Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg

Children, Young People and Education Committee


Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Buffy Williams
Heledd Fychan Yn dirprwyo ar ran Sioned Williams
Substitute for Sioned Williams
Jayne Bryant Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Ken Skates
Laura Anne Jones

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Eithne Hughes Cyfarwyddwr, Cymdeithas Arweinwyr Ysgolion a Cholegau Cymru
Director, Association of School and College Leaders Cymru
Jane Houston Cynghorydd Polisi, Swyddfa Comisiynydd Plant Cymru
Policy Adviser, Office of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales
Laura Doel Cyfarwyddwr, Cymdeithas Genedlaethol y Prifathrawon Cymru
Director, National Association of Headteachers Cymru
Rocio Cifuentes Comisiynydd Plant Cymru
Childrens' Commissioner for Wales

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Jennifer Cottle Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Michael Dauncey Ymchwilydd
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Rosemary Hill Ymchwilydd
Sarah Bartlett Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Siân Hughes Ymchwilydd
Tom Lewis-White Ail Glerc
Second Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod am 10:45.

The committee met by video-conference.

The public part of meeting began at 10:45. 

2. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
2. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Croeso i gyfarfod y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg heddiw.

Welcome to this meeting of the Children, Young People, and Education Committee.

I'd like to welcome Members to the meeting of the Children, Young People, and Education Committee. The public items of this meeting are being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference. A Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual and simultaneous translation is available. We've received apologies from Sioned Williams, and Heledd Fychan is substituting. And we've also received apologies from James Evans. Are there any declarations of interest from Members? I see no declarations of interest.

3. Absenoldeb disgyblion—sesiwn dystiolaeth 2
3. Pupil absence—evidence session 2

We'll move on to item 3 on our agenda, which is pupil absence, evidence session 2. I'd like to welcome our witnesses here with us today. We've got Laura Doel, who's the director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, and Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders, ASCL Cymru. It's really nice to see you both here today, and thank you for joining us. We've got a number of questions from Members, and we'll start with some questions from Ken Skates. Ken.

Diolch, Chair. Thanks for attending today. Perhaps I'll direct this first of all to Laura—a very simple question: what do you believe are the main reasons for the increase in general and persistent pupil absence?

Thank you very much, Ken, and, first of all, thanks to the committee for inviting NAHT to give evidence today. We're very pleased to be asked back to give further evidence on this really important topic for us and our members. NAHT has recently carried out a survey of our membership to gather some evidence to assist the committee with this inquiry. Obviously, anecdotally, we speak to our Members regularly about reasons for absence, and a great deal of those concerns relate to well-being related absence reasons. Results of our survey show that nearly half of respondents said that learner absence was due to illness; 35 per cent of respondents said there were mental health concerns of long-term pupil absence; 24 per cent of respondents said anxiety about coming back into school because of coronavirus was an issue; 13 per cent said pupils had become used to not coming back into school, which is of great concern; and 7 per cent said that the impact of family bereavement and family members who have a higher risk of contracting coronavirus, and therefore the anxiety related to that, was an issue and a reason why they were finding their learners not coming back into school.

Yes. I think, just to supplement some of what Laura's said there, the reasons that I've had from members are very similar: mental health issues exacerbated through the pandemic; loneliness and a sense of isolation, resulting in relationships not being formed with peers or teachers, and that then sometimes will make reintegration back into the school system very difficult and quite complex, even though schools have worked incredibly hard to try and sustain those relationships and continue with those connections. I think habits have been learned through the course of the pandemic for some of those learners who are persistently absent that are very difficult for schools to actually accommodate, and those learners who may already have had patterns of poor attendance may have had significant problems and be further away from solutions than they currently are—so, those with a predisposition, if you like, to poor attendance, that will have been further exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.

I think there are issues—. Parents have had a very difficult time of it as well, and I think what we can't do in any of this is finger point towards one particular group taking responsibility for this. However, I think, on occasion, parental support for learners attending school just needs to be ramped up a little bit. So, I think that is also very important. 

I think within the student body as well, those habits have been formed on occasion that basically has learners feeling that attendance isn't important, that, if they're feeling a little bit ragged or fractured on a day, they've got a slight headache or whatever, they can go home and just learn from home. But nothing replaces that face-to-face learning, and I think that is absolutely critical. They need to be in school; it is a statutory requirement, after all.

I would say two years, sometimes, of a lack of routine and structure would be a further issue, and it's very difficult then to get back into those routines and re-establish those structures, however hard the whole system is working within that.

The mental health issues, I think, are also significant, which Laura's pointed to, and that's been brought through by both the children's commissioner, who looked at levels of loneliness in some of the older age groups, where we're seeing very poor attendance from some of those older kids who've got a sense of loneliness and isolation. That's further supported by Cardiff University's study on the mental health of young people before, during and after the pandemic, where results showed that the percentage of children who reported elevated emotional difficulties rose from 17 per cent in 2019 to 27 per cent in 2021. So, these are complex, difficult issues that don't have one straightforward solution. If that was the case, I think we'd be able to fix this pretty quickly.


Thanks. Just on that specific point that you were making about habits having changed, who should take responsibility? Who should own this and address this challenge, and, with it, who should be in charge of the messaging insofar as the acceptance of absence is concerned, or the relative acceptance, compared to pre-COVID times?

I think, as in pre-COVID times, this is a partnership between schools, between parents, between the social services, local authorities and Government. There isn't, as I say, one fix with one body that can actually accommodate all of the complexity around re-establishing those routines and patterns. It's going to take a real, concerted, combined partnership effort to make sure that we're getting these kids back into school again. It would be great just to say, 'It's this', but it isn't one thing or one body.

But should there be leadership from somebody or an organisation? I'm just conscious if nobody takes ownership of this and leads on it then passing the buck becomes so much easier, or ignoring the problem.

Yes, I agree with you on that, but the leadership has to be a policy term; however, the implementation has to be a partnership.

Great, excellent. Thank you. To what extent do you think that some learners have found positive benefits from remote or home learning, and is that influencing their decision to stay away from school, or is it primarily a negative experience that is contributing to persistent absence?

Sorry. I don't think we can say categorically that there has been no benefit from remote learning, because I think schools worked incredibly hard to make sure that they offered as much as of a consistent education to learners when they were away from school. As we've both already mentioned, there is no replacement for being in school with your peers, with those teachers in front of you, and I think we need to make sure that the messaging around that is absolutely clear. There is very clear evidence that the best place for learners is in the classroom. That's not just about educational attainment, but also for their mental health and social well-being. I think what we need to be clear about is that the statutory obligation is that those children are back in school in the classroom, and what we don't want to be is a victim of our own success in certain circumstances where schools have been very good at offering that at-home provision and support for learners, and so therefore people think that is now an expectation. It has been a huge strain on the education workforce to be able to do that; it's something that they have bent over backwards to do. But it was a last resort. It was because there was no other option. It's not a sustainable way of teaching and learning. It's something that has been used previously in emergency circumstances. So, say, for example, if a child has a long-term illness but obviously still wants to engage in education, then it's been used for that benefit. But we need to make sure that the messaging from all quarters on this is that the best place for our learners is back in the classroom.


