School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill

– in the House of Commons am 1:30 pm ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Second Reading

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Ceidwadwyr, Chelmsford 1:31, 2 Chwefror 2024

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

We should all be extraordinarily proud of our nation’s young people. Children in England rank 11th in the world for maths and 13th for reading. Back in 2010, when today’s school leavers were just starting out in reception, the same league tables placed the equivalent cohort of children 27th for maths and 25th for reading. I am also proud that every single one of the schools in my constituency is ranked good or outstanding, up from just two in three schools 14 years ago.

There has been phenomenal progress and we must not let it slip. That is why it is so concerning that the number of severely absent or persistently absent pupils is still dramatically higher than it was pre-pandemic. While the numbers have improved over the past year, we still have over a million children or young children persistently absent or worse. As well as being a place to socialise and make friends, school is key to giving young people access to skills and opportunities for their future. The surge in persistent and severe absences risks a profound impact on educational attainment and then on longer-term outcomes.

Research by the Children’s Commissioner found that three quarters of children who were rarely absent from school receive five good grades at GCSE, including the crucial English and maths, but when we look at those who were persistently absent—missing 10% or more of their school time—only one in three met that standard. For children who were severely absent, it is only one in 20.

A multi-academy trust that has a school in my constituency pointed out that even a small drop in attendance can have a profound impact. It looked at the relationship between attendance and GCSE results in one of its high-performing schools, and 82% of those who achieved 95% to 100% attendance got those five good GCSEs, including English and maths. When we look at the children who were there between 90% and 95% of the time, only 68% achieved that. Even those few missed sessions can make a huge difference.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

My right hon. Friend offers the House a most fascinating insight into the impact on performance of non-attendance for only a relatively short part of the school year. Is that widely recognised within the teacher community, particularly among headteachers, or is that something she is seeking to draw to their attention through this excellent Bill?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Ceidwadwyr, Chelmsford

I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. The Children’s Commissioner research has accurately pinpointed how these small differences in attendance can make a big difference in outcomes. Such research has been done more recently, since the pandemic. The schoolteachers I met recently were concerned about non-attendance. Clearly, when we move into severe absences, that is a big point.

The reasons for increased pupil absence are multiple and complex. Issues include support for those with special educational needs and disabilities, anxiety, and mental health issues. If a child’s SEND needs are unmet, that can lead to their missing out on education. Changes in attitudes towards minor ailments may be another driving force, as parents are now more likely to keep their children at home for minor illnesses such as coughs and colds than before the pandemic, but in most cases children are better off at school, including when they have minor ailments.

For the most vulnerable pupils, regular attendance is an important protective factor, so I was concerned to hear from an expert that attendance at the alternative provision setting that he covers has dropped below 60% for the first time. Research shows that regular absence from school can expose young people to harms such as being drawn into crime or serious violence.

I am really grateful to the Children’s Commissioner, who earlier this week brought together a roundtable of experts on the issue to discuss it in more depth. The group included heads of multi-academy trusts from across the country, representatives of local authorities, mental health experts, attendance experts and AP providers. Every single attendee stated their support for the Bill. They also spoke about what they have seen drive the increase in non-attendance. We heard that the economic situation has put pressures on household budgets and housing, which means that people sometimes get rehoused further away from schools. That has had an impact for some families, but is not the cause of poor attendance in the majority of cases.

Some commentators have noted that absence is higher among children on free school meals, but one MAT leader who has done a lot of research at school level suggested that may not be the case for all ethnic groups. His research compared cohorts of schools in which all schools had high levels of free school meals. The schools that also had a high proportion of pupils with English as a second language had a much better level of attendance than the school cohort that had a high proportion of white British students. That needs further investigation.

