Persistent Pupil Absence

Education – in the House of Commons at on 29 January 2024.

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Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care)

What steps she is taking to tackle persistent pupil absence in schools.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Tackling persistent absence is my top priority, as indeed it was last year. I pay tribute to our incredible teachers and heads who have gone above and beyond to get children back to school. We are more than doubling the number of attendance hubs to support 2,000 schools, we are investing £15 million to expand one-to-one mentoring to help 10,000 children and we will be requiring all schools to share data to support earlier intervention. Our plan is starting to work, with 380,000 fewer children persistently absent or not attending last year, and numbers continue to fall.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care)

But by 2026, 2,435 children in Manchester, 907 in Tameside and 937 in Stockport are set to miss half their time at school if current trends continue. Labour has a plan to fix this crisis, backed by Sir Kevan Collins, the Government’s own former education recovery commissioner. If this is the Secretary of State’s top priority, why is her plan not working?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

It is working. It is not going to stick on the trajectory, because we have already turned around the trajectory. Since the pandemic, it is already falling in England. There is no better example of the Labour party having no plan and just sniping from the sidelines than on the question of attendance. I suggest that Labour Members look at other countries around the world because this is a global phenomenon. We have daily data that is almost unique, which is why we are now reducing the figures. If we look at Wales—Labour-run Wales—we see that attendance in school is much worse, at nearly eight days lower per pupil.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Science, Research and Innovation)

The Secretary of State says that keeping children in school is her top priority, but since 2016 persistent absence in Newcastle has more than doubled and severe absence is up 282%. She says it is a global phenomenon, but what matters is what happens in schools in Newcastle. Labour’s plan for schools is supported by Sir Kevan Collins. Why will she not support it? What is she going to do about this, because we need to see change now?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady may have mixed up a couple of things there, but the plan to get children back into school is to have daily attendance data, which we introduced and sent out to every local authority. Some local authorities do not perform as well—perhaps the hon. Lady’s is one of those—but we send out daily data so that they can identify exactly where the schools are. We are working with attendance hubs, which we are introducing across the country. For individual one-to-one attention we have attendance mentors. We have a national campaign and a cross-Government action alliance, all of which has meant that England has a 7.5% absence rate, compared with 11.5% in Wales, and it is much higher in most countries around the world. We have a plan, and we are delivering on it.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I worked as a teacher and as head of year with overall responsibility for school attendance. Labour Members seem to forget that there is also a role for parental responsibility in all of this. In my time, I encountered a large cohort of parents who found that it was still cheaper to pay the fines they were given and save the money by going on holiday during term time. Is it not time to ramp up the cost of fines for parents who choose needlessly to withdraw their children from their education, harming the child’s outcomes?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Every moment matters in school, and we have improved and increased our school standards. The most important thing is that children are now there. Thanks to our data, we can now see patterns and those who are taking a week off outside term time, or those who perhaps have a pattern of behaviour of taking particular days off. We can go into the data—we are about the only country in the world that can do that, so we are uniquely positioned to tackle the problem. We can go down into the data and work at school level and local authority level, to ensure that we put into action everything we can to improve attendance.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

Attendance matters, and we know that some schools and local authorities have higher attendance rates than others. That is why the Education Committee, the Children’s Commissioners and others all say that their top priority is to ensure that all schools and local authorities follow best practice guidelines. My private Member’s Bill, the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, will make that mandatory. I know that the Government support it, so will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to ensure that all colleagues across the House back the Bill, and no one objects to it on Second Reading this Friday, so that we can make best practice mandatory and get our kids back to school?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I thank my right hon. Friend for all her work in this area. She is right; the first thing to do is ensure that we understand best practice, and that it is rolled out everywhere. A lot of work is being done in that area. I very much appreciate the initiatives that she has introduced, and I urge colleagues across the House to support her endeavours.

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

The millions of children persistently absent from school is a national scandal, yet last week Government MPs joined together to vote against Labour’s long-term plan to deal with that issue, putting party above country and children. So far the Government have only announced sticking plaster policies. Will the Secretary of State come forward with a long-term plan to address that properly, or do schools and families have to wait for a Labour Government to finally give all children the education they deserve?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Certainly not. Under a Labour Government, school standards would plummet back to where they were the last time Labour had education under their control—27th in the world for maths and 28th for English, if I remember correctly. Standards fall under Labour, and it has absolutely no plans to get children back into school. As I said, this Government have uniquely put in place daily data to enable us to get down and implement lots of different plans. We are also planning to legislate for children who are not in school, which I think was about the only thing Labour actually put in its plan. We are committed to doing that, and we warmly welcome the private Member’s Bill from my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond, the Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill, and look forward to working with her when it progresses to Second Reading on 15 March. I urge all hon. Members to support the Bill.