Jeremy Miles MS, Minister for Education and Welsh Language
Attendance rates have not recovered since Covid, and today’s publication of statistics on absence from Secondary Schools 2022/23 is a stark reminder of the continuing impact on our children and young people. There is emerging evidence to suggest this is a global concern. It is an issue we take very seriously and that we must address if we are to ensure that all children and young people in Wales get the most from their time in school.
A lot of hard work and effort by school staff and others has already gone into re-engaging and supporting learners following the pandemic, and continues to take place in all parts of Wales.
Our Renew and Reform plan outlined our commitment to supporting learners’ wellbeing and progression in response to the pandemic, putting learners’ physical and mental health and wellbeing at the heart of its approach and investing nearly £500 million in 2020-21 and 2021-22. The Education Policy Institute’s April 2023 report found that across these years, Wales provided the most funding per pupil in the UK to address pandemic impacts, at around £800 per pupil, more than double the investment in other parts of the UK.
In 2022-23, our additional funding included £3.5 million to support attendance in schools, with a particular focus on encouraging learners who have become disengaged from learning following the pandemic, or who were at risk of disengaging.
The Recruit, Recover and Raise Standards programme has recruited and retained over 1,800 full -time equivalent staff to boost capacity and capability to support learners, with schools given the flexibility to use the funding to address their particular challenges and needs. We know that greater engagement with families has been shown to have a positive impact on improving attendance. That is why we increased our investment for family engagement officers this year to over £6.5 million.
We also invested £2.5 million into the education welfare service this year, to provide much needed additional capacity. This will enable the service to provide earlier support, before issues escalate, as well as provide more intensive support to learners with high absence.
We recently consulted on engagement and attendance guidance, which has been developed to support maintained schools, pupil referral units, parents/carers and local authorities with improving learner engagement and attendance. This will be published in the coming weeks.
There are examples of excellent practice in our schools to improve attendance and engagement, including extensive family engagement, whole school approaches that place learner engagement and wellbeing at the heart of what school does; and schools working closely with local authority services to put in place specialist support.
But it’s clear, there is no one solution, one group or one sector that can address this issue.
I will therefore establish a National Attendance taskforce, to provide strategic direction, set priorities and identify further tangible actions to drive improvements in attendance and re-engage our learners. In doing this I want us to draw on and build on the examples already being seen in schools across Wales, sharing best practice, as well as national and international evidence about what works.
I will announce the membership of the taskforce when we publish the new engagement and attendance guidance to schools. In recognition of the multi-agency approach required, the membership will need to be representative of a range of leaders in education, health, social services, police, private sector and the community. And of course, I will want this group to draw on the input of parents and learners themselves. Understanding the issues children and families face, and which may be making them less willing to attend school or engage with education is critical. I will be writing to partners shortly, inviting them to be part of this new taskforce.
There are often complex and multiple factors lying behind non-attendance. These could include mental health and wellbeing, availability of specific learning support services, and the ever-rising cost of living and attitudes of parents and learners towards school attendance generally. As such a priority of the group will be to look in depth into the reasons behind non-attendance and bring to bear their expertise to identify actions that can bring about sustained improvements.
Earlier this year, we commissioned Parentkind to undertake research amongst parents and carers in Wales to understand more about the reasons for non-attendance, the support offered, and what help families would find useful. The report , published today, marks what will be the start of a national conversation with parents about the challenges they are facing and provides an all important opportunity for parents to participate in the development of solutions.
Only by working together can we address this issue and ensure that all children and young people are given the best possible start in life and are supported to reach their potential.