The head of a multi-academy trust with schools in my area as well as other areas explained that there had been an uptick in poor attendance by girls in years 8, 9 and 10. Other school leaders confirmed that they had seen a similar trend. They suggested that it may be linked to lower mental wellbeing and self-esteem. It is worth reading the 2023 girls’ attitudes survey by Girlguiding UK, which bears that out. Girlguiding UK’s excellent report shows that girls’ happiness is at the lowest level since it started the survey 15 years ago. The survey reported increased online bullying, online sexism and online harms among girls, as well as a large increase in the number of girls feeling ashamed of how they look. That shows why the work that the Government have done to tackle online harms is so vital, and why it is vital that Ofcom really does implement what is set out in the Online Safety Act 2023. Of course, there is more work to be done to address that.

A number of experts reflected that they felt that the contract between schools and families had been broken by the pandemic. A report by the Centre for Social Justice goes into that in some detail. I was interested that a local authority representative suggested that the breaking of that contract may have been further compounded by days off due to teacher strikes.

Some leaders suggested that there may be a link for some families between the increase in hybrid working and children missing school. As a mum, I can completely see that it may be more difficult for some parents to persuade a reluctant child to go out of the house and into school on days when one is working at home oneself. Interestingly, other countries have looked at hybrid modelling for schools post pandemic, but we need to remember that the vast majority of children are better off in school. We discussed the issue of fines, and I was told that in some cases parents asked for an education attendance order to be placed on them, as they believed it could help them to persuade a reluctant child to attend school.

In addressing the issue of school attendance, however, it is important that we do not simply lay the blame at the door of hard-working parents. Most parents want their children to do well, but many do not have the help that they need to support their children in fulfilling those aspirations. That is why securing good attendance requires a holistic approach that brings together schools, families, the local authority and other local partners. It is also why in 2022, following an in-depth consultation, the Department for Education published new guidance entitled “Working together to improve school attendance”. I have a copy here and, as you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is very lengthy; it runs to over 60 pages and is extremely detailed.

A great deal of emphasis in this guidance is placed on early help and multidisciplinary support. It requires every school to have a senior member of the school’s leadership team acting as attendance champion, and sets out how schools and other partners should work together. Last year the Education Committee undertook a detailed inquiry on attendance, and witnesses agreed that the guidance needs to be put on a statutory footing. That was also a major recommendation by the Committee. Making it mandatory for bodies to follow that best practice guidance is supported by the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice, as well as the Select Committee and many other experts.

The Bill will make that happen. It will not solve all the issues, but it will make the guidance statutory. It will ensure that all schools, trusts, local authorities and other relevant local partners follow the best practice guidance. It will introduce a new general duty on local authorities to exercise their functions, with a view to promoting regular attendance and reducing absence in their area. Clause 2 will require schools of all types to have and publicise a school attendance policy. Both clauses 1 and 2 will require all schools and local authorities to have regard to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State, which is to be achieved by inserting two new clauses into the Education Act 1996 under section 443.

The Department for Education has told me that it will publish a revised version of the guidance ahead of the provisions taking effect. The guidance will help to reduce unfairness in the amount of support available for families in different areas of the country and level up standards in areas with poorer attendance by requiring the provision of consistent access to support. Local authorities will need to provide all schools with a named point of contact for queries and advice. They will need to meet each school termly, use their services and levers to remove common causes of absence in their area, and work with agencies to provide support where it is needed in cases of persistent or severe absence.

Schools will be expected to have an attendance champion, to have robust day-to-day processes for recording, monitoring and following up on absences, to use their attendance data to prioritise the pupils and cohorts on which their efforts should be focused, and to work jointly with local authorities and other agencies where the causes of persistent and severe absence go beyond the school’s remit. A register of children who are out of school due to elective home education is not part of my Bill, but it is part of the Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill tabled before Christmas by my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond. That is a separate issue and another Bill is coming on that.

Finally, I thank many third parties, including the Centre for Social Justice for its research on the subject, and the Children’s Commissioner and her team for their recent advice. I am extremely grateful to all those who are experts in education, and who care so deeply for children, for their support for this Bill.

