School absences: Boost sport to get pupils back in class

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By Nathan Standley

BBC News

More sport in school and investment in youth clubs are needed to tackle the number of children regularly missing class, according to a new report.

More than one in five children in England are persistently absent from school.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) report says some parents think children do not need to be in school full-time.

The Department for Education (DfE) says parents have a duty to ensure their child goes to school.

Before the Covid pandemic, far fewer students – just over one in 10 – were persistently absent.

Pupils are persistently absent if they miss 10% or more of their school days, which is roughly one or more days every fortnight over the school year.

In the 2022-23 academic year, DfE figures suggest 22.3% of pupils in England were persistently absent – 17.2% in primary schools and 28.3% in secondary schools – roughly double pre-pandemic levels.

The CSJ think tank’s report says multiple solutions are needed to tackle the attendance crisis, largely focussed around engagement with parents.

The report included a poll of 1,200 parents suggesting around one in four say the pandemic has shown it is not essential for children to attend school every day.

CSJ chief executive Andy Cook said the Covid lockdowns had broken the “contract of trust” between schools and parents.

“The consequences of so many kids missing so much school will only result in unfulfilled lives, fractured communities, and spiralling costs to the taxpayer for picking up the pieces,” he said.

The think tank’s report says physical activity is key to helping children engage with their education.

It calls for a “right to sport” to be introduced to ensure every child has access to at least five hours of extracurricular activities per week.

The CSJ’s recommendations also include mental health support being expanded to cover every school, and the rapid expansion of an existing government-funded mentoring project.

A pilot involving attendance mentors, who help families get children to school, is already being run in five areas, including Middlesbrough, Stoke-on-Trent and Knowsley.

Fines ‘not the answer’

The report also calls for a review into the effectiveness of fines and prosecutions for poor attendance.

Mr Cook said “treating parents as criminals” for not getting their children into school every day was “not the answer”.

Ofsted’s new chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver, said regular absence from classrooms negatively affects teachers as well as pupils.

“Teaching is a tremendously difficult job, and it’s even more difficult if you have a class of 30 and five are absent one day and five another day, that becomes really disruptive not just for that child’s learning but for all the children in that class,” he said.

A DfE spokesperson said regular attendance was “vital” for children’s education and pointed to the trained mentors already working with families of children who were persistently absent from school.

“We are also providing vital support for schools responsible for 400,000 pupils through our attendance hubs, and our Attendance Action Alliance is supporting delivery of practical support to schools to further increase school attendance,” they added.


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