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Government rejects Labour bid to create register for children absent from school

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson (James Manning/PA)
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson (James Manning/PA)

Labour’s bid to legislate for a register of children absent from school has been rejected by the Government.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said it is a “national scandal” that so many children are not in school, adding that approximately one in five youngsters were “persistently absent” across the autumn and spring terms last year.

An Opposition motion sought to ensure the Commons considered their Children Not in School (National Register and Support) Bill on February 7.

The Bill would have established a mandatory duty on local authorities in England to maintain a register of eligible children not in school.

But MPs voted 303 to 189, majority 114, against the motion.

Ms Phillipson told the debate: “It is a national scandal that every day, every week, so many children are not in school. Absence from school is not simply a problem in itself, it is a symptom of deeper problems and a cause of further problems.”

Addressing the absence of children from school, she said: “This failure by the Government to address the most serious and urgent barrier to learning in our schools – that children are not there – it exemplifies a broader failing and tells a wider story.”

She added: “Across the autumn and spring terms last year, over 1.5 million children were persistently absent from school. That is roughly speaking one in five children – more than double the number who were absent during the same terms five years ago.

“If that rise goes on, then the number of children persistently absent will rise to more than two million in 2025/26. One in four children missing at least a day each fortnight. It’s a disaster.”

Education minister Damian Hinds said the Government had cut school absence between 2010 and the start of the pandemic, telling the Commons: “Attendance levels improved significantly with absence falling from 6% in 2010 to 4.8%, representing 15 million more days in school.

“And persistent absence, that was 16% in 2010, came down by almost a third by 2015 and stayed around that level up until the pandemic.”

He said increases in absence since the pandemic is something “many educations systems are dealing with”, adding: “That is true in jurisdictions far beyond these shores, it is also true in all of England, Scotland and Labour-run Wales, where, by the way, the increase in absence is from a considerably higher starting point to a considerably higher current point than in England.”

He said Labour’s motion contained a “conflation” between the issue of absence and home education, saying if Labour believes the two are the same then they have “failed to grasp this issue”.

“We do think it is important for local authorities to have a register,” he said, adding the Government has recently completed a consultation on the elective home education to inform new guidance.

The minister also highlighted Conservative MP Flick Drummond’s (Meon Valley) proposed Children Not In School (Register) Bill, and said the Government is looking forward to working with his Tory colleague on the Private Members’ Bill as she seeks for it to progress.

Conservative former minister Vicky Ford said Labour should look at the proposals being moved via the Private Members’ Bill’s process, as she highlighted her move to place attendance guidance for schools on a statutory footing.

Steve Double, Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay, welcomed assurances from the Government that it supports the right of parents to home educate their children and said many do so for positive reasons.

But Mr Double added: “Regrettably many parents now find themselves having to home educate their children, not because that’s what they believe is right for their children but because they feel forced into that situation because they can’t find the right school environment and support available for their children, who may have particular challenges – whether that is autism or perhaps a mental health condition.”

Mr Double said attendance targets are driving the issue, blaming the “overbearing and heavy-handed approach that many schools are taking”.