Taking days off school can damage children’s mental health, parents told

The government is to invest in attendance hubs and mentors to encourage children back into school after a period in which pupil absences have increased

8th January 2024 about a 4 minute read
“Our mentors encourage children to talk openly about issues such as family finances, bullying, or mental health worries – anything they feel may be preventing them from going to school.” Lynn Perry, chief executive, Barnardo’s

Education secretary Gillian Keegan has announced that the government is to invest in more attendance hubs and attendance mentors to help schools tackle the problem with pupil absence over the next three years.

The aim of the hubs is to provide tailored support to families and pupils to encourage them to attend school. The government hopes they will reach more than one million children and young people.

There will be 18 new attendance hubs across six regions, bringing the total to 32. All in all, nearly 2,000 schools will be helped to tackle persistent absence.

Hubs are run by schools with excellent attendance that can share practical ideas with other schools in England who need help to boost their attendance. Hubs promote pupil engagement initiatives such as breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities, and advise schools on improving their processes and analysis of attendance data.

The government is arguing that occasional days off school can damage children’s mental health as well as their academic results.

One in five children persistently absent

Since the pandemic, absences from school have increased significantly, with some parents apparently not seeing the need for children to attend every day. In some schools, there are children who turn up for less than half the time. In the spring term of last year, one in five children were persistently absent, missing a day or more a fortnight, and 140,706 children were severely absent, meaning they missed half or more of their schooling.

There will also be a national marketing campaign to parents on the importance of attendance, under the slogan “Moments matter, attendance counts”.

The government said it wanted to target families who see nothing wrong with the occasional day off or who keep children home if they have a mild cold. It will run online, on social media and radio to try to persuade parents not to keep their children at home without good reason. A source told the Times the message was not aimed at those whose children were ill or had mental health issues.

The government is also increasing the direct support offered to children and their families by expanding its attendance mentor pilot programme.

With an investment of up to £15million, over three years, this programme will provide direct intensive support to more than 10,000 persistent and severely absent pupils and their families.

The programme will see trained attendance mentors working in 10 further areas from September 2024. Currently pilot programmes are being run, in conjunction with Barnardo’s, in in Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Knowsley, Salford, and Stoke on Trent.

Tackling attendance is a ‘number one priority’

Keegan said: “The benefits of our success in raising education standards can only be when all children are in school. Tackling attendance is my number one priority. We want all our children to have the best start in life because we know that attending school is vital to a child’s wellbeing, development, and attainment as well as impact future career success.”

Lynn Perry, chief executive of Barnardo’s, said that the charity’s attendance mentoring pilot scheme “shows that one of the best ways to improve attendance is working individually with children, building trust and listening to their concerns.” She added: “Our mentors encourage children to talk openly about issues such as family finances, bullying, or mental health worries – anything they feel may be preventing them from going to school.”

In Middlesbrough, Perry said, 82% of the children Barnardo’s had worked with improved their attendance through “one-on-one support from an attendance mentor, with almost two-thirds of the children saying their mental health also improved.”

In a separate development, Ofsted school inspections are to restart on 22 January after a break in which its staff received mental health training following the death of the headteacher Ruth Perry. Sir Martyn Oliver, the new chief inspector of Ofsted, had suspended inspections to allow for the training after Ofsted was strongly criticised for insensitivity and intimidation by a coroner investigating Perry’s death by suicide.

FCC Insight

The government is right to be concerned at the number of children who are regularly missing school – a number that has increased sharply since the pandemic. It is encouraging to see that it has adopted an approach of supporting parents to improve their children’s school attendance, rather than more punitive measures. Activities such as breakfast clubs and the provision of mentors for families are a positive way to persuade both parents and children to engage with school. It would be helpful, however, to delve deeper into the reasons for the increase in absences, so that measures can be put into place that will help return attendance to pre-pandemic levels.