Attendance Hubs and mentoring support to tackle post-Covid pupil absence

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

An expansion of the Attendance Hubs and Attendance Mentors initiatives will target areas with high levels of pupil absence and comes after successful pilots last year.

However, schools while welcoming the decision, are pleading with ministers to invest in the specialist support services, including Education Welfare Officers and wider mental health support, that they say many pupils require to overcome their barriers to attendance.

The Department for Education (DfE) said on Thursday (May 18) that it would be designating schools to lead nine new Attendance Hubs. The Attendance Hub approach was piloted last year at North Shore Academy, part of the Northern Education Trust in the North East. It is hoped the new hubs will be able to support up to 600 schools to improve attendance by sharing effective practice and practical resources.

During the pilot, North Shore Academy improved its own pupil attendance rates to above national averages. The DfE says that a number of schools participating in the pilot hub also saw “significant improvements”.

The Attendance Mentors programme, meanwhile, is delivered by children’s charity Barnardo’s and its expansion will see trained mentors working with 1,665 persistently and severely absent children and their families across Knowsley, Doncaster, Stoke-on-Trent, and Salford. Persistently and severely absent pupils miss 10% or 50% of sessions (half-days) respectively.

The three-year mentoring programme was also piloted last year in Middlesborough and is focused on tackling the factors behind non-attendance, including bullying or mental health issues.

The new Attendance Hubs will start supporting other schools from June and mentors will begin working in the new areas from September.

The DfE says that findings from the expansion of the Attendance Hubs will “determine whether the approach has the potential to be rolled out to other areas across the country”.

DfE data shows that since September 2022, more than one in four pupils (22.3%) are considered persistently absent from school. This breaks down to 18% in primary schools, 27.3% at secondary level and 39.3% in special schools. Rates are slowly coming down, but pre-pandemic (in 2018/19), around one in nine children were persistently absent.

The overall school attendance rate this year, since September, stands at 92.4% – 93.9% in primaries and 90.7% in secondaries (DfE, 2023)

New attendance guidance (DfE, 2022) introduced last year is due to become statutory from September and includes a list of what attendance policies must include as well as a focus on identifying specific barriers to attendance and building strong relationships with pupils and families. It also includes plans for a new national attendance data dashboard to help schools target pupils vulnerable to poor attendance.

In its announcement this week, the DfE suggested that the Attendance Hubs could share practice such as automatic text messaging to parents where pupils do not attend school and using data effectively to identify children at risk of poor attendance and intervene early.

However, school leaders warned this week that without proper investment in specialist support services, some children will not overcome their barriers to attendance – many of which centre on mental health issues, school avoidance and other vulnerabilities.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said that their members were still reporting absence levels that are “significantly higher than they were pre-pandemic”.

She continued: “Expanding attendance hubs and mentors may be helpful, but this barely scratches the surface of this problem. We think that it is driven largely by a rising tide of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, which are exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis.

“The government needs to provide solutions that address the root causes of absence. As ever, this is likely to take investment in terms of staffing and specialist mental health support, and the government’s record on providing the necessary resources is sorely lacking.”

James Bowen, assistant general secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, said that Attendance Hubs are a “useful way to share best practice”. He added: “However, if the government is truly committed to tackling this issue, it needs to invest more widely in specialist teams which work directly with children and families at a local level. This is particularly true for pupils that miss the most school.

"The decimation of services like education welfare officers over the last decade means schools no longer have access to the support they need to address this problem head-on. If the government is serious about solving this issue it will need to match this ambition with the investment needed."

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