Schools in more parts of the North East will soon benefit from extra help to combat the problem of pupil absences, under a new government initiative announced this week.
The region has the highest absence rate for state-funded schools in England overall, the highest for both primary and secondary schools and the second highest after the East Midlands for special schools, according to figures from the Department for Education (DfE).
Middlesbrough – with the highest rate of absence for secondary schools in the region and the second highest nationally, and one of the highest for primary schools – is already one of five council areas to benefit from attendance hubs funded by the government.
The borough is currently part of a pilot programme, along with Doncaster, Knowsley, Salford and Stoke, working with Barnardo’s. Now the DfE is investing £15mn over three years in more than doubling the programme. There will be 18 new hubs across six regions, bringing the total to 32. From September trained attendance mentors will work in ten more areas.
Among schools to get new attendance hubs will be Bede Catholic Academy, Stockton, and Ashington Academy, Northumberland. According to the DFE the hubs aim to provide a range of tailored support to families and pupils to boost time in school.
The DfE said:
“Hubs are run by schools with excellent attendance that share practical ideas with other primary, secondary, alternative provision and special schools in England who need help to boost their attendance.
“From direct pupil engagement initiatives like breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities, to improving their processes and analysis of attendance data, lead hub schools provide a range of support to schools that they can tailor to their pupils and families. The government is also increasing the direct support offered to children and their families with the expansion of the attendance mentor pilot programme…
“The programme provides intensive one-to-one support to pupils who are persistently absent, working with them and their families to find out why the child is skipping school. This can lead to extra support, more intensive work with teachers or in some cases bridge-building between school and family.”
Middlesbrough had the second highest absence rate for secondary schools last term of 10.7%, following Knowsley with 10.9%. Other North East areas with over 10% were Gateshead, Newcastle, and Sunderland.
South Tyneside and Knowsley had the joint highest absence rate nationally of 6.1% for primary schools and Newcastle had the fourth highest for special schools of 17.8%, behind Rochdale, Newham, and Portsmouth.
According to the latest School Absence Tracker published by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), the North East has the second worst record for “severe” absenteeism, with a rate of 2.32%, ahead of only Yorkshire & the Humber with 2.37%.
The CSJ defines severe absence as missing 50% or more of possible sessions – equivalent to missing every morning of school or more. They are absent more often than they are present. The severely absent are a sub-group of the persistently absent who miss 10% or more of sessions – equivalent to one afternoon a week.
Councillor Adam Ellison, lead member for children and families’ social care at South Tyneside Council, said:
“It would be good to have one [attendance hub] closer to the borough. There is a lot of good practice across our schools and our local authority attendance and early help teams work with schools and other professionals to unpick the barriers to attendance to help to support improvements. We are aware, however, that autumn term attendance was adversely affected by respiratory illnesses, winter viruses and some outbreaks of chicken pox.”
A spokesperson for Middlesbrough Council said:
“With regard to attendance hubs, the council’s view is that sharing best practice is always beneficial and is something we would encourage.”
According to the CSJ, chaired by Tory MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith:
“More than two years since the CSJ first identified the post-COVID spike in school absence, government is yet to grasp the nettle.
“While ministers have begun to get a grip of persistent absence, which appears to have turned a corner, the latest data shows that severe absence has returned to the record highs seen in Summer 2022, with 140,700 ‘ghost children’ missing at least 50% of their school time.
“Every day of school matters and the failure to return these children to the classroom is storing up untold problems for the future. Children who routinely miss school typically do worse in their GCSEs and are over-represented among those not in education, employment, or training as young adults.
“CSJ analysis also shows that children with a history of persistent absence are around three times more likely than their peers to go on to commit a crime within two years of leaving school. Disadvantaged children continue to be over-represented among those missing school, with children in receipt of free school meals three times more likely to be severely absent than their classmates. Poorer pupils were already 18 months behind their more affluent peer’s pre-pandemic – an attainment gap compounded by the post-pandemic attendance crisis.
“New data shows that the attainment gap is now wider than at any point since 2011. While, therefore, progress on persistent absence is very welcome, ministers must not lose sight of the social and economic repercussions of allowing current levels of severe absence to entrench. Abandoning these children will send a shockwave through society.”
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said:
“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 well-being, development, and attainment as well as impact future career success.”
Rob Tarn, Chief Executive of Northern Education Trust, which runs schools in the North East and other parts of the North of England, said:
“We are delighted that the hard work around attendance at North Shore Academy has led to significant impact for our students and their outcomes.
“The fact that this work was recognised as a best practice model meant we felt compelled to share what we are doing with other schools and academies in similar contexts and help where we could. This was, in essence, the beginning of the attendance hub programme. Seeing this work extended, with more hubs supporting more schools, is a source of great pride for the trust.”
Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said a Labour government would tackle the causes of school absence by measures including free breakfast clubs in every primary school and creating a register of children not in school. The measures would be funded by ending tax breaks for private schools and the global super-rich.
In a separate announcement, the DfE said that eight areas across North East are to share in £300m to enhance Start for Life services providing one-stop-shop family hubs. The hubs centralise a range of vital services in one location and act as a venue where trained staff provide practical help including early language and communication development, mental health support for parents and carers, and programmes for improving children’s home development, said the Department.
Support ranges from breast feeding and early language skills to family finances for families with children aged 0-19, or 0-25 for those with special educational needs.
The eight North East districts benefiting, which are among 75 across England, are Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Gateshead, County Durham, Hartlepool, Northumberland, Redcar & Cleveland, and South Tyneside.
The government is launching a “Start for Life” campaign called Little Moments Together providing free resources and advice to help parents make the most of every moment – even waiting for a bus or shopping together – to further their child’s development.
Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan said:
“Family hubs act as one-stop-shops and provide a universal offer to parents and families to provide them with extra support when they need it.
“This support is on hand for parents and carers from conception through to those teenage years. I’ve seen first-hand how important it is that families are able to build confidence and aren’t made to jump through hoops, explaining their situation to professionals over and over. That’s why through family hubs, along with our reforms to childcare and children’s social care, we’re making sure that the right support is available for families in the way that works best for them.”
According to the DfE, new findings have revealed that 86% of parents in North East are unaware that their child’s brain is 90% grown by the age of five, shedding light on a critical gap in parents’ understanding of the impact they can have in these crucial early years.
Councillor Ellison of South Tyneside said:
“Family hubs are all about providing valuable and welcoming services for the whole family, from the beginning of pregnancy and throughout the child’s early life and beyond.
“Parenthood brings all sorts of challenges but by offering the right support at the right time we aim to help families build their confidence and skills to become knowledgeable and resilient units.
“The hubs [are] an expansion on what has been offered in the past from children’s centres and I’m confident this investment in families will pay dividends in terms of enhanced educational attainment, well-being and life chances. We want every child to have the best start in life and these hubs are about making sure families can access the right support at the right time.”