To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the issue of so called ‘ghost children’, including the two million children who are persistently absent from school in England.
My Lords, the pandemic was a shock to education. Sickness absence increased, and persistent absence challenges were exacerbated: the persistent absence rate was 22.5%—approximately 1.6 million pupils—in the last academic year. This year, persistent absence has fallen from 25% in the autumn to 21.2% last term. This remains too high. Our priority is to reduce absence, and our strategy includes new, stronger expectations on schools, trusts and local authorities, and targeted support for them.
My Lords, in evidence to the Commons Select Committee inquiry on persistent absence, the Children’s Commissioner gave three reasons for it: special educational needs not being met in school; anxiety or mental health issues arising post Covid; and those who have simply not gone back to school. Given the long-term impact on children’s life chances and potential safeguarding concerns, can the Minister assure the House that the Government are treating this issue seriously?
I absolutely can reassure the House of that. I express my thanks to the Children’s Commissioner for her work in this area, particularly on children who are not on any school roll at all and are missing education entirely. The noble Baroness may be aware that we set up an attendance alliance, chaired by the Secretary of State, which meets monthly and is working with a number of experts in the field, sharing best practice with schools and other stakeholders to make sure that we get children back to school as quickly as possible.
My Lords, this has the potential to be a major safeguarding issue, which many professionals are concerned about. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to help schools work with local social services teams to ensure that we have identified who these children are, that their risk is assessed and that they are given the proper support that they need?
There is a safeguarding risk, but there is also a danger of conflating different groups of children. Of those who are persistently absent—those who miss 10% or more of sessions in school—the vast majority have authorised absence for sickness reasons. However, the right reverend Prelate is right that we need to focus on particularly vulnerable children; we have set out new guidance with expectations that local authorities should have termly targeted support meetings with schools to put together a plan for exactly the sort of pupil to which the right reverend Prelate refers.
My Lords, the Minister will agree that education is essential for every child, not just for academic study but for their emotional and social development. Does someone actually visit the homes of these children to ascertain why they are not in school and to remind their parents that there is a statutory duty entitling the child to a proper education?
The noble Lord is right that education is essential, for the reasons that he gave. Whether and by whom a child’s door might be knocked on will depend on whether they have a social worker, but best practice in these cases is clear and we see many schools and trusts doing it: knocking on the doors of children who are not in school and trying to do so as early as possible, before it becomes a persistent issue.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that a number of children’s charities are high- lighting that children and young people—often from disadvantaged backgrounds and less academically able—are saying that they do not want to go to school, and their parents are saying, “We’ll home educate you”. These children then claim to be home-educated but home education is not taking place, and because home educators do not have to register, we have no knowledge of whether a proper education is taking place, the quality of any education being provided or whether those children are being safeguarded. Is it not time that the Government brought in a quick Bill on home education?
As the noble Lord may agree, I am not sure that a home education Bill would be quick. More importantly, we support the rights of parents to educate their children at home and know that many parents are very committed and do a fantastic job. Equally, we cannot overlook the rising numbers of children being home educated. We remain committed to introducing statutory local authority registers of children not in school, but in the meantime we are working closely with local authorities on a voluntary basis to collect that data. I recently met the chair of the ADCS to discuss this exact point.
My Lords, guidance on school absence refers to multiagency and whole-family approaches but not to family hubs, which specialise in this for children aged nought to 19, not just the early years. They exist in more than half of English local authorities, but the Family Hubs Network—which I co-founded, as recorded in my entry in the register—finds many schools not engaging with them. Will the Minister commit to updating the guidance to refer specifically to family hubs so that they become the starting point for addressing anxiety and other underlying issues affecting our children?
I thank my noble friend for his work in this area and I agree with him that very often persistent absence will not be the only issue that is going on in a family; therefore, the nature of family hubs is ideal to address this. The department has commissioned a team of 10 expert attendance advisers who are working with every local authority and with multi-academy trusts to help address issues of persistent absence. As part of that support, those advisers strongly recommend and encourage engagement with family hubs.
My Lords, following the question from and answer to the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Secretary of State very helpfully replied to a letter signed by Peers all around the House saying that she would like to find the time to create a local authority register. When is that time going to be? Quite apart from home-educated children, where, as the Minister says, standards of education vary from good to non-existent, there are a large number of excluded children who make very good targets for recruitment into gangs and other criminal activities.
As I said, we would need primary legislation to bring in statutory registers; until a legislative opportunity is available, we will work very hard to make the voluntary registers work. There are very high rates of return from local authorities—over 90% of them are returning their data on a voluntary basis.
My Lords, I want to pursue the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Home education has been growing dramatically in this country and following on from the Ofsted processes in schools there is a growing concern that many children are not obtaining the level of education that they should have. Children who are home educated are under very few regulations, and it is necessary for something to be done, rather than leaving this in a nebulous state with local authorities.
I am sorry that my noble friend feels that it is in a nebulous state; I do not think the local authorities who are working on this would necessarily agree with him. I point him to my earlier answers in relation to the legislative timetable, and we are also keen to make sure that home-educating parents who are struggling receive support so that they can give their children a good education if that is the right thing for them.
My Lords, a whole-family approach to absenteeism needs co-ordination at the local and national government level, with family hubs becoming the go-to place where families can access wide-ranging support. Further to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Farmer, what can His Majesty’s Government do to shift the focus away from the education provider in the community, and towards these hubs as a place where parents of children of all ages can get the co-ordinated help they need for often complex issues such as persistent absenteeism?
I respectfully say to my noble friend that we do not want to steer families away from the education provider. The relationship between school and family is an extremely important one, which we need to reinforce and build up as much as possible. But it is clear that the family hub model provides the opportunity to join up different forms of attendance support to families, in partnership with the school.