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Tackling absence requires high standards and a warm heart

Solving the persistent absence that has become endemic in our schools requires buy-in from parents and students. This can only realistically be achieved if, in the first instance, those two groups recognise what school is for.

The overall aim of our education system is for our students to leave with rock-solid academic credentials and as a well-rounded person ready to contribute to our country. And if we expect to develop young people with high standards and a warm heart, we must model those very characteristics.

However, we cannot provide world-class education without first ensuring children are in the classroom. Tackling the attendance crisis therefore must start with the heart. So how do we actually do this?

We start with our mission statement: every child can achieve great outcomes. This is the core and driving principle that courses through the veins of Liberal Democrat education policy. Building from that mission statement stems a series of practical measures to alleviate the problem in the short term, with a long-term view of designing out the problem in its entirety.

On day one, the first policy we want to bring in is a statutory register of those not in school for any number of reasons, be it home schooling to long-term medical illness. By doing this, we can improve the accuracy of the figures around school attendance, helping those who need additional support and ensuring parents work with schools to achieve consistently high attendance.

Following this, the Department for Education, LAs and MATs will be in a much better position to ascertain the scale of the problem we are facing. However, we already know that the core facts speak to persistent absence being high among two groups: students in receipt of free school meal and those with mental ill health. There is a further issue with lack of specialist provision for students with SEND.

This is a vicious cycle that the education sector can break

In turn, these groups are disproportionately impacted by poorer outcomes, leading to longer-term issues with poverty and mental ill health – a vicious cycle that the education sector can break.

Therefore, the next step we must take is to improve the eligibility and funding for free school meals. We know that the real-terms funding for FSM has been cut as inflation bites. This means the quality of food declines. As a result, the students who are eligible for FSM are getting a worse deal, year in year out. The Liberal Democrats would therefore expand eligibility for FSM to all people with parents or carers in receipt of Universal Credit and ensure that FSM funding rises at least in line with inflation.

While tackling FSM funding is important, it cannot be done in isolation. The second huge barrier to school attendance is mental ill health. The Liberal Democrats have long called for a qualified mental health practitioner in every school. Building capacity for in-house help will free up capacity in CAMHS and allow more children to flourish in an environment where they are better supported.

Beyond just looking at the causes that keep our young people away from school, we must look at how school budget squeezes have forced an unnecessarily narrow focus on core subjects. Going back to our mission statement, we know every child can achieve great outcomes. We know this because institutions like Challney High School for Girls, the Harris Federation and STAR Academies make this seem normal every time results come out.

So we would not seek to dilute the fantastic academic offer the knowledge-rich curriculum has brought us. Rather, we would seek to enhance it with a clear funding agreement that allowed schools to make great academics the core of their offer and give them the financial headroom for a wide ranging extra-curricular offer. We believe this would act as a draw for students who are reluctant to attend school.

It’s time for a government that recognises the real challenges families face and is willing to square up to them. With a warm heart, we can ensure more of our young people benefit from our schools’ commendably high standards.

We asked the Liberal Democrats how their plans will be funded. They say they will put forward a fully-costed manifesto in due course, which will be independently verified by the IfS.

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