So, would you say there should be no expectation on schools to provide any form of blended learning for students, pupils, learners who request it?

I think you can't have an opt-in and an opt-out education system for school. School is where you should be; in the classroom is where you should be. That's not to say that in certain circumstances—and I would say that those circumstances would have to be extreme—that support wouldn't be offered for learners at home, but there should not be, in our opinion, an option to be able to do that. Like I said, it's not a sustainable mode of education. We know it's not the best way to support our learners.

Okay, thank you. Those, if you like, extraordinary cases, would they concern probably grave mental health issues, I guess?

What I would say is that school leaders are not experts in mental health, and I think we would need to have that partnership working, as Eithne has already mentioned, to make sure that those children are diagnosed and supported with whatever means necessary to help them, but it should not necessarily be the sole responsibility of schools to make that decision. And if that was going to be the case, we need to look at what provision would be available from the school, because, as I've said, it cannot be an additional responsibility that is an option for everyone. 

Thank you. Just a couple more questions, Chair, if I may. Do either of you have a view or any sort of experience of noticing how the cost of attending school may have contributed to the increasing levels of absence, in particular school transport costs, where parents have to pay for school meals? Even for working parents, it can be incredibly expensive, especially if you have two or three children. Is this contributing to it, do you think?

I think, anecdotally, that is the case—we don't have any harder evidence than that, but, anecdotally, I think that would be a contributing factor. But I think it goes deeper than that as well. I think what we described at the beginning about anxiety, about loneliness, about relationships I think is more at the heart of the problem and I think the economic problem that we are currently facing, that the country is currently facing, is proving to be another hurdle in this particular very knotty problem.

But, if I could pick up on what Laura said about remote teaching as well and whether that's been a good thing or a bad thing, I totally agree that children need to be in school in order that they can really form those strong relationships with their peers, those strong relationships with their teachers, that there are social, economic and cognitive connections that have been made equally, and you can't do that with a screen. You cannot do that effectively—. Now, for some kids, that will have worked very, very well, where their remote learning will actually—. They'll have flown as a result of being independent. But that isn't the case for that 20 per cent of learners who will have found the whole thing an absolute struggle, and it may be that that's pushed them further away. Michael Fullan's research in Canada has demonstrated that the 20 per cent of learners who were disengaged are actually disengaged and disappeared. So, it's trying to get those back into the system again that I think we absolutely have to focus on with a relentless gaze. 

Yes, in relation to the economic impact and whether or not that is a contributory factor to absenteeism, yes, I would agree that it is certainly again anecdotally evidenced, from our members, that they are seeing parents that are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. They are struggling to buy school uniform; they are struggling with school transport costs. And while I would agree with Eithne that it's not the sole reason and that anxiety and well-being concerns are the top reasons, this is certainly a contributory factor, I believe. 


Great, thank you. Just one final question. It's about the correlation between absence and social factors and so forth. We've heard evidence from numerous experts that suggest there is a very strong correlation between children experiencing deprivation and then experiencing persistent absence. Are there other groups that are experiencing higher levels of absence and, in particular, persistent absence from schools? And how is it affecting them? And I'm thinking particularly disabled learners, young carers and minority ethnic groups. Who'd like to take that first?

I'm happy to come in on that, if that's okay.

I think if both of you come in, that's fine. Go on, Laura, start—you could start.

Okay. So, in the survey that I mentioned earlier, which we carried out with our membership, 60 per cent of respondents said that children that were eligible for free school meals were the highest priority of continued absenteeism. There was no significant mention of any other groups of learners, such as disabled, or any other groups, from our evidence.

Yes, we've certainly got anecdotal evidence that some of those groups are attending less well than they did previously. But I think one of the things that would be useful—and it's not a criticism, because we can see things very well in hindsight, and put pieces together that we didn't spot before—is that, when we get the statistical outturn from Welsh Government, we actually have it broken down by group, so that we can see some of the particulars, because data is only as useful in terms of how you can actually use it next. We've got some global figures that are within StatsWales data—they're trying to push it out every week, so I get that time is of the essence—but those global numbers are not really good for us to actually get in under the skin of why it is that attendance is so poor.

What the groupings are like is also a significant issue. So, we can see those eligible for free school meals and those who aren't eligible, and we can see that Fridays are a particular issue, because the gap widens between those two groups most Fridays—that's a pattern that is quite easily spotted in the data—but 'why' is the issue that the data could do with picking up on, and really trying to inform all of us as to who it is we need to focus our attention on. Now, I know that Meilyr Rowlands's report is very useful with that regard, but when we're looking at the data analysis week in, week out, just having one global coding, which is illness, doesn't really help us understand where these kids are.

Thank you, Chair. Welcome, both of you. We've already touched on it before, but, firstly, I think there's, obviously—. I'm going to talk about the impact of pupil absenteeism. There's a massive difference—obviously, we just talked about it in our break-off groups before you came in—of those pupils missing because of holidays and what parents deem once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and experiences, to those who are severe, missing a lot of school, the highest absenteeism. So, what do you think the short-term and long-term impacts of absenteeism, high absenteeism, are on those learners, for example in terms of mental health and well-being, as we've already touched on, and learning, their attainment and their future prospects? Thank you.

The effects, I think, are fairly obvious in that we can move into a position where we have increased criminality, we have got economic inactivity. I've had members tell me about learners who are now caught up in county-lines groups. We've got issues of all sorts of social unrest and so forth, and local criminality. I have members tell me that police liaison officers and the police are actually at their door after a weekend or after a—. We've got kids who are not in attendance. Those make things very difficult, but I think the focus on that is evident and obvious, and it is easily seen.

The worry that we have is where you have learners who are just quietly sitting behind a door in a house or in a room. We can't see them, they're not creating those problems that are evident, yet there are deep-seated, pronounced mental health issues that may come as a consequence of that loneliness, which we don't always pick up. Now, I know it sounds apocryphal, it sounds quite extreme, but kids need school, and communities need those schools, as we saw during the course of the pandemic, and they glue a lot of communities, in order that we can actually pick up problems, see them, spot them and then try our best to try and put these things back together again. If these kids are not seen in the system, there is a real worry that we've got some very evident problems, but those that are ticking along in the background, we can't even get at.


Do you think that, as you just said, being slow to pick up on what's going on and to get that support into the families that need it is part of the problem, and why the impact will be greater, in a lot of ways, and it could have been stemmed a little bit by maybe having things like attendance support officers back in the schools? Do you think that would make any difference, so they could deal with the top section of the people who are missing school, and leave the major problems to the EWOs to sort out—the education welfare officers? Do you think they'll be able to pick up cases a lot quicker and deal with them a lot quicker before they get out of control? Do you think that would help?