School attendance is key to our children’s future. This Bill will make following the guidance mandatory, so that every school, local authority and body will need to follow the best practice. It is a positive legal step that we can take to enable children to get the support they need and help them return to school. I hope all Members will support it, and I commend this Bill to the House.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 1:45, 2 Chwefror 2024

I rise to support this Bill and, in particular, to reference the continuing impact of the covid pandemic on pupils who remain at school. In talking to headteachers in the terms following the closure of schools during the pandemic, it was brought to my attention that compulsory absence from school has led to some very worrying behaviours.

A number of children have not returned to school as a direct consequence of the pandemic. Although they may be educated at home, they lack the ability to socialise with children, particularly when transitioning from primary school to secondary school, which sets the tone for them as they move into older cohorts. That then persists as they become teenagers and move into adult life. If they do not learn how to deal with people of different age groups, it has a profound impact not just on their education, but on their ability to socialise in later life. This is a particularly timely Bill to encourage school attendance, because there are still many children in secondary school—most have come through primary school by now—who have been so badly affected by the pandemic.

My right hon. Friend Vicky Ford mentioned organisations that have been helpful to her, and I would like to make another point in relation to mental health issues. In her preparation for this Bill, I believe that the Centre for Mental Health and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition were helpful in pointing out to her that absence from school impacts on children’s mental health. They have recommended that an absence code for mental health be introduced. We clearly welcome the progress being made with the roll-out of mental health support teams to many thousands of schools, and perhaps the Minister will touch on that in his remarks.

My final point is that the requirement in clause 2 for schools to publish their attendance policy will help significantly in improving performance, because it will give headteachers and class teachers the ability to point out the policy to parents before students select their secondary school, and to use it as a mechanism to explain to the parents of recalcitrant children that this is an absolute requirement of the school. A requirement to publish the policy and perhaps, in due course, the attendance figures will give schools a tool that they currently lack, so I support this Bill.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Ceidwadwyr, Stoke-on-Trent Central 1:48, 2 Chwefror 2024

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Vicky Ford on bringing forward this really important Bill. Being around teachers and friends in a school or college environment is the best way for pupils to learn and reach their potential. Time in school also keeps children safe and provides access to extracurricular activities and pastoral care.

The data that we have on school attendance includes children who are persistently absent—those who miss at least 10% of sessions, which is equivalent to about one afternoon every week. In spring 2023, that applied to 21% of all children, or an astonishing 1.5 million students. Children who are severely absent miss over 50% of lessons—they are absent more often than they are present—and in spring 2023, at least 140,000 children were severely absent. Compared with pre-pandemic school records, the number of children who are severely absent has increased by 133%.

Something has to happen: we have to have a child-centric approach where the child’s voice is heard, which will help improve attendance. I am glad to hear that the attendance mentors scheme has been expanded to include Stoke-on-Trent, providing one-to-one mentoring support to pupils over a three-year period. Such schemes to tackle the factors behind non-attendance, such as bullying, mental health issues or the feeling of just being too far behind make a significant difference, as does the tutoring aspect of that scheme. However, it only reaches at most 1% of severely absent pupils, which does not represent a serious response to this unfolding crisis in our education system. We must act now to return those children to the classroom. Every day that we wait is a day that pushes them farther away from the education they deserve.

In Stoke-on-Trent, we have the highest number of looked-after children of any local authority—children who may have lacked a family support network—as well as those who have to deal with difficult circumstances at home, such as caring responsibilities for a parent or sibling. All of those children need to be in full-time education and to be provided with extra support. Some excellent work is happening in Stoke to support children who may come from those challenging backgrounds: for instance, City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College has an area that provides warm clothes and coats to children, because no child should ever be too cold to be able to learn.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs, and have heard directly from young people why they sometimes feel that school is not relevant. They say that the curriculum does not meet their needs: it does not include important subjects such as financial and enterprise education, or practical skills such as preparing food and preparing them for the jobs of the future. Every day of education matters, and failure to keep children in the classroom is storing up untold problems for the future, so I absolutely endorse the effort that this Bill is making to strengthen local authorities’ powers, encouraging them to work with schools and instil a desire to bring every child that we can back into school.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Ceidwadwyr, Aylesbury 1:52, 2 Chwefror 2024

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Vicky Ford on introducing this Bill. Good levels of attendance at school are crucial to children’s education. It should go without saying that missing classes can cause serious consequences in later life, so it is imperative that we do all we can to get children who are regularly absent back in school. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the Bill is a simple but crucial piece of legislation that will combat the real concern about children being away from school by placing a general duty on local authorities to promote regular attendance. It should also help to ensure that schools play their part by requiring them to have a dedicated attendance policy.

