A more consistent approach to fines for parents whose children are absent from school is needed, alongside better support for pupils with mental health difficulties and those with special educational needs, a committee of MPs has said.
School absence rates which worsened during the pandemic have seen “no significant improvement” and are “of great concern”, the Education Committee said.
The cross-party group of MPs, which launched an inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils in January, said more than a fifth (22.5%) of pupils were persistently absent – around double the pre-pandemic rate.
Some 1.7% of all pupils were severely absent compared to less than 1% pre-pandemic while the overall absence rate has risen to 7.6%, up from around 4–5% before the pandemic.
A pupil is classified as a persistent absentee if they miss 10% or more of their schooling and as a severely persistent absentee if they miss 50% or more.
In its report published on Wednesday, the committee said: “Prior to the impact of the pandemic, absence and persistent absence had been gradually declining since 2010, but there is no sign of a return to this trajectory.
“Given the time that was lost to education during the pandemic, it is of great concern that absence rates have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and there has been no significant improvement in the speed and scale of rate reduction which is needed to prevent long-term harm to pupils.”
Among a series of recommendations to the Government, MPs called for a national framework for fines and prosecution but said that the Department for Education (DfE) “should instruct schools and local authorities to explore methods of support for pupils and families before the use of fines or prosecution, ensuring legal intervention is a last resort only”.
MPs said they had heard evidence that fines are used “inconsistently due to local authority discretion” and said they were “disappointed by the lack of urgency and action” from DfE to implement change as a result of its 2022 consultation on the use of legal interventions to tackle absences.
The committee warned that fines do not address barriers that low-income families face and can be counterproductive by adding to difficult financial circumstances, especially amid the cost-of-living crisis.
The DfE should review its framework for supporting low-income families in meeting the costs of school attendance, such as uniform and transport costs, and ensure support for low-income families is well signposted, the committee said.
It also repeated its call for a register of children not in school, to identify and support children who are not receiving a formal education.
MPs said this should be “fully operational for the 2024/25 academic year” and they therefore expect the Government “to include a suitable legislative vehicle in the next King’s Speech”.
The committee also noted “overwhelming evidence indicating a radical increase in mental health difficulties amongst school pupils since” the pandemic, and described the current capacity of mental health services as “grossly inadequate”.
The DfE must do more to improve help for pupils dealing with mental health issues, MPs said, calling for a review of current support available both within and outside schools to be completed by summer 2024.
The committee said the DfE should introduce a mental health absence code “and set clear thresholds for its use” and called for a public information campaign to guide parents on when children who are unwell should attend school – including highlighting that coughs and colds should not generally see children take time off.
Support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) must be improved, the committee said, while acknowledging that this group will have higher absences “for legitimate and unavoidable reasons” and therefore should not be directly compared with other cohorts of children.
MPs called on the DfE to “prioritise resource for inclusion and assessment in mainstream schools, to ensure they are adequately set up to support Send pupils and address the current level of unmet need, and therefore improve their attendance rate”.
They warned against the use of alternative provision settings as a long-term solution or to manage behaviour concerns, noting evidence that some Send pupils were being placed in these settings “without a proper understanding or assessment of their needs”.
They called for these alternative settings to be “only be a time-limited intervention with clear structures to ensure each pupil’s needs are being effectively supported”.
Education Committee chairman Robin Walker said: “Many in the sector are greatly concerned, even dismayed, that things aren’t returning to a greater degree of normality, and in the meantime children are missing out.
“What happened during the pandemic is a crucial part of the story of how we got here, and recent research suggests some worrying changes in parental attitudes as a result.”
He also flagged “sky-high waiting lists for children’s mental health services”, and some children with Send “not getting the right support quickly enough” as factors putting “incredible pressure on families and schools”.
He added: “We also need a consistent policy of issuing fines across the country, not a postcode lottery. The use of fines feels justified to discourage families from taking term-time holidays or where parents refuse to cooperate with reasonable requests, but offering support should nearly always come first.”
School leaders’ union NAHT said fines had “always been too blunt an instrument when it comes to tackling persistent absenteeism” and called for the “root causes” to be tackled.
The National Education Union welcomed the report’s overall recommendations but said “the scale of the challenge means that others fall short” as they called for additional funding and support for external specialist services working with schools to support Send students and pupils facing mental health issues.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said it supported the recommendation for a register of children who are educated at home, branding it “unfathomable that we still cannot be sure of keeping track of children who are not in school”.
A DfE spokesperson said the Government remains “focused on ensuring no child falls through the cracks”.
They added: “We recently announced an expansion to our attendance hubs and mentors programme and we are also working closely with schools, trusts, governing bodies and local authorities to identify pupils in need of additional support.
“A key part of this includes ensuring children get the right support with Send and mental health including through our Send and AP (alternative provision) Improvement Plan and by increasing number of Mental Health Support Teams.”