Yes, I think we do need to be looking at early intervention rather than waiting for it to be too late. Again, I think that's a fairly obvious problem, an obvious point. I think resources are an issue. Clearly, they're going to be an issue with local authorities, and schools cannot do it on their own. They simply can't fix this without having an army of people who are well-resourced and well-trained to knock on doors and get kids back in. I know Welsh Government has done quite a lot of work towards this, but if these kids do not get back into school quickly, then they could be facing 30 years of economic inactivity. Now, that's not good for anyone, and we do need to get resources absolutely front and foremost within all of this. What's more important than getting kids back into school, as educationalists?

Thank you. I'll just bring Laura Doel in, because I think you wanted to come in on this.

Thanks, Jayne, and apologies, it's always complicated when there are two Lauras on a Teams call. [Laughter.] I just wanted to come in and pick up very quickly on the points that Eithne's just raised, and absolutely agree that, for our members, it's those hidden children, it's those children that, as Eithne quite rightly put, are the ones that are not visible in the community, are not causing problems and that are then picked up by other services. It's those children that are suffering quite severe anxiety, depression and loneliness, even at a primary-school age, as much as at secondary, that are the deepest concern.

Just to pick up on Laura's second question around what could be done to help, absolutely schools need those additional resources to help get those learners back into school. I think we need to remember that schools' primary focus is teaching and learning. That absolutely has to be where they concentrate their efforts. When it comes to supporting learners, they need help to be able to do that. Now, we've seen significant funding cuts to the support services offered to schools, and that's something that NAHT has called on for additional funding over the years, because it's things like this that schools cannot take on on their own. We need to make sure that there are those trained professionals available to support those learners and families, to get those children and young people back into school. We've had cases where schools employ pastoral support officers out of their own budgets, because they recognise it's a problem, they recognise they need professional help and support, and they're having to fund that themselves. That should not be the case. It should be the case that all schools have enough money to be able to offer that support regardless of whichever local authority they're in, or whatever their budget happens to be for that particular year. It cannot be that we have a postcode-lottery system of support just because of school funding.


Thank you. I'd love to ask you more on it, but I just noticed that we're going to ask you—another MS will ask you—more about this later.

You've both said quite clearly there are social benefits, as we all know, and as a parent I know, to being in school, and how important that is not just for education, but all the other benefits that it brings. So, what do you understand to be the reasons for the increasing numbers of learners being deregistered or being home educated? Obviously, the pandemic's going to have some effect, but I'm just wondering about your thoughts on that, please. Eithne.

I think Meilyr Rowlands has unpicked some of that in his report, and we would hope we'll be able to get further under the skin of some of the causes for pupil deregistration and so forth. He talks, in the report, about increased learner anxiety, about a lack of resilience and confidence in attending schools, and these are issues that will, of course, have learners, who may already have been fragile, being pushed into even more fragility as a consequence of this dreadful period of time that hopefully we're coming through. So, that, I think, is the cause of it, and I think Meilyr Rowlands puts that very clearly in his report.

How to overcome it I think is the greater question, if you like, which hopefully we're working towards, through the debate of this. We need resources, we need people, it needs to not be dependent upon how many attendance support workers or attendance officers you've got at your disposal in the school, how many school counsellors that you have. Because, again, it's very difficult for schools to actually have access to school counsellors where you need a kid to talk to somebody immediately about an issue, but you haven't got somebody who is a trained counsellor to do that very high-skilled job. So, those are significant issues in the system, and unless the system is there to support those learners, those levels of anxiety are not going to reduce. And you think of it as a kid yourself in school—thinking back quite some time ago now—when you consider what it must be like to walk back into an environment of 800, 1,200 other children there, and you haven't been to school for a while, resilience may well just have been knocked to the point where you think, 'I just need to just turn and go back again; I can't do this. It's hard.' So, we need to put scaffolding in for these learners to gently get them back over the threshold again, feeling less anxious about being in school, so that we can reconnect with them.

Just only to add, because I was going to quote Meilyr's report, just to add to that, where Eithne talks about the scaffolding of bringing those learners back in, I think she's absolutely right. There is clear evidence from our own membership that where there has been that support in those schools where they have had that level of support, where they have had support from their local authorities, that is working. So, we know that this is a route to supporting learners and getting them back into school, but it is crucial that we have that investment and support structure around schools to enable them to do that. Schools cannot be left to do this alone. And I know there has been some discussion about upskilling the education workforce when it comes to counselling and support for learners—absolutely, of course schools know that they have a vital role to play in this—but we can't kid ourselves that a teacher that has half an hour's training in counselling is going to do the job of a highly skilled trained professional. That is an additional responsibility on their teaching and learning. And while they will be able to offer that support while in the school, we cannot short-change our learners by not making sure they have the experts there to support them.

Yes, 100 per cent. In some areas, the numbers have gone up to—about a third more are being home educated now, so that's quite an increase. And we just heard that people are starting to drip back into the education system, and there's some great examples of good practice in terms of making a halfway house for children to go to; a smaller scale school to then go back into the school. But it seems very sporadic over Wales and the different authorities, which is something to look at. Do you believe that home-educating families receive enough support from authorities? Are you concerned about those numbers, considering that, yes, you'll have a cohort who have always wanted to be home educated and will do, but there are some people there that perhaps are not getting the quality of education they deserve and their needs met? 


To answer the second part of your question, yes, we are concerned about the numbers, given that, as we've already said, we know that the best place to educate and support learners is in school. It's not really our place to say, I suppose, whether or not those people that are choosing to educate their children at home get the support that they need, because I suppose that's a question for local authorities. All we can say is that the standard of education, the quality of support that they receive from the education workforce across Wales, we would say, is second to none, and that it's more than just the educational support, it's that peer-to-peer support, that social integration that is so vital for children's development.

Thank you. Sorry, I think I was fighting with the mute button there. Thank you so much, both. You've been very clear in terms of stating that more support is needed, so I just wondered if you'd be able to articulate what you think the Welsh Government role should be in supporting schools on this important issue.

I think we've already described quite fully that it's about extra funding, but it's not just the money, it's actually training more engagement officers, because the engagement officers who are already appointed are making a difference, and that's really welcome. But I think we can't throw too much money at this and too much resource at this, as we've already described. There needs to be further funding as well for those further support workers, because it is not just about getting the kids over the threshold, it's about what happens when the kids are there, such as the school counselling service and so forth. That is also vitally important.

If I was to also ask, and you would probably expect me to say this anyway, what can Welsh Government do in order to support schools apart from resource and funding, the Welsh Government needs to recognise that schools are currently swimming upstream against a tide of continued disruption. We haven't settled back in again, hence this committee's evidence gathering. We haven't got back to a sense of normality at the moment, and I would be really grateful if Welsh Government would recognise that in not continually piling more reforms into the system where schools have got this to do, that to do and the other to do. We need to get these kids back into schools and focus on getting them, their social, their emotional and their cognitive well-being back up and running without all of these other distractions that we have to the system.

