Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Free breakfasts won’t solve the school truancy crisis

Rishi Sunak visits a school in north London (Credit: Getty images)

How do you solve a problem like truancy? Lockdowns and school closures may be a distant memory but far too many children are still not regularly attending school. One in five pupils is reported to be ‘persistently’ absent from the classroom, a figure which has barely budged since schools fully reopened in March 2021. It’s up from around one in 10 who persistently missed school before the Covid pandemic. What’s more, the attendance gap between poorer children and their better-off peers is widening.

New polling from the Centre for Social Justice suggests more than one in four parents think Covid has shown it is not essential for children to attend school every day. The think tank argues that the contract between parents and schools has been broken. It is hard to disagree. However, diagnosing a problem is one thing, solving it is quite another. This week both Labour and Conservatives have set out their plans to tackle absenteeism.

Without this focus on education, we are left with a bizarre push for attendance as an end in itself

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan kicked off by announcing 18 new ‘attendance hubs’ intended to ‘enable schools with strong attendance practice to share their approaches’ with similar schools. Sharing best practice seems like a good idea but quite why this requires new structures and branding is not made clear. The upshot is that 32 hub schools will now offer support to 2,000 others – although this equates to fewer than one in ten schools nationwide.

At the same time, a £15 million extension to a mentoring scheme for severely absent pupils has also been announced. According to Keegan, mentors will work with individual children and their families to tackle ‘the factors behind non-attendance, such as bullying or mental health issues, as well as that feeling of just being too far behind’. An advertising campaign has been designed to sit alongside both the hubs and the mentors. School gate pictures carry the strapline ‘moments matter, attendance counts’, some accompanied by a reminder to parents that it is okay to send their child to school with a sore throat or a snotty nose.

Call me a cynic but I am not entirely convinced that a bolshy 15-year-old, who has barely stepped foot in a classroom for the past three years, will ask mum’s permission to stay at home when he has a bit of a cold coming on. The crisis of school absenteeism demands more than adverts, hubs or mentors.

So, what are Labour’s plans? When it comes to rhetoric, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson at least seems aware of the scale of the problem. Referring to the ‘generational challenge’ facing the country, she has promised to reset the ‘broken relationship between schools and families’. But when it comes to concrete proposals, Labour’s plans are as lacking in ambition as the government’s. Phillipson has promised breakfast clubs and counsellors. These are no doubt nice to have but they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of schools.

Free breakfasts and more sport risks sounding like a weak attempt at bribery. McDonald’s and the local leisure centre no doubt offer better. Some children will need access to counsellors or speech and language support but a weekly therapy session is unlikely to get children up to speed on their maths. More to the point, there is a real risk that schools become an odd combination of food bank, doctor’s surgery and leisure centre. Amid the welfare and service provision, education is hard to find.

Prior to 2020, closing schools was never part of any pandemic response plans. The decision to shut classrooms to all but the most vulnerable children was taken with no apparent assessment of the educational consequences. Teaching was, in the main, reduced to a few worksheets or the odd online quiz. Exams were cancelled and grades given out seemingly at random. And when pupils finally returned to the classroom, there was little concerted effort to make up for what they had missed.

Yet neither Keegan nor Phillipson admit to this failure. As Ellie Lee and Jennie Bristow point out in their new book Parenting Culture Studies, post-lockdown, ‘the problem of the suspension of education has rarely been explicitly addressed.’

In marketing terms, education is a school’s unique selling point. It is not access to breakfast clubs, counsellors or sports that make going to school necessary but access to teachers with specialist subject knowledge they are keen to impart. School is the only place where children can learn things their parents do not know, things that are deemed so important they are worth passing from one generation to the next.

Without this focus on education, we are left with a bizarre push for attendance as an end in itself. Indeed, this is what seems to lie behind Labour’s plans for a national register of children not in mainstream schooling with AI roped in to spot trends in pupils’ absence. But teachers do not need a robot to tell them who is missing from school. Monitoring children with new technology might result in more visits from police or social workers but it is unlikely to instill a love of learning.

Until we can inspire children with a desire to learn and a sense of the importance of knowledge, truancy will remain a problem.

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