2 February 2024
Dunne backs Bill to tackle persistent school absenteeism

Philip Dunne raises concerns at the long-term impact of persistent school absence on a child’s ability to socialise, and backs a Bill which will introduce a new general duty on local authorities to exercise their functions with a view to promoting regular attendance and reducing absence of registered pupils, and also require schools to have and publicise a school attendance policy.

Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)

I rise to support this Bill and, in particular, to reference the continuing impact of the covid pandemic on pupils who remain at school. In talking to headteachers in the terms following the closure of schools during the pandemic, it was brought to my attention that compulsory absence from school has led to some very worrying behaviours.

A number of children have not returned to school as a direct consequence of the pandemic. Although they may be educated at home, they lack the ability to socialise with children, particularly when transitioning from primary school to secondary school, which sets the tone for them as they move into older cohorts. That then persists as they become teenagers and move into adult life. If they do not learn how to deal with people of different age groups, it has a profound impact not just on their education, but on their ability to socialise in later life. This is a particularly timely Bill to encourage school attendance, because there are still many children in secondary school—most have come through primary school by now—who have been so badly affected by the pandemic.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) mentioned organisations that have been helpful to her, and I would like to make another point in relation to mental health issues. In her preparation for this Bill, I believe that the Centre for Mental Health and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition were helpful in pointing out to her that absence from school impacts on children’s mental health. They have recommended that an absence code for mental health be introduced. We clearly welcome the progress being made with the roll-out of mental health support teams to many thousands of schools, and perhaps the Minister will touch on that in his remarks.

My final point is that the requirement in clause 2 for schools to publish their attendance policy will help significantly in improving performance, because it will give headteachers and class teachers the ability to point out the policy to parents before students select their secondary school, and to use it as a mechanism to explain to the parents of recalcitrant children that this is an absolute requirement of the school. A requirement to publish the policy and perhaps, in due course, the attendance figures will give schools a tool that they currently lack, so I support this Bill.

The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) mentioned the lasting effect, sadly, of the pandemic and the importance of socialisation, and he is absolutely right; we often think of the early years and the effect on the youngest children, but this is actually true throughout a child’s or young person’s development. He particularly mentioned the year 6 to year 7 transition point, which we know is pivotal in so many ways, and a lot of schools are doing some very good work there.

My right hon. Friend specifically asked about mental health and the possibility of an absence code. I understand his motivation and that of others in raising that point. Let me just say that a practicality question is involved. At the moment someone is taking the register, it is not always practical for them to be able to say that something is one particular type of health issue or another, and there is the risk that we would have inaccurate reporting and a misunderstanding of trends as a result. He also mentioned the wider work on mental health. He will know that we are putting forward a grant for every state school to be able to train a senior mental health lead. In addition, the really important wider work on mental health support teams, supporting clusters of schools, primary as well as secondary, continues to grow.


Earlier intervention in the same debate

Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)

My right hon. Friend offers the House a most fascinating insight into the impact on performance of non-attendance for only a relatively short part of the school year. Is that widely recognised within the teacher community, particularly among headteachers, or is that something she is seeking to draw to their attention through this excellent Bill?

Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. The Children’s Commissioner research has accurately pinpointed how these small differences in attendance can make a big difference in outcomes.