The other thing I would like to see is that we have a consistent bar to trigger intervention, and that bar isn't just local authority to local authority deciding it's 90 per cent, it's 85 per cent, it's 80 per cent, it's whatever, but that you have got a consistent message across the country in terms of those interventions. What is it that a kid does in terms of a lack of attendance that means that there will be some intervention there? I think we need to make sure that the intervention comes earlier rather than waiting for it to be too late, because behaviours can actually become entrenched at a point where those patterns are established, and we need to just not allow that to happen. Their patterns need to be about being in school. So, I think that is significantly important.

I also think we do need to recognise the fact that local authorities are also under severe pressure in the system. Their support services will be stretched already. We've seen the stretch in all sorts of issues, access to mental health. We're seeing it in NHS waiting lists and so forth. So, the system is currently, I think, struggling to cope with the fallout from the pandemic. So, again, it's about us working in partnership so that we can put some solutions on the table for this one. Thank you.


Yes, please. Just to first of all echo absolutely everything Eithne has just said, particularly around having that consistent bar across local authorities for support and intervention. But I think it's really important, and something that NAHT would like to get across to the committee in this evidence session, that schools are under a considerable amount of pressure when it comes to the education reform juggernaut that's coming out of Welsh Government at the moment. We've got curriculum reform, new qualifications, new Estyn inspection arrangements, the impact of the ALN Bill, and I think we need to be realistic in our expectations of schools. Schools are not going to be able to do everything on top of what is already their core business of teaching and learning.

If we're looking at things like, for example, the extension to the school day, we've just been talking about the need for funding for schools—funding for schools to carry out their core purpose of teaching and learning. We've heard that local authorities—and I'm sure you've heard this from them directly—are suffering from the impact of the pandemic and funding shortfalls, which has led to a lack of support for schools in certain areas when it comes to those officers that would traditionally have been available to help get learners back in school. We've just spent £2 million on a pilot of extending the school day, yet we're having this conversation around getting learners back into school, and I think we need to make learner absence a priority for this Government and it needs to be the sole focus when it comes to talking about education. Anything else must take second place if these children are not in school. Unless they're in school, nothing else is going to have an impact. They need to be in school, in front of their teachers, with their peers, getting the support that they need. We would urge the Government to look at focusing their attention on addressing this problem and working in partnership with schools, local authorities and other agencies to make sure that we get these learners back in the classroom, and for the moment put aside any other plans for education reform.

Thank you. That's a very clear message for us as a committee. I think, in terms of workload, I'd just like to look at that a bit further in terms of all the things you've referenced like curriculum reform and so on. They're obviously impacting on capacity, then, in terms of pupil absence. Is that a fair summary?

I think how I would describe it is—and Eithne has already used the analogy—that schools are swimming upstream. They're trying to keep up with what are some very important and much-needed reforms when it comes to the curriculum and support for children with additional learning needs, but what we need to do is make sure that schools have the space to be able to do those priority things and that local authorities have the money and support available to support schools to get learners back into the classroom and that we're not focusing our attention, and, indeed, significant amounts of funding, on reforms where there's yet to be any evidence produced that they actually offer any significant benefit for our learners. We know that learners benefit from being in the classroom, so that's what we believe our focus should be: supporting them to get there.

Thank you. You mentioned, both of you, the need for a consistent bar for support and information and a consistent message across the country. So, is that something that you think as a committee should be our focus? You've sent a clear message in terms of also if they're not in the classroom, then how are we going to actually support young people, but in terms of that consistency, what do you think are the benefits of that? If you could just outline so that we're very clear in terms of any future recommendations. 

I think, again, in Meilyr's report, he looks at segments and categories of non-attenders. So, you've got the persistent non-attenders, and those are fairly obvious by the title what they are. You also then have those intermittent non-attenders, and we need to be picking up those who are intermittently away from school as well as those who are persistently absent from school. I think there needs to be absolute clarity about at what point does the system start to actually support those learners in either of those two categories.

For example, I don't think it's sufficient for someone to say, 'Right, if you're 10 consecutive days off school, that's our trigger for intervention', because 10 consecutive days off school might mean that a kid who comes into school once a week is never actually picked up, is never supported in getting them back into those habits of attending school. So, I think there needs to be absolute clarity about defining those intermittent non-attenders and those persistent non-attenders, and trying to get at this from the very beginning.

I'd be really interested to have some sort of a pupil survey on this. Now, I know that's going to be very difficult because the kids that aren't attending won't necessarily want to respond to a survey, but, equally, they might, and there needs to be a discussion nationally about this. Meilyr's report covers quite a lot, but I think we can go further than that and actually have a national debate about what it is that's going on and what we need to do together as a country in order to get these kids back in again habitually.


Only to add that I think what Eithne said about having that consistency is really important, but to go further on the point of, actually, it's not fair, from a learner's perspective, if, dependent on where you live or which school you go to or which local authority you belong to—whether or not that support trigger is hit. We must have consistency to be fair to learners all across Wales.

Thank you, Chair, and thank you both for joining us today. I was just wondering how effectively do you think that local authorities and other agencies are—. Sorry, I'm reading the wrong question. I'll start again. To what extent are schools and other agencies effectively engaging parents to support pupil attendance?

Yes, I'm happy to. I think that schools go to incredible lengths to engage with parents to try and give them the support that they need, and I know that, in some local authority areas, that support is extended. I think it comes back to what we've said previously about this inconsistency across Wales when it comes to support. There is no school across Wales that doesn't want to engage with their parents to bring those learners back into school. The whole reason why people go into education is because they value the role that they have to play, they want to be supportive of learners and their extended family, and I think that's been demonstrated across the whole nation throughout the pandemic when schools really stepped up and were the focal points of the community and were the places where learners and families went for that additional support.

I think where the system breaks down is where there just isn't the capacity to do that everywhere. So, maybe there isn't the funding to bring in those extra support officers where there are staff shortages in schools where we still have some significant disruption in certain school and local authority areas as a result of the pandemic. I think that is the problem. I don't think it's the willingness or the ability of schools and local authorities to do it, I think it's the resources that they have or don't have to be able to engage with parents.

I think funding is a significant barrier. I think it's a significant barrier, because I think if you don't have that money in place to do it, it's going to fall to other people. So, it's going to fall to schools, it's going to fall to people who are maybe not best placed to be able to carry out those interventions, and I think we need to make sure that our children are getting the best possible support that they deserve. And to do that you need to properly fund this system and make sure that those people who are in place are absolutely the best, highly skilled officers that they can be to be able to support them.

If you could pick one barrier, one that you think is the one biggest issue, which one would that be?


Yes, I would say the same. I think it is about the resource, and I think that's what it is. That is the biggest issue that I think we're dealing with now. [Interruption.] That wasn't me. It's trained people to resource this whole problem—I think that's absolutely crucial in the system. So, I welcome the question because it gives us an opportunity to say what we've been saying for some time.

