Education leaders around the country are grappling with the issue of attendance – or rather non-attendance.

Our multi-academy trust comprises nine schools, offering mainstream, special and alternative provision. Significant numbers of our pupils have special educational needs (SEN), autism spectrum disorder and social, emotional and mental health issues, with difficult previous experiences of education. Mental health issues, including anxiety (of both pupils and their families) are rising exponentially, fuelled by the pandemic and the rising cost of living.

More than half our pupils are also eligible for pupil premium funding; and as high as 89 per cent at one of our schools. This reflects the level of poverty and social challenges our communities are facing.

Set in this context, the many barriers to attendance become clearer. Parental attitudes to days off and taking holidays in term time have also changed dramatically since the pandemic, but the problems are deeper.

Pupils referred to our alternative and special provisions often have a history of persistent non-attendance. This is always a symptom of other, often underlying, problems which must be identified in order be tackled.

If children aren’t coming to school, our teams contact parents/carers and make home visits. We work with families and with other agencies – including social care, youth offending, sexual health, policing, school nursing and mental health services – to find out where the problems lie and how they can be tackled.

There are so many reasons why children stop attending school. These range from anxiety and mental health issues, right through to being physically unable to get there due to financial difficulties or having to care for family members.

Our outreach team, which works across all the mainstream schools in two London boroughs, is also seeing increased cases of school refusal, with parents themselves struggling to get their children back into a classroom. There are also young people who attend school but won’t engage in lessons.

This is a complex landscape and multi-layered issue – one which cannot be understated and requires targeted support.

The Department for Education’s Attendance Hubs are one response to the issue, which focus on sharing best practice between schools. This includes building relationships with families, understanding reasons for absence and using data to identify at-risk pupils and intervening early.

These are useful and effective practical measures, but more is needed to tackle the root of this huge problem.

There is no doubt that good attendance is directly proportional to achievement, and that attending school every day is by far the best thing. However, participation in learning is key and this may not mean sitting at a desk in a classroom – so we need to re-consider how we view and define attendance.

Our schools work hard to come up with creative solutions to get pupils engaged in learning. This might mean focusing on a limited number of subjects on reduced hours; supporting home/online learning; and finding ways to help them return to the classroom by building up slowly at a pace they can manage.

Working in partnership with parents is also crucial. Imposing sanctions and fines for non-attendance can break down these relationships.

Non-attendance is becoming a pandemic in itself, which is too big an issue for schools themselves to deal with. A collective approach must be taken, with more investment in mental health services and SEN resources.

We need to bridge gaps and help our children and young people access education in different ways where it becomes necessary. If we don’t do this, we risk losing a generation of pupils, which simply cannot be left to happen.

Story first appeared in Children and Young People Now Magazine (and online) Thursday, October 19, 2023

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