Anne Longfield writes to Education Secretary Gillian Keegan about the impact of school absence

Dear Gillian

I am writing to share the many concerns that have been raised by children, families, and
professionals with the Commission on Young Lives about the impact of the continued high levels of
school absence on children's education, mental health and, for some, vulnerability to harm and
exploitation by criminal gangs.

Despite this problem becoming apparent over a year ago, I am concerned that there has been little
progress in tackling it. As you are aware, levels of both persistent and severe absence from school
have remained high since the pandemic. Schools and local authorities are often working hard to
improve attendance, but the reasons a child is not attending school regularly can be complex and
require the kind of bespoke long-term work and specialist support that few have the capacity to

Recently, I was contacted by a parent whose fifteen-year-old had previously been a sporty child, but
who had not attended school on any consistent basis for three years. She told me how his
confidence and motivation had dropped to such a low level that he was unable to go to school, see
friends or to take part in sports. The family were lucky enough to be receiving some help from the
school but this meant he was getting just one hour a week with a youth worker to plan and support
a route back to the classroom. Whilst the hour session was welcome, the parent knew it would take
many months, if ever, to see her son return to full time education.

I know you will share my concern that these long periods out of school are a disaster for children and
that for those with wider vulnerabilities it can be catastrophic. All the evidence shows that absence from
school is more prevalent for children who are in receipt of free schools meals, for those with SEND
and for those with mental health conditions. Many of these problems were there before Covid but
have been amplified and accelerated by the pandemic. As a result, we have a highly vulnerable
cohort of children who face increased risks if they are not given the support they need.

I am particularly worried about the children and young people who are being targeted and exploited
by criminal gangs. School leaders and the police have told the Commission on Young Lives there has
been an increase in the frequency and extreme nature of the violent incidents and attacks involving
young people over the last two years. Hardly a week passes now without new incidents of serious
violence involving children. The recent increase in suspensions points to a significant rise in
disruptive behaviour in classrooms, particularly from children who are unable to regulate their
behaviour, follow rules, or deal with change.

Sadly, over the last two years, I have heard countless examples of the dangers that children not
attending school can face from those who seek to exploit or abuse them. The ruthless business
models of those who groom young people into county lines and other criminal activities are
targeting ever younger children. Recent shocking cases involving 13- and 14-year-olds involved in
fatal violence is a signal that many of the systems that should be protecting vulnerable children are

I am concerned that school absence is becoming an entrenched problem that will see thousands of
children disengaging from school and never returning unless they are provided with proper long-term support and opportunities. This in turn leads to diminished life chances and in the worst cases
serious harm.

The frustration is that we know what works - trusted relationships with youth workers, opening
schools up for sports and arts, mental health and therapeutic support and support for families. Yet
none of these pillars of support can happen without government intervention. I urge you to support
the development and delivery of targeted work with pupils in all schools experiencing poor
attendance and to introduce a more ambitious attendance recovery programme. Failure to act now
will simply store up bigger - and more expensive - problems for the future.

I would be very pleased to discuss this with you and the Commission's proposals for supporting
vulnerable children and protecting them from harm in more detail.

Best wishes

Anne Longfield, CBE
Chair, Commission on Young Live

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