What is your view on how community-focused schools can effectively support parents and learners in relation to school attendance, and what are the barriers to implementing community-focused schools across Wales?

Yes, again, I think it comes back to the same issues. Community-focused school: I don't know many schools who aren't community focused already. They already work closely, and we saw that through the course of the pandemic, where schools were, if you like, at the epicentre of support, so many schools, from giving free school meals to children to bringing in those key workers' kids and so on, and so forth. I think at that point it really underlined the importance of a school being at the heart of its community. So, I don't know a school that doesn't actually do this already, and hasn't already got those strong connections with their local community. So, I think the barriers come back to the same issue as your previous question, Buffy—the barriers are about the issues of capacity in the system, and it's capacity at local authority level, capacity at school level, capacity inside schools as well, where you've got large classes, and you may have three or four children in those classes who have got real difficulties trying to connect with their learning, who are looking over their shoulder at other learners and thinking, 'I'm so far behind. I'm out of here. I don't want to do this anymore', and others who will be very resilient and working very well. So, I think we need to look at this holistically.

Do you think the all-through schools, the three to college age, then—do you think that, because they're so big, they lose that community focus a little bit, or do you think they do just as well as the small village schools, say, like in my constituency? We still have the small village schools, and we also have two superschools, as they call them. But do you think the bigger schools are losing that element of community focus? 

No, I would say not at all. In my experience—I had a school of 1,000, and we had a terrific sense of community in that school. I don't think the size of the school is the indicator as to whether or not it is effective within a community environment. I would say size of classes would be an issue that I would wish to look at very carefully. When you've got large classes, it's very difficult to actually really connect with every single learner in the space of 50 minutes, although that is what happens. But I don't think the size of the school is the driver in all of this. It's capacity, it's resource. 

To what extent do you believe that the use of fixed-penalty notices for regular non-attendance can help tackle pupil absence? I know I've been speaking with headteachers over the last—well, since COVID, since they've gone back to school, actually—and they've been frustrated in not being able to issue these fixed-penalty notices to get children back into schools. Do you think that they're helpful, these fixed-penalty notices?

I don't think that fining parents is necessarily the answer. I think that it is an absolute last resort, and I don't know of any school that doesn't use it as an absolute last resort. As we've spoken about throughout this evidence session, there are a whole host of complexities around learner absence, and of course there are always going to be those situations where the last resort is to fine parents, but, actually, our focus must be on addressing these underlying problems and supporting those families and those learners to get back into school. I don't think there's any school that would take fining lightly, and I think the success that we've had in some schools of getting learners back into school has been a result of those interventions and support mechanisms, rather than fining parents and then those children coming back to school.


Again, I think it is a last resort, but it's also a statutory requirement to send kids to school between those ages, and there are very few pieces of legislation that don't have a penalty attached if these things are not followed. But it really has to be a last resort. It has to not break a relationship between a family and a school in imposing a fixed-penalty notice unless there is absolutely no other way of dealing with those issues. And, as I say, that will happen and the fixed-penalty notices will be placed on a family where all avenues have been exhausted, but, as I say, it's not done happily by leaders. They don't do this because they wish to take families on in this way. However, when it needs to be done, it has to be done. 

Quickly, do you think the school well-being officers, or some of them that work with the learners and their families—do you think that they play a pivotal role in ensuring that pupils are in school? When I was young, if you didn't go to school, you'd have the—[Inaudible.]—and the whipper-in would come around and knock the door and make sure you were going to school. And they'd actually walk you to school. Do you think that every school should have one of those placed in them to make sure that pupils are having—well, that a record is kept of them, basically?

I'm happy to start with that one. I think it's a 'yes', because the attendance support workers know the families, they know what those patterns are within the families in terms of attendance, behaviour and so forth, and they will generally know them from primary school through to secondary school, and they're able to map and track early on where those families may be struggling or may be in difficulty. And it'll never be a straight line in terms of just one trajectory of the ASW going in and then everything is fine, you will have peaks and troughs as that kid progresses through their education. I think every school should have—I think one would not be sufficient, given the space that we're currently occupying, but they need to have those people who know the families. When the family has the door knocked, they can welcome that person in by their first name, sit down and work out what it is that's going on and encourage and persuade those families to try to support that child getting into school. 

Just to agree that I think that those support workers would be useful and, again, to echo what Eithne said, I don't think one would probably be sufficient for the situation that we're in, but again it comes back to that consistency and the importance of relationship building. Those people need to be the same people so that they build up that trust and support with the families and with the children, to be able to know that they are the people that are going to come and support them and help them. I think if you have one or two officers spread across a local authority area, you're just going to be scratching at the surface of this problem.

Brilliant. Thank you, Buffy. Thank you both very much for giving evidence today and for your written evidence before. I know that you've both quoted some really valuable evidence as well that I don't think appeared in the written evidence, so if you could perhaps get in touch with clerks to point us in that direction, we'd really appreciate that and to see that evidence as well. It's really good. So, thank you very much. You will receive a transcript of today as well, in due course, but thank you for taking the time to give evidence to us this morning. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you. And just to let Members now, we will be taking a short technical break during which we'll bring in the next witnesses for testing. 

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:39 ac 11:46.

The meeting adjourned between 11:39 and 11:46.

4. Absenoldeb disgyblion—sesiwn dystiolaeth 3
4. Pupil absence—evidence session 3

Welcome back to the Children, Young People, and Education Committee and our item 4 on pupil absence, our third evidence session in this inquiry. I'd like to welcome our witnesses for this session, who are: Rocio Cifuentes, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, and Jane Houston, policy adviser for the Children’s Commissioner for Wales's office. Welcome, both. I know that you have provided us with some written evidence as well for this inquiry, but we'll be going into some questions now from Members, and we'll start with questions from Ken Skates. Ken.

Diolch, Chair. Thanks for attending today. Great to see you both. I'll just start with quite a straightforward question, if I may: what do you believe are the main reasons for the increase in general and persistent pupil absence? Perhaps beginning—yes, go ahead.

Thank you. Bore da, bawb. Thank you, everybody, and thanks for the question. I think, clearly, we've seen a significant increase. The data does indicate quite broadly a doubling of persistent absenteeism compared to pre pandemic. We've had the attendance review from Meilyr Rowlands, which also indicates the extent of that. 

The reasons are complex, but we can see some clear correlations to links to poverty levels, for example, and we can also see some clear links to other protected characteristic groups. We don't have the detailed data at the moment to really show specifically which groups are impacted in that way, because we usually have that at the end of the academic year. It would be really useful to have that more disaggregated data available sooner this academic year, in order that local authorities and schools can do some of that more granular planning and responding to the issues, so that they can really understand which particular groups are most affected. 

From our point of view, the reasons are very complex and really require very individualised investigation and support to really understand, with that child and that family, the complex reasons for that non-attendance. The responses and the evidence that has been presented to my office during the pandemic showed so many complex reasons, but children were significantly impacted in terms of their confidence, and levels of disengagement certainly increased in terms of how engaged they felt with school over the pandemic. Other factors were in relation to mental health and how people felt about their family situation—that varied considerably as well. 

