Government should support schools to check in on persistently absent children
When terrible things happen it is natural to despair. That is how I and millions of people across the country have felt reading about, listening to and seeing the shocking, unforgivable treatment of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. There are no words I can use that don’t repeat what someone else has already said. So, instead, I have chosen to focus on some from the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel De Souza, who said – “we must take decisive action now.”
Because that is how despair can turn into anger, into resolve, into hope. We must do more, be better, go further, to prevent this from happening again.
I will not second guess the results of the new inquiry rightly set up to look into this appalling case. But it is undoubtedly fair to say that the Covid-19 pandemic is directly relevant – it has made the job of safeguarding children and young people significantly harder. Normal, in-person interactions with children in schools, extra-curricular clubs, doctors surgeries and even shops and restaurants ceased overnight. The opportunities for an inquisitive stranger to wonder ‘if everything is ok’ became fewer and further between.
I was still working in the Department for Education (DfE) when we took the decision during lockdown to keep schools open for thousands of vulnerable children and, despite it being made by people far more senior and in the loop than me, I still feel a real sense of pride that we did that. And I am equally proud of the actions schools took up and down the country to make that happen – when the rest of us were at home, staff came into school at the height of a pandemic to make sure vulnerable children were safe. They visited children to check they were OK. They sent food parcels to families most in need. They are real-life heroes.
My worry is what has happened since. A Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) report estimated that more than 93,000 children were mostly absent from school between September and December last year. This represents more than a 50% increase on the period a year previously. On top of the much publicised issue this creates around ‘learning loss’, Arthur’s tragic death should remind us that, much more fundamentally, the risk here is a safeguarding one. If a child is at school less than half the time, what are they doing with the rest of it? And this is not just about jumping to conclusions about their parents, but also asking if they are vulnerable to other harms such as online grooming or county lines gangs.
That is why, as they did during the pandemic, it is vital that schools keep up the focus on these children. I know that the vast majority are already doing this – including visiting vulnerable children in person if they do not get a satisfactory response. But, with the help of local authorities and other agencies, this must be made universal. We cannot let a single child fall through the net. After all, if we break down that 93,000 figure, it amounts to roughly five children per school.
At the same time, many schools are asking if this is sustainable, and what support they receive to allow them to expand their role in such a way. The appointment of five new attendance advisers is clearly not going to be enough.
I am not arguing that schools try to do more with their already tight budgets. I believe that the DfE should announce, before Christmas, a package of support for schools so that they can visit every single persistently absent child in person and check up on them. They already provide many schools with top-up funding for staff absences, so this should not be difficult in practical terms.
Looking more long term, in 2022 the DfE is set to publish the findings of reviews into Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, and Children’s Social Care, as well as a Schools White Paper. It must take this unique opportunity to articulate a clear vision for how local authorities, other agencies and schools should work together to safeguard vulnerable children and make sure they are in school. The pandemic laid bare the confusion around roles and responsibilities and the often fractured relationships between central and local government. That must end now.
If local authorities are going to be relieved of most of their remaining responsibilities for educating children, so be it. But there must be complete clarity about who does what in relation to keeping those children safe. Anything less will mean more despair and tragedy in the future.
Ed Reza Schwitzer is an Associate Director at Public First and former Head of Children’s Social Care Strategy at the Department for Education
 This would not include children who are electively home-schooled, formally excluded, or otherwise not on the school roll