I am very pleased that the Government are already committed to confronting absence, with the Education Secretary having said:

“Tackling attendance is my number one priority.”

In 2022, the Department published detailed guidance for schools, academies, independent schools and local authorities to improve school attendance. The Bill aims to make some of those recommendations statutory, and while the move to that statutory footing is generally welcome, I know that some local authorities are a little concerned about the cost implications of moving from an advisory footing to a statutory one. If the Minister could say anything in his remarks about support for those local authorities, I am sure it would be very welcome.

It should be recognised that ensuring attendance is a team effort. I was very pleased that in 2022, the Department for Education launched a consultation seeking views on measures to improve the consistency of support to families in England on school attendance. The consultation had respondents from that very wide joint team effort —school staff, academy trusts, parents, local authorities and other relevant organisations—and those responses were largely in favour of implementing the changes that the Bill aims to introduce, with 71% agreeing with the proposal that schools should be required to have an attendance policy.

I welcome the Government’s recent announcement that over the next three years, up to £15 million will be invested to expand the attendance mentor pilot programme, which provides direct incentives to support more than 10,000 persistent and severely absent pupils. That comes alongside the announcement that there will be 18 new attendance hubs, which will see nearly 2,000 schools benefit from advice on cutting down absences. That is a list of the good things that the Department is doing to tackle this problem, and the Bill would only add to that.

Although the additional funding and the expansion of the hubs is welcome, the support that is currently available to families and pupils can vary significantly depending on the school the child attends and which local authority area they live in, so I am pleased that the Bill intends to end such variability. By requiring local authorities to provide all schools with a named point of contact to provide support with queries and advice, it will reassure schools that they are not on their own, and by mandating local authorities to use their services to remove common causes of absence in their area, it will, I hope, help to combat any socioeconomic factors that may be leading to lower attendance.

Like most right hon. and hon. Members—including, dare I say it, you, Mr Deputy Speaker—I frequently visit schools in my constituency, and I am consistently impressed by the dedication and commitment of the teachers and all the other staff. I am especially proud to have in my constituency a university technical college, which provides education that goes well beyond traditional academic subjects and focuses on developing skills that will be directly relevant in the workplace. That underlines the range of superb educational provision that exists in Aylesbury.

I wish to highlight the brilliant Ofsted report received this week by Aylesbury High School, which was judged to be outstanding in each and every category. That is a tremendous achievement and I hope that the Minister and, indeed, the entire House will join me in congratulating the headteacher and everybody at Aylesbury High School on it.

During my visits to schools, I sadly hear too often about the challenges of ensuring attendance. Of course, the individual school—whether it is a high school, a UTC, a primary school or whatever type of educational setting—needs to implement policies to tackle that attendance challenge, so I am pleased that the Bill will require all schools to implement robust day-to-day processes for recording, monitoring and following up absences. Those data will help the school and the local authority to assess the best ways to tackle short and long-term absences.

It is, though, important that we do not overburden our schools. This is particularly the case for some of the smaller schools, which tend to be those for children of a younger age. I saw this at first hand during a visit to a primary school in my constituency towards the end of last year. Despite it having absolutely excellent facilities, superb teaching staff and happy children, one challenge was prominent in the minds of the staff, and that was attendance.

Despite the school’s considerable efforts at engagement with parents, there were some who simply refused to bring their children to school. Such was the desperation of staff that sometimes they felt they had no choice but to drive in their own cars, at their own expense, and pick up pupils themselves. That cannot be right, but they did it because they were nervous, and even scared, of the implications if they did not—if they could be construed not to have done absolutely everything possible to ensure attendance.

