5% in 2015-16, and it averaged 10.9% in the five years prior to the pandemic. It was during the pandemic that it rose significantly again to 22.5%.

The Government are taking wide-ranging action to tackle the matter. We have already established 14 attendance hubs across 800 schools, reaching 400,000 pupils. This term, we are more than doubling the number of hubs so that nearly 2,000 schools will be supported. We are rolling out an attendance mentor pilot that we had in five areas to a further 10 areas, and that programme will reach around 10,000 children. We have deployed 10 expert attendance advisers to support local authorities and school trusts. We have developed a data tool that helps schools to understand the local trends and target their support, and we have strengthened our guidance to local authorities. For the first time, schools are expected to have a member of the senior leadership team responsible for attendance.

Evidence suggests that the strategy is working. There were 380,000 fewer persistently absent pupils in the past academic year, and in the last academic term overall absence was down to 6.8%, from 7.5% in the autumn term the year before.[This section has been corrected on 31 January 2024, column 12MC — read correction] That is all backed by a national communications campaign to remind parents that “moments matter, attendance counts”. The campaign aims to encourage parents to realise that their child should attend school if they have a mild cough or cold and no fever or vomiting, and that mild anxiety can be made worse by a prolonged period of absence. The campaign has been running across social media and the radio. We are grateful to Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, for his letter reassuring school leaders that children should generally attend school if they have mild respiratory illnesses, because it is good for their wellbeing and a host of other things.

Of course, mental health challenges underpin some of the absence—something raised by Emma Hardy, among others. That is why we have been rolling out mental health support teams, which now cover 44% of pupils in schools and colleges and will cover 50% of those pupils by March 2025.[This section has been corrected on 31 January 2024, column 12MC — read correction] We are offering all state schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead, and we are pleased that 14,400 schools and colleges have already taken that up, covering seven schools in 10 for all state secondary schools.

There is then the related but separate issue of a register for those who are home educated. I should declare that I served on the Education Committee when my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon chaired it, and we produced a report that recommended a register for those not in school. That remains a recommendation of the Education Committee. That is the register that was in the Schools Bill referred to in the motion and for which we remain committed to legislating. My hon. Friend Mrs Drummond has been doing great work to champion this issue, and I look forward to the outcome of the Second Reading of her Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill on 15 March.

Various points were raised in this debate and I will try and cover as many as possible. The hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) and for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton) raised issues about the SEND system. Our SEND and AP improvement plan is designed to address the issues that they raised about children being placed in suitable provision and in a timely manner. We should not have children out of school for prolonged periods because they are unable to get their needs met.

My right hon. Friend Vicky Ford, who I think is currently at her Westminster Hall debate, has introduced an important Bill, the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, and I look forward to seeing its progress through the House. Alison McGovern raised the topic of breakfast clubs, which we are funding in 2,700 schools. Many schools already had a breakfast club, of course, and have had for some time, but we are funding 2,700.

My hon. Friend Steve Double raised the issue of fixed penalty notices. Our guidance is clear that there should be a “support first” approach, but penalties are there to prevent court action from taking place. I should say that 89% of the fixed penalty notices issued are for unauthorised term-time holidays, but I am happy to pick up that discussion with him.

My final point is this: I have watched the Labour party try to reinvent itself as the champion of children being in school, and many Labour Members have raised issues about the pandemic, which is where many of the problems stem from. However, I remember their actions during that pandemic. I remember how long it took them to say that schools were safe. I remember the then Prime Minister standing here every week asking the Leader of the Opposition to say that schools were safe, and him not doing so.

I remember that when one of Labour’s union allies produced a statement saying that teachers should not be teaching a full timetable nor routinely marking work during that period, Labour said nothing to challenge it. When that same union teamed up with other unions to produce a 200-point list of things they wanted to see before schools returned, the Labour party said nothing to challenge them. What was Labour’s big idea during the pandemic? To go against the vaccination advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which was that we should vaccinate by age, and instead vaccinate teachers—no other profession, just teachers—whatever their age. Why? Because the unions wanted that to happen.

In addition to the motion conflating two separate things, and in addition to this problem being worse in Labour-run Wales, like all problems are, we will not allow the Labour party to reinvent the history of their behaviour under this Leader of the Opposition. They cannot blame the last Leader of the Opposition for that; it was under this Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer. It was this Government who did all they could to get children back to school during the pandemic, and it is this Government who are doing all they can to get children back to school now.

Question put.

Division number 63 Opposition day: Children not in school (national register and support)

Aye: 189 MPs

No: 301 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

The House divided: Ayes 189, Noes 303.

Question accordingly negatived.