So, I can't give you an easy answer, because it's so complex and individualised, but I think the overall picture does show clear correlations to young people from more vulnerable groups having higher non-attendance and young people experiencing poverty. So, those are some of the early lines of thinking that I would recommend. I was just going to see if my colleague Jane wants to add anything to that. 


No, that's fine. Thank you, commissioner. 

We've heard from other contributors today that, as a result of the pandemic, some habits have been formed that have led to learners perhaps being less inclined to attend school, and perhaps some messaging needs to be managed by somebody, an organisation, in order to address absence and persistent absence. Would you agree, and do you think that somebody needs to take ownership of the messaging in order to ensure that we reduce the incidence of absence?

Partly, there is a role for an important overall message around attendance, but more important than the overall national message are the local messages, and the relationships that schools and local authorities have with their learners, and the understanding of the local picture. Our understanding and our position is that those relationships and that local messaging can be much more effective in actually understanding the complex factors behind non-attendance and overcoming those. 

There is a role for that national messaging, certainly, but I think it's important also, at the same time as encouraging attendance and having that overall positive message, that the penalisation or the stigmatisation of children who don't or can't attend for various reasons—that they are not stigmatised unhelpfully. Many children, for example those with health conditions, or sometimes caring responsibilities, don't attend for those reasons. Pre pandemic, this was already an issue that my office had flagged, that it's unhelpful just to simply reward attendance and therefore be seen to be penalising or stigmatising non-attendance. So, that's just a caveat and a note of caution there. 

Okay. Thanks. Would you agree, therefore, that provision should be made available for blended learning in certain cases? Your evidence points to how some positive experiences have been gained by many learners as a result of the pandemic and remote learning, particularly those who faced consistent and persistent bullying on the school estate. There are young carers as well who face multiple spinning plates on a daily basis, and a lot of young people who have pretty severe mental health challenges that they have to face. So, would you therefore agree that, perhaps, continued provision should be made available for extraordinary circumstances to enable learners to learn in a blended fashion?

Yes, we would welcome greater flexibility of attendance models, rather than just attendance and non-attendance. More options and flexibility is something we would welcome. We do have casework evidence that does suggest that there are significant benefits to that approach. It also prevents learners from deregistering from schools. But we also recommend that any arrangements, if they are put in place, should also be regularly reviewed, because situations change and we wouldn't want any flexible approach to just be there for the long term and then not reviewed. So, it's important to make sure that there are regular review time frames built in. The current Government review of the attendance guidance is an opportunity, we suggest, to look at that, and to really look at how those flexible arrangements can be put in place, also how they can ensure that children are effectively safeguarded during any blended or flexible learning arrangements, and, obviously, the considerations will differ according to the child's or the pupil's age—they'll be quite different for an older child, compared to a younger child. But, yes, in general, we do recommend and welcome any moves towards greater flexibility and more options to allow children to learn in the way that suits their current circumstances.


Lovely. Thank you. And if you could provide, in a suitably redacted way, any casework evidence that you just highlighted, to support that argument, I think it would be really helpful for the committee, if that's possible. Just moving on to causal effects, to what extent are you seeing living costs as contributing to absence, in particular the cost of transport and school dinners? And also, to what extent do you think a lack of confidence in learning has impacted on attendance?

In terms of cost, firstly, this has always been an issue impacting on attendance—even pre pandemic, that was the case. And it's likely that that correlation has become even stronger, although we don't know for sure from the data so far. We know that children receiving free school meals have lower attendance rates in the current academic year than children not receiving free school meals. And clearly, there's a lot behind that, from previous evidence, and the cost of the school day, in terms of the cost of books, the cost of uniform, the cost of taking part in school trips, all the rest of it, will have, unfortunately, an impact. And although a lot of progress has been made to address that, there is still further that we could go.

In terms of the second part of your question, about—. Sorry, just to finish on cost, the cost of travel to school is also a significant factor that we are hearing. Time and time again I've heard it since I've come into the role. We would recommend that the review of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, which is quite overdue, should be brought forward as soon as possible. The current three-mile radius for accessing free travel to school can be difficult for many children, who have reported to us, for example, difficulties—maybe they've got a particularly unsafe route to get to school, maybe they have to carry very heavy school bags. Even if they live within the three-mile radius, actually, walking to school is not feasible for them, and, therefore, the cost of paying for a bus to school can become prohibitive, particularly for poorer families with a number of children having to access school in that way. So, we would really recommend a review of that learner travel Measure as soon as possible.

To go on to the second part of your question, Ken, which referred to loss of confidence, if I'm remembering it correctly, to attend school, I think that has been a significant factor that we have seen reflected to us in the evidence provided to us in our 'Coronavirus and me' survey, which had 19,000 children and young people respond to that, so a significant number of children and young people. Yes, we have an array of statistics, but one that sticks in my mind is that 55 per cent of 15-year-olds reported not feeling confident about their schooling. And confidence levels definitely decreased in relation to age. So, the older the child, the less confident they felt about their education and about their schooling. So, that revealed a significant problem. There is likely to be a correlation between lower confidence and other factors that I've already described in terms of poverty and financial barriers to accessing school, but we don't have the detailed statistics on the breakdown of that confidence, apart from the age—the age correlation was very obvious.


Thank you. Chair, I'm just really conscious of time. There was one more question that I was going to ask concerning support that needs to be offered, or additional support that needs to be offered, to support learners from specific groups, where they experience higher rates of absence. I'm thinking, in particular, of minority ethnic, young carers, care-experienced learners. Rather than have an answer in this session, perhaps a written answer to that question would be best. 

Yes, that's great. Thank you, Ken, for suggesting that. Commissioner, are you happy to supply that? 

Lovely. Thank you very much. We'll move on to questions now from Laura Jones.

Thank you, Chair. And welcome; it's nice to see you, albeit virtually, children's commissioner, in your new role. I wanted to ask you about the impact of pupil absence. I'm not talking about the people that miss for holidays and things that are deemed 'once in a lifetime' experiences, but problem absenteeism. What do you believe are the shorter term and longer term risks and consequences for learners—you've touched on a few of them already—for example, in terms of mental health and well-being, and on learning and attainment and their future prospects? Thank you.  

Thank you. Thank you, Laura, for the welcome as well. Persistent absence should be seen as a red flag. It should be a cause for concern, both in terms of the immediate risks to the child and the learner, but also, as you mentioned, the medium and longer term impacts. It's definitely a symptom, as well as a cause, of underlying and wider issues. Not being in school does have a significant impact obviously on their learning, but also on children's health, mental health, emotional well-being and their levels of socialisation.