The staff were particularly concerned that it might result in the school’s being downgraded by Ofsted. I do not think that is what the Government or anybody else intend when they say they want to secure really good attendance. We must make sure that this legislation does not increase the likelihood of that added burden and pressure on school staff, who already have plenty to keep them occupied that is rather more legitimate in achieving the best possible education for the children in their schools.

Overall, I think the Bill has the potential to go a very long way in tackling pupils’ absence from school. It will further assist the Government’s long-term commitment to improving education and help to ensure that children get the most that they possibly can out of school. Let me repeat my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford on getting her Bill to this stage. I look forward to seeing it reach its next stages, both in this place and in the other place.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 1:58, 2 Chwefror 2024

I congratulate Vicky Ford. I agree with her that the current poor attendance rates constitute a crisis that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Indeed, last week Labour tabled an Opposition day motion containing a range of possible ways to address the problem, but unfortunately that long-term plan to deal with the school attendance crisis was voted down by Conservative Members.

Labour will support the Bill today, but, as the right hon. Lady herself acknowledged, it is a limited first step. Schools providing parents with their attendance policies will do little to encourage the one in four parents who, according to the Centre for Social Justice, do not view school as essential every day. Placing duties on local authorities to promote attendance will only shift the blame from a Government who have watched this situation spiral out of control to councils that have already been doing their best to deal with it. While any measures intended to deal with this problem are obviously welcome, this Bill will only scratch the surface. We need proper interventions to get children back in the classroom.

The figures are stark. Last year, under this Government, 21.2% of children were persistently absent from school. That is more than one in five, and it is double the figure just six years earlier. The number of children missing half their lessons has rocketed too. In my local authority, Newcastle City Council, it rose by 282% in just six years, and other areas have even higher numbers. How can we properly set up a child for the future if they are missing every other lesson in school?

All this is going on while the Secretary of State says that this is her “number one priority”. In the Labour party we firmly believe that every child matters, and to those children every day at school matters. That is why we have set out a long-term plan that looks at the issues causing persistent absence in the round. Because we see evidence that breakfast clubs have a positive impact on attendance as well as on children's learning and development, we are pledging to roll out free breakfast clubs to every primary school in England, which we will fund by ending the non-dom tax breaks for the mega-rich.

As the right hon. Lady mentioned, we see the mental health crisis unfolding among our young people, with children languishing on long waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services. We would recruit thousands of new staff to bring those lists down, and we would place specialist mental health professionals in schools so that children could access the support they need. We also see that there needs to be more accountability in the system so that problems like this are picked up earlier. Labour’s plan will involve annual school checks covering persistent absence, as well as off-rolling and child safeguarding.

We see that children are not engaging with a curriculum and assessment system that has been described to me as “joyless” and “narrow”, so we would launch an expert-led curriculum and assessment review looking at how to broaden our curriculum to prepare children for the future and give them an excellent foundation in reading, writing and maths, but without sacrificing the things that make school fun. We also see that children’s early speech and language development has suffered over the last few years, and getting it right at an early stage will lead to better engagement throughout their school lives. We would equip primary schools with funds to deliver evidence-based early language interventions. Finally, we would introduce a “children not in school” register to ensure that children who are not being taught in a school environment do not fall through the gaps.

I must ask those on the Government Front Bench, is this really the best that the Tories can do to tackle the attendance crisis? We face a lost generation missing from Britain’s schools, and yet we have heard so little of substance from the Government on how to resolve the problem.

We will support the Bill today because, if nothing else, it shines yet another spotlight on the lack of Government action to deal with the crisis in our schools, but we really must see more urgency from Ministers on how they intend to tackle this problem. Tinkering around the edges will not do. We need a proper, long-term plan, and if the Government will not deliver it—despite the right hon. Lady’s best efforts—the next Labour Government will.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education) 2:04, 2 Chwefror 2024

Let me first warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend Vicky Ford on her success in the ballot, and on using that success for this purpose. I am delighted that she has chosen school attendance as the subject of her Bill. It is a subject that I know is close to her heart, and one that she has championed with aplomb and with impact. She said towards the end of her remarks that attendance is the key to a child’s future, and I agree. We have often said that reading is the most fundamental thing in school, because if a child cannot read properly, they cannot access the curriculum and nothing else works, but attendance is even more important. Whatever our brilliant teachers are doing in schools, if the children are not there, they cannot benefit.

