APPG — 6th December 2023
Experts with extensive research into pupil absenteeism assembled for the APPG for Parental Participation in Education, which is chaired by Gateshead MP Ian Mearns. A meeting took place in Westminster on 6th December 2023, with Parentkind’s Chief Executive Jason Elsom present and Parentkind’s Research Officer updating the group with survey findings.
Guest speakers comprised:
- Professor Becky Francis (Chief Executive, The Education Endowment Foundation [EEF])
- Ed Dorrell (Partner, Public First)
- Dr Markus Klein (Reader in Human Development and Education Policy, Director of Research, Strathclyde Institute of Education, University of Strathclyde)
- Kirsty Yates (Research Officer, Parentkind)
- Professor Becky Francis
The speaker presented the EEF’s evidence of an upward trend in pupil absenteeism from 2017 up to the current academic year. Absence rates are higher for pupils who qualify for free school meals (FSMs), showing that social disadvantage has always had an impact. As the Department for Education has made attendance a key area of focus and collected pupil data from schools, it has helped to identify what solutions might be effective in ensuring that as many children are attending school as possible. Perceptions of illness since the pandemic is one explanation for higher overall absence rates. Parents have taken the message that children with colds can spread sickness, and they are more likely to be able to work from home and accommodate looking after their sick child. Few studies have shown an impact for initiatives designed to increase attendance rates, but parental engagement was one area that showed promise. Targeted approaches were helpful, and there was a small but positive impact for communication interventions such as texting parents and engaging with them about the importance of attendance. Staff interactions with families about the reasons behind pupil absence with offers of wraparound support were considered a good approach to take. Parental participation improves pupil attainment across the board, and early intervention can be impactful, especially when reaching parents with children at primary level. A school-led strategy for parental engagement is strongly recommended.
Policy and research experts Public First ran focus groups across the country to talk to parents and children from different socio-economic backgrounds about the attendance crisis. Their aim was to understand why many more children than usual weren’t regularly attending school. They were worried by the findings. Covid and partial school closures caused a seismic shift in parental attitudes to school attendance. Parents said that after the pandemic, they took their child’s school attendance less seriously. They no longer believe that every day matters. They are also likelier to place greater value on family holidays and would take their children out of school during term-time if that made a trip more affordable. Policymakers should recognise the importance of holidays to family life, especially during the cost of living crisis. Changing the language in how absence is communicated to parents can help, because they all tend to believe that their child will catch up without issues. Reframing it to be less about catching up and more about needing to attend regularly to be part of a whole school community and a collective experience, which includes mental wellbeing, would be beneficial. Parental fines are not acting as a deterrent to term-time unauthorised absences, as parents talk openly of playing the system. Key recommendations were a review into and abolition of parental fines, support for families with a single point of contact, greater accuracy of school-level attendance monitoring and better-funded schools.
Introducing attendees to his University of Strathclyde research, he showed that England now has the highest overall absence rate since records began. Socio-economic differences in school attendance widened post-pandemic. More work is needed to understand and address the causes such differences in absence rates, but improving family finances and combating child poverty should be at the centre of efforts to reduce school absences. The research concluded that authorised absences such a sickness absence are just as damaging as unauthorised absences such as truancy. Additionally, persistent absence is harmful to all pupils, regardless of socio-economic background. Absence harms achievement by increasing problem and/or risky behaviour (such as substance abuse) and contributes to a lack of school motivation. One consequence is a detrimental impact on high stakes exams, leading to a socio-economic achievement gap. Data shows that absence rates in transition years (when children move from primary to secondary school) are especially harmful for their attainment and can have longer-term effects than purely school achievement. The key recommendation was raising parental awareness about the significance of regular school attendance on educational and labour market outcomes. Suggested interventions were providing more parental guidance and support at home, tutoring or specific classroom support for children returning after being absent, and greater focus on improving the underlying causes of children’s behaviour problems and lack of motivation. Increasing parental communication and engagement were suggested as more effective than punitive measures such as financial and legal penalties, since reasons for absences can be complex and depend upon unique family circumstances.
With schools in Wales facing similar attendance issues to those in England, Welsh Government commissioned Parentkind to research parents and carers in Wales. The results of an online survey focussed on parents who had children with attendance issues. It uncovered the causes of absenteeism, any support that has been offered and anything that might additionally help. The most common barrier to attendance was the child being regularly unwell. The child refusing to attend school or having unmet needs were other prominent reasons. In terms of support from school, the most common responses were: a different timetable, supportive teachers, wellbeing support, a wellbeing or quiet room, counselling and adaptions in class. However, the most common response parents gave was ‘none’. Primary school parents were likelier to be happy with the support offered than secondary. In terms of additional support, parents wanted to see more understanding of their particular circumstances, earlier diagnosis and intervention, listening to the concerns of the child and sending work home to enable more periods of remote learning.
During a group discussion, attendees agreed that there wasn’t a single solution to the issue of high absenteeism, but parents must be included in any discussions and as part of any interventions.