There is evidence to show that longer term outcomes for those with lower attendance are more negative. And we know that you, as a committee, will be hearing from a range of experts, including around the specific link between increased absence and mental health, including, unfortunately, the risk of suicide. So, there are some severely negative associated impacts of low attendance, and it should definitely be seen as something to be very concerned about in terms of safeguarding concerns. If a child is not in school, we just simply need to ask, 'Where are they? Are they safe?—that should be the immediate response. But beyond that, if it becomes persistent, it's certainly our position that it should be taken very seriously, and that intervention should be sooner, rather than later.

Our understanding of the current threshold and definition of persistent absenteeism is when a child goes below 80 per cent attendance. That's a lower threshold than exists in England, where the threshold is 90 per cent, and Northern Ireland, I believe, is 85 per cent. So, we have the lowest of those three countries, and we would suggest that, possibly, it would be better to act sooner, rather than later, and maybe look to intervene before the child reaches that 80 per cent, because by that stage a lot of lost learning and the wider impacts have already happened. So, the sooner that an intervention can be put in place, the better. 

Yes, you're right; a lot of damage will have already been done by that point. There was talk, in an earlier session that we had, of getting attendance support officers in schools, but I know another Member is going to ask about that further on, so I won't go into that now. I just wanted to ask you about the numbers of learners being home educated. In some areas it's gone up by a third. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are on that. Do you think that they're being supported enough? Obviously, you're going to have a cohort of home learners that will always have been or would have done home learning, but, obviously, that's increased for a number of reasons now. What do you think those reasons are? Do you have concerns about the quality of education and that they're needs are being met, because of, perhaps, the reasons that they are now choosing that route? Thank you. 

Thank you. Yes, we're aware of the increase in the number of learners being home educated through the pandemic. And as you probably know, my office has had well documented and ongoing concerns about a lack of support structures for home-educated children. Although we did hear, through the pandemic, that many children who were home educated did thrive, and also that children who were just at home really enjoyed the experience of learning from home, we also know that most children actually really wanted to return to school, or that’s what they said anyway.

But I think, for us, in terms of home-educated children now, our concern is that, currently, the lack of regulation means that, although many children will be thriving, it’s just not always possible for local authorities to know who is and who isn’t and therefore who may need more support. And even now, there’s no legal obligation for families to meet with the local authority, so, professionals just don’t know what support is needed.

We are aware of very positive impacts that have been reported about increased funding that Welsh Government has made available to home-educated learners and families, which, from what we’ve heard, has been really positive both from the point of view of local authorities, but also from parents and learners, because it’s enabled increased opportunities for engagement and learning, and any increased engagement is positive as far as we’re concerned because it enables those learning needs and the child's needs to be more effectively identified and supported.

So, yes, I think—. We also—. Obviously, my office undertook a review of this at the end of the last Senedd term, so that review is on record. But we also now are advocating strongly for a national support offer that could respond to some of the priorities that those families have identified. Some of them have called for more support around registering for exams—. I’m going to stop and have a drink of my coffee. My colleague, Jane, can give a little bit more on that.


Okay. I'll talk. I was just saying—. We're just wondering whether you thought that the increase—. Are some of the reasons—? Obviously the pandemic was one of the reasons people were wanting to educate at home—that's probably part of the reason for the increase—but do you think, because of, as you said and as Ken outlined earlier, the travel costs and the cost of school meals and things like that, that those two are contributing factors for people wanting to be educated at home? 

It is possible that it’s because of positive reasons, because some children have found that they enjoy learning from home, enjoy the relative freedom that it affords. But it’s also possible that some children have almost fallen on that other default option because of perhaps lack of flexibility and a lack of other options. Because we actually don’t know fully the answer, that’s our concern. If there were more opportunities for that engagement and for those conversations to take place, then that would provide a fuller picture. 

Thank you, Chair, and good morning both, thank you for joining us—or good afternoon by now. If I could just start off with a point that the children’s commissioner made just around—and you mentioned this in your evidence as well—those policies that incentivise attendance by rewards and so on, obviously, schools are encouraged sometimes that those are methods to try and encourage attendance. But do you think it requires a Government intervention to really think through how we ensure that no-one is then stigmatised? I’ve shared your concerns in terms of seeing that, perhaps, being in twice a week is a major thing for a child that may have serious health concerns, but then the rest of the class may feel that they're not getting that bonus trip or an ice cream van to the school, as some schools do. So, are there things that we should be pushing for so that that doesn't happen and that learners are stigmatised?


Thank you. Yes. As far as my understanding, I don't think there are formal policies for incentivising attendance. My understanding is that there are more often informal measures that have been taken by schools, like giving children who have good attendance stars in assembly and that kind of thing, which does have the unintended consequence of demoralising, perhaps, children who just haven't managed to reach that, and stigmatising. I think the Welsh Government is reviewing its attendance guidance, so I think that is an opportunity to look at how schools could be supported to think through what might be the best ways of encouraging—I was going to use the word 'incentivising', but I think 'incentivising' is the wrong word; it's definitely 'encouraging'—attendance, and really taking a very child-centred approach to looking at non-attendance and offering as much flexibility as possible to really respond to the needs of that child. It is very intense work, with significant capacity implications, and we're aware of that, and we're also aware that many schools are doing fantastic work in this way already, so it's about learning from good practice and building on that, and bearing in mind the difficult circumstances in which children, families and teachers and schools find themselves.

Thank you. I also wanted just to explore—. I wondered if you could explain further the link between pupil exclusion and pupil absence—how you see the correlation between those.

Thank you. Yes. We don't know for sure if there is a correlation, and we suggest that it would be valuable to undertake some further research to really understand if there is a link or not, but we do know that the number of school days lost because of fixed-term exclusions, from the most recently available data, which is a couple of years old—I will say that—is very high. It's around—. In the 2017-18 academic school year, there were nearly 80,000 school days lost from fixed-term exclusions, so that was enforced absence.

Given that we are so concerned about the impact of non-attendance, I would suggest and my office would suggest that there should be equal levels of concern about the impact of non-attendance from enforced absence and exclusions. We are concerned about exclusions. We know that, in the 2018-19 academic year, for example, there were 768 fixed-term exclusions of children who were under the age of eight. So, we are suggesting that—. We welcome that Welsh Government is actually planning a revision of its statutory guidance on exclusion and would suggest that this might be an opportunity to look at how that guidance can be used to make sure that some of the same concerns behind this inquiry are reflected in that guidance as well.

Thank you. I think that's really helpful and useful, because, obviously, forced non-attendance as well is something that perhaps isn't explored, and also, in terms of the data, I think it would be interesting to know whether exclusions—I don't know if this data is available, but in terms of any link if that child or young person is on a waiting list for child and adolescent mental health services, for instance, et cetera. So, yes, certainly it would be interesting to explore further.

If I can go on, you also referenced—. In terms of the qualifications offer perhaps being a factor, I just wondered if you could further explain that, in terms of to what extent do you think the curriculum and the range of 14 to 16 qualifications has on pupil absence, and what more can be done to support learners in key stage 4.