I thank my hon. Friends and the Opposition spokes-person, Catherine McKinnell, for their contributions. We all recognise the importance of regular attendance not only for children’s attainment, but for their wellbeing and development. There is evidence that some attitudes to absence have changed since the pandemic, with a somewhat greater propensity among some families to keep a child with a minor illness, such as a cough or a cold, at home, whereas prior to the pandemic they would have gone to school. It is worth saying that, before covid, great progress had been made on attendance since 2010, and we are committed to getting back to those levels. They will never be 100%, for obvious reasons—every child will be off school ill at some point, and sadly some children will need to be off for extended periods—but we need to get back to that pre-pandemic level of 95% or above.

I am pleased to confirm that the Government fully support this Bill from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. We are exploring all possible avenues to make our attendance guidance statutory, including the use of existing powers. That is important because we want every child to be able to achieve their potential, and attending school regularly is obviously crucial to that. As my right hon. Friend outlined, this Bill will improve the consistency of support available in all parts of England, first, by requiring schools of all types to have and to publicise a school attendance policy and, secondly, by introducing a new general duty on local authorities to seek to improve attendance and reduce absence in their areas.

The Bill will require schools and local authorities to have regard to statutory guidance. In practice, that will see us revising and reissuing our “Working together to improve school attendance” guidance. It is widely supported by schools, trusts and local authorities, and both the Education Committee and the Children’s Commissioner have already called for it to be made statutory. The guidance was introduced in September 2022 and has already started to make a difference. There were 380,000 fewer pupils persistently absent or not attending in 2022-23 than in 2021-22. Overall absence for the autumn term just gone was 6.8%, which is down from 7.5% in autumn 2022. To turn it the other way around, attendance in that term is up, year on year, from 92.5% to 93.2%.

However, while we of course welcome that improvement, there is still further to go to get to those pre-pandemic levels and better, and there are still parts of the country where families do not have access to the right support, as my hon. Friend Rob Butler rightly identified. It is important to legislate to end the postcode lottery so that any family can get the support they need, and doing so will give parents increased clarity and level up standards across schools and local authorities. That is also an important part of this Government’s emphasis on a “support first” approach, meaning that schools and local authorities work together to break down the barriers that can stop a pupil attending.

To support schools and local authorities in meeting those expectations, the Government already have a comprehensive attendance strategy, and this aspect of it is only one part of a much wider whole. We have deployed attendance advisers to support local authorities and a number of trusts. We have created a new data tool, with 88% of state-funded schools signed up. At the system leadership level, we have convened the attendance action alliance to work across sectors to remove barriers to attendance and reduce absence. We have launched 32 attendance hubs, to reach more than 1 million pupils. And we have expanded our attendance mentor pilot, as my hon. Friend Jo Gideon rightly mentioned, to reach 15 priority education investment areas.[This section has been corrected on 8 February 2024, column 5MC — read correction] (Correction)

Of course, much wider work is in place as well. More children are now eligible for free school meals as a result of the protections put in place on universal credit transition; £30 million has been spent on breakfast clubs and it is targeted at where it is most needed—where it can have the most effect. I say to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North that that does include secondary schools as well as primary schools. We also have in place the holiday activities and food programme. We are increasing the pupil premium in 2024-25 to £2.9 billion. Of course attendance is one of the great factors and important drivers in narrowing the gap between better-off and more disadvantaged pupils. We are expanding the Supporting Families programme over this spending review period, and addressing attendance at school where there is a problem is a fundamental part of that programme.

My right hon. Friend Philip Dunne mentioned the lasting effect, sadly, of the pandemic and the importance of socialisation, and he is absolutely right; we often think of the early years and the effect on the youngest children, but this is actually true throughout a child’s or young person’s development. He particularly mentioned the year 6 to year 7 transition point, which we know is pivotal in so many ways, and a lot of schools are doing some very good work there.

