Last week, the House of Commons’ Education Committee published a report on persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. There is growing concern about rising levels of pupil absence following the pandemic. During the academic year 2021/22, 22.5 per cent of pupils were ‘persistently absent’, meaning they missed 10 per cent or more of school sessions. This is around double the pre-pandemic rate. This growth in persistent absence levels is problematic for all children, but the Department for Education (DfE) attendance data highlights that children from lower-income households have lower attendance rates than their peers. Children eligible for free school meals are more than twice as likely as their peers to be persistently absent from school.
As we outlined in our submission to the inquiry, pupils and parents have told us that costs associated with going to school and stretched family finances are affecting children’s attendance. Parents have disclosed to school staff that they don’t have enough money to pay for public transport for their children to travel to school. Children have said that they arrive late on days social security benefits are paid as they have to wait until bus fare money is available. Some pupils are missing time at school on themed and non-uniform days because they don’t have suitable costumes or clothing, and do not want to stand out among their peers. Others have reported times they could not attend school because they only had one uniform and it was in the wash. From transport and uniform to fun days such as non-uniform fundraisers, going to school involves lots of unacknowledged costs. These put families under pressure and can act as a barrier to school attendance.
While costs vary from school to school, our research has shown that the cost of going to school in the UK is at least £864.87 a year, or £18.69 a week, for primary aged-children. For secondary school children, this rises to at least £1,755.97 a year. This is £39.01 a week. The very real and practical cost barriers experienced by pupils and families cannot and will not be solved by fining families. Fines just add to the financial hardship families face.
Steps to improve attendance of pupils experiencing poverty must both acknowledge and address the hidden costs of going to school and the level of hardship too many families are currently facing.
We therefore wholeheartedly welcome the committee’s recommendation that the DfE 'review[s] its framework for supporting low-income families in meeting the costs of school attendance'. We want all children and young people to be able to make the most of their time at school, and to take up all the opportunities and experiences that our school system offers. The foundation for this is ensuring that all young people are able to go to school, free from worry about costs.
Other welcome recommendations made by the committee include reviewing the free school meals eligibility criteria, ensuring that families are better signposted to places of support, and reviewing the take-up of support with school transport costs. All of these would help make our school system better equipped to support pupils from lower-income households.
But we cannot ignore the wider issue that many children are growing up in poverty and this is undeniably stealing pupils’ learning and their childhoods – with lower attendance being one aspect of this. To tackle the root cause of these issues and give all children the best chance at school, we must have a comprehensive plan to eradicate child poverty, with a cross-departmental approach, child poverty reduction targets and a long-term focus on increasing family incomes.