Shropshire Star

Labour will legislate for national register of children not in school

A Labour government will make parents, the DfE, councils, Ofsted and trade unions ‘partners in the push for better’, Bridget Phillipson will say.

Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg

A Labour government will introduce a national register of children who are not in school in a bid to tackle high rates of persistent absence, the shadow education secretary will say.

Bridget Phillipson will set out the party’s proposals to keep track of the children not in classrooms and bring down persistent non-attendance.

In a speech to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in London on Tuesday, Ms Phillipson will announce Labour’s plans to legislate for a new register of children in home education.

She will say artificial intelligence (AI) will also be used by Labour to spot absence trends to improve coordination between education, social care and the wider services that support families.

More than a fifth (21.2%) of pupils in England were “persistently absent” across the autumn and spring terms 2022/23, which means they missed 10% or more school sessions.

This is more than double those who were persistently absent during the same period in 2018/19 (10.5%), according to Department for Education (DfE) data.

Labour has predicted that the number of children persistently absent from school could rise to more than one in four in 2025/26 unless action is taken.

Ms Phillipson, MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, will pledge to rebuild the “broken relationship” of trust between schools, families and government.

Addressing an audience at the CSJ, the shadow education secretary will describe a new era of shared responsibility for driving school improvement if Labour wins the next general election.

A Labour government will make parents, the DfE, local authorities, Ofsted and trade unions “partners in the push for better”, Ms Phillipson will say.

On Monday, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said tackling attendance was her “priority” as the DfE launched a national drive to tackle persistent absence.

It came after a poll conducted for the CSJ think tank suggested that almost three in 10 (28%) parents believe it is not essential for children to attend school every day.

Additional mental health counsellors in every secondary school, mental health hubs in every community and universal free breakfast clubs for every primary school pupil in England are among Labour’s proposals to deliver “high and rising standards” in education.

The party said it plans to empower Ofsted to review absence as part of its annual safeguarding review, which was announced in March last year, and it will equip schools with funding to deliver evidence-based early interventions to boost speech and language development among young children.

In the keynote speech in Westminster in London, Ms Phillipson is due to say: “The difference a Labour government will bring is clear: as in 1964, as in 1997, a party that puts children first, a government that makes education its priority.

“A country where education is about excellence for everyone, where schools deliver high and rising standards for all our children.

“The vision Labour has for education is at once simple, and powerful. That for each of us, and for all of us, background must be no barrier to opportunity. That the future is something we shape together, not face alone. That our best days are not long gone, but yet to come.”

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Education Secretary Gillian Keegan told MPs that a register was a priority in December 2022 but legislation has yet to be put forward (James Manning/PA)

Proposals to legislate for a new national register of children not in school were once part of the Government’s now-scrapped Schools Bill.

In December 2022, Ms Keegan told MPs on the Education Select Committee that a register for children not in school would remain a priority for the Government, but legislation to create a register has yet to be put forward.

Wendy Charles-Warner, chair of home education charity Education Otherwise, said: “Yet again we see an inappropriate and frankly mangled conflation of home education and absenteeism.

“Home education is of equal legal status to school education and it is certainly not ‘non-attendance’. Home educated children are in full-time education, they are not school pupils let alone absent school pupils.

“A register of home-educated children will make no difference whatsoever to school absenteeism and, before proposing such a significant step, the Labour party should educate itself to the very basic facts of the matter.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Labour is right to prioritise tackling this issue. There is no doubt that data on attendance remains a real concern and too many pupils are still not attending school on a regular or frequent enough basis.

“Over the last decade, a combination of austerity and neglect has led to the disappearance of many of the crucial local attendance services that schools used to rely on. It is also clear that growing levels of poverty have exacerbated the issue.

“Should Labour win the next election, then this really should be a high priority.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Current absence rates are alarming with twice as many children persistently absent compared to the rate from before the pandemic. If children are not in school, they cannot learn. It is as simple as that.

“The reasons for persistent absence are varied and complex. Labour’s plans for early language interventions, increased mental health support and universal free breakfast clubs are welcome.

“We would also like to see greater investment in the wider infrastructure of family and children’s support services that have been eroded over the past 14 years. Schools cannot fight this battle on their own.”

The DfE has announced an additional 18 “attendance hubs” in England, which are run by schools with strong attendance records who share their expertise with schools that need help.

A national communications campaign on the importance of attendance for attainment, wellbeing and development has also been launched to target parents and carers.

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