MPs recommend mental health absence code and expansion of free school meals to reduce parent fines and tackle school absence

3 mins read

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Tags: special educational needs, schools, attendance, absence

A report out today – Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils – details the particular barriers to attendance for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Data shows that absence rates for pupils with SEND are significantly higher than their peers. And they are rising, especially across special schools. In particular, the rate of persistent absence in special schools was significantly higher than the overall absence rate. For the 2021-22 academic year, the rate of persistent absence in special schools was 40.4%. This compares to to the overall absence rate of 22.5%.

The Parliamentary Education Select Committee report found “growing demand for mental health services and special educational needs support, as well as cost-of-living pressures, have compounded a problem that worsened following the Covid lockdowns but remains present”.

We submitted evidence to the committee’s inquiry earlier this year. We identified the biggest factor contributing to absence among children with SEN as unmet need.

Unmet need

MPs on the committee have recommended the introduction of an authorised mental health absence code to reduce the need for fines on parents, as well as a review into the adequacy of mental health services.

“Mental health-related absences are not commonly authorised by schools, sometimes due to requirements to provide medical evidence which can often lead to fines or prosecution for families,” the report said. “The introduction of an authorised mental health absence code could eliminate the need for medical evidence in cases of known and established mental health difficulties and reduce the need for intervention via prosecution.”

Michele Cefai, Head of Communications at Contact, said: “We welcome the report’s recommendations. Their findings confirm what we have identified as the biggest factor for children with disabilities being off school – unmet need. Just under 40% of calls to our helpline come from parents who say the school or local authority is not providing the right support for their child.

“We also hear from parents that the school environment and culture is detrimental to their child’s needs. Chasing good attendance figures is coming at the cost of pupil wellbeing and good relationships with parents.”

Poverty is a factor

Today’s report also said that measures to tackle child poverty could help improve attendance, such as an expansion of the Free School Meals scheme to all children in poverty.

Contact welcomes the committee’s acknowledgement that poverty is a factor in pupil absence. Families with disabled children are more likely to be living in poverty and have been disproportionately affected by cost of living pressures.

We are supporting a parent-led campaign to ensure eligible disabled children are getting their free school meal entitlement. Today’s report findings show why that is more important than ever.

Need help?

We have information about absence from school and getting back to school after a period of absence.