Yes, thank you. I think we welcome the redevelopment of GCSEs and the wider 14 to 16 offer as part of the new curriculum, and that redevelopment that is being undertaken by Qualifications Wales. I think this is an opportunity to develop some qualifications, particularly for 14 to 16-year-olds, which will be suitable for all young people, and can offer every learner and young person an opportunity to succeed and be awarded for what they can do well.

Currently, we have a system—. The GCSE system has an overall failure rate of around 30 per cent, so the overall—. Any system in which around a third of learners are not currently succeeding, in that definition, is going to have an impact on learners' own self-esteem, and potentially their mental health and potentially their attendance. We know that attendance levels go down as learners get older and therefore closer to their exams, to their formal exams. It's likely that if a child is given consistently low predictive grades, if they're effectively being told they're going to fail, it's likely that that is going to impact on their mental health and their self-esteem and their attendance.

So, we would really welcome the review being undertaken by Qualifications Wales and would really hope that more suitable qualifications can be developed that can be more appropriate to the needs of every learner, so that they can be supported to achieve.

Thank you very much. I just wanted to also—. You have touched upon this, but just in case there were any additional comments. You've reflected in terms of that some of the investment from Welsh Government has been helpful during the pandemic in terms of making sure that we're able to engage, but do you think there's more support provided by local authorities and schools that we need to—? Do you think it's been effective enough, or do you think there are some things that could have been better, and we should be doing better now?

Yes. I think the support that's been offered to provide more bespoke support to people receiving their exam results over the summer has been really welcome, but I think—what I haven't talked about very much so far is the wider support and offer that is required to support learners, particularly those who might have low attendance, and that includes linking more effectively, for example, to youth work providers. It's important that the Welsh Government's new youth work strategy is effectively implemented and that local authorities play a role in co-ordinating that support and bringing that whole-school approach to really provide that effective support to the individual learner and the child.

Similarly, the whole-school approach to emotional and mental health well-being is really important, because schools can't deliver or do this on their own, and the most effective schools are already linking really well to the wider provision in their community, and that's something that will need ongoing resourcing and a lot of hard work. But there are examples of good practice, and so there's a lot to build on.

Another factor that I haven't mentioned very much so far is the issue of bullying. There's a range of evidence to show that bullying can be a significant factor behind absence. My own office undertook research in 2017 that showed that, from the point of view of children and young people that we spoke to, and it was around 3,000 in that case, they themselves considered bullying to be a significant—or one of the significant impacts of bullying could be not wanting to go to school and not actually going to school. We've also had recent research going on into the impact of peer sexual harassment in schools, and there's also emerging evidence to show the impact of racist bullying in schools. So, all of these issues are bound to have an impact on attendance and how children feel about going to school when they're experiencing these issues. So, it's certainly a multi-agency and community response that is needed to tackle these issues.


Thank you very much, commissioner. I'm conscious we are running out of time, so I'm happy if we move on, Chair.

Diolch, Chair. Thank you, commissioner, for joining us this afternoon. To what extent are schools and other agencies effectively engaging parents to support pupil attendance?

Thank you. I think there are some really good examples and some really great work going on, and I think it's about, as I was saying just now, how well—. Very often, it's about how well the school links to other support providers, youth work provision, mental health support, and builds that package of support around the child and the family to get very individualised—. The most effective responses are very individualised and have children and young people at their hearts and are very focused on the views, the voice and the wishes of that child. From our point of view, it's so important to have the voice of the child at the heart of those decisions and those learning plans to effectively re-engage learners in school and in their education. We know that schools have been under a huge amount of strain and their capacity has been an issue, particularly during the pandemic in terms of teachers' own health and the impact of the COVID virus. We are hopefully emerging from that situation, and there is good evidence of good work going on, but it is an intensive piece of work to which there are no quick fixes, and we recognise that. It is all about building those longer term relationships with the school and with the learners to really understand and put in place the most effective support packages to respond to their particular circumstances. 

Do you think the community-focused schools effectively support parents and learners in relation to attendance? And adding to that, do you think that the larger schools—what we call superschools now—do you think they lose that community element about them, in relation to the smaller village schools, then, that are very, very embedded in our communities? 

I think it's a very mixed picture. We hear fantastic examples of good practice, and others that have a longer way to go in terms of taking that community-school approach. It does seem to be more effective in primary schools than it does in secondary schools. Some of that is for purely practical reasons related to the location of schools, in relation to where parents and families live. Distance is an obvious factor and, obviously, that will be a factor with schools in more rural locations where parents may very rarely actually physically be on the school grounds. 

So, with the superschools that you mentioned, it's possible that distance might be a factor for those schools in terms of their ability to really develop this community-school model. It is a long-term paradigm shift, I would suggest, in terms of the way that we think about schools but also that schools and their leadership are thinking about themselves as well. And I think it also does require very intensive work and long-term planning to really achieve that vision of what the community schools vision is.

I know it's a key part of Government strategy for educational equity, and it's also really important to have as the starting point for that journey the voices and the wishes of children and young people themselves, as well as their families and other community stakeholders. So, really, the best place to start would be speaking to children and learners in that school about how they see the role of their school, what they would like their school to offer beyond the formal learning opportunities, to really start to see schools and their learners in an asset-based way, rather than a deficit-based way, and to look at the communities surrounding those schools and see what skills and strengths exist within those communities that could be brought into the school, and vice versa.


Do you think that fixed-penalty notices for regular non-attendance help to tackle pupil absence?

I would suggest that—. I have always urged caution, as did my predecessor, against the use of fixed-penalty notices to manage or tackle absence. I would suggest that they should only ever be used as a last resort, when a range of other approaches has been tried and where families are not engaging in that at all, because if they're engaging in an intervention but it's not working, it's not necessarily the fault of the family. So, I would really urge against the use of those, apart from as a last resort. I'm not sure to what extent they're effective as a measure to prevent or tackle absence. I'm not aware of evidence to show what happens after a family has been given a fixed-penalty notice. Does that mean that the child returns to school, or not? I would need to look at more data to find that out.

Thank you, Buffy. So, that's the end of the session this afternoon. Just to say thank you so much for taking the time to give evidence to us today. I know that you will supply the answer to the question that Ken asked earlier. We would really appreciate that. You will also receive a copy of the transcript in the coming days to check for accuracy. But, thank you very much for your attendance and for the input into our inquiry. Diolch yn fawr.

5. Papurau i’w nodi
5. Papers to note

Okay, we'll now move on to item 5 on our agenda, which are the papers to note. We have eight papers to note, and the full details of the papers are set out on the agenda and in the paper pack. Are Members content to note those papers? Yes, I see all Members are content. 

6. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod
6. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting


bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).


that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

So, now we'll move on to item 6, and that means to exclude the public from the remainder of our meeting. So I propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, that the committee resolves to meet in private for the remainder of the meeting. Are Members content? Yes, all Members are content. So, we will now proceed to meet in private.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:29.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 12:29.