My right hon. Friend specifically asked about mental health and the possibility of an absence code. I understand his motivation and that of others in raising that point. Let me just say that a practicality question is involved. At the moment someone is taking the register, it is not always practical for them to be able to say that something is one particular type of health issue or another, and there is the risk that we would have inaccurate reporting and a misunderstanding of trends as a result. He also mentioned the wider work on mental health. He will know that we are putting forward a grant for every state school to be able to train a senior mental health lead. In addition, the really important wider work on mental health support teams, supporting clusters of schools, primary as well as secondary, continues to grow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned not only the mentors programme, but the importance of extra-curricular activity and pastoral care. That is really important and we need always to be saying that this is about not only learning and attainment, but everything else that comes with school. Of course, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury in congratulating Aylesbury High School. He was right also to ask about costs for local authorities and for us not to overburden schools. In advance of issuing our existing guidance on attendance, we carried out the comprehensive new burdens assessment, which found that the expectations could be implemented by local authorities without additional funding if they had the average number of staff working on attendance. We are confident that that assessment remains accurate, based on a growing body of evidence since that assessment was published. The evidence shows that where local authorities are delivering the guidance, staffing levels have remained within those predicted levels.

But my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury was also right to talk about ensuring that we do not overburden schools themselves. I join him in paying tribute to school leaders, schoolteachers and wider staff for the extraordinary work that we have heard is going on and what they are doing to get children into school. I absolutely agree with him that we need to ensure that we have a proportionate approach that supports the whole system—the schools, local authorities and so on—and works with people in our common endeavour to maximise the benefit that children get from their education. This Bill, if passed, will also update our existing guidance in advance of the new school year to reflect the latest best practice and feedback that we have gathered from the sector, and to make it as easy as possible for schools and local authorities to understand the actions they need to take.

In closing, I reiterate my thanks and appreciation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford for bringing this important Bill before the House today. Being in school has never been more valuable, with standards continuing to rise, and this Bill will help to ensure that every young person and their family, whatever their background and wherever they are in the country, can receive the support they need to do just that. I am sure we will hear more from her—and I look forward to that—as the Bill progresses through the House. I thank her again, and I urge hon. Members across the House to support the Bill.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Ceidwadwyr, Chelmsford 2:15, 2 Chwefror 2024

With the leave of the House, let me start by thanking everybody who has spoken today, especially those from the Back Benches—my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne and my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). They all care passionately for children and young people, and those who are educating them in their constituencies. They raised a number of very important points.

I would like to address the issue of mental health support teams. The various mental health charities that wrote to me, such as the Centre for Mental Health and the Centre of Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, do excellent work. They recommended the introduction of a mental health absence code. I listened closely to the Minister on this issue. It may not be as simple as one would like. In their letter to me, they welcomed the laudable—that is their word—progress made in rolling out mental health support teams to many thousands of schools. I know we would like more. They do a super job, and the difference that that initiative has made is amazing.

There is an important point about not putting extra burdens on schools and local authorities, and I thank the Minister for that. I thank, again, all the staff in the Department for Education and others who have helped with this Bill. I thank His Majesty’s Opposition for saying that they will support the Bill. However, we must not talk down our children. Our children are doing exceptional things and have had very difficult times. Our children are the best readers in the western world. They have leap-frogged past so many other countries in what they achieve in reading and writing. It has been exceptional what has been achieved in the 14 years that has been a child’s journey from reception to year 13. We must be so proud of them.

It is this Government who put in place those early reading improvements through the use of phonics, which gave children that basis, and who introduced those early years extra hours and are rolling that out even further. If His Majesty’s Opposition truly cared about attendance in school, they would have supported the Bill during their Opposition day, but they did not. This Bill was the No. 1 recommendation of the Education Committee and others. The Bill means that schools and local authorities will have to follow best practice; too many do not, and this Bill will make sure that they do. I would like to say a huge “Thank you.” Let us get this Bill through.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).