Education Secretary vows to tackle persistent absenteeism of children ‘head on’

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The Education Secretary has vowed to tackle persistent absenteeism of children “head on” in a drive to “escape the quicksand of disadvantage”.

Nadhim Zahawi will say the pupils who lose out the most from not being in school are likely to be vulnerable, disadvantaged and “cope least”.

Ahead of the spending review later this month, the minister will pledge to “not stop making the case for investing in children and young people”.

His commitment will come in a speech to head teachers on Saturday.

Mr Zahawi will say: “Another key priority for me will be getting to the root of what is causing children to be persistently absent and then tackling it head on.

“Because the children who lose out the most from not being in school are likely to be the ones who can cope least, the vulnerable, the disadvantaged. You can’t help them if they aren’t there.

“I will be tireless in pursuing all these issues, to deliver a world-class education for all children, because it is the only way we can escape the quicksand of disadvantage.

“For all these reasons, we will continue to invest record sums in our children’s education.”

Speaking at the conference of the NAHT school leaders’ union in London, Mr Zahawi will say mental health must be “better understood and support provided where it’s needed” in a bid to do the best “by every single child”.

He will add: “I want us to put wellbeing at the centre of everything we do in schools alongside a drive for rigorous standards and high performance. But, of course, we can’t do this if children are not at school.”

It comes after the latest Government figures show the number of children out of school for Covid-19 related reasons in England has increased by two-thirds in a fortnight.

Mr Zahawi will say: “I am not going to provide a running commentary on the spending review but I want to make one thing absolutely clear: I will not stop making the case for investing in children and young people.”

He will add: “Our job is to make sure that we have a skilled and agile workforce who can help us power through the aftermath of the pandemic.

“So, that means no easing up on our plans to ensure any child who fell behind during the pandemic makes up their lost learning, as we build on the recovery programmes already in place.”

The Education Secretary will tell school leaders that he will “listen” and work with them, and he will say he will be “honest” with them.

Mr Zahawi will say: “This will not always be an easy journey for us, I know that leadership can be a lonely place at times.

“There will have been sleepless nights, worrying about the children in your schools.

“I know all about sleepless nights, having just worked as vaccines minister.”

His comments come after Paul Whiteman, NAHT’s general secretary, called on the Education Secretary not to exhaust school leaders’ goodwill by making engagement with the profession “nothing more than window dressing”.

Mr Whiteman highlighted the “false and damaging narrative” that some policymakers used amid the pandemic which suggested teachers were “lazy”.

The union chief called for the Government’s goals for education recovery for children who have missed out on schooling to be more “ambitious”.

In June, the schools catch-up tsar Sir Kevan Collins quit with a stinging condemnation of the Government’s new £1.4 billion education recovery fund.

Addressing education recovery at the conference on Friday, Mr Whiteman said: “When you think of what young people really need from schools and colleges in the coming months and years – we need more, not less.

“Knowing how much school leaders have given during the crisis, and how difficult circumstances were in many ways before the pandemic, what I’ve heard so far from policymakers is very meek.

“Recovery implies a return to what we had before, which is simply not good enough.”

Mr Whiteman also highlighted concerns about school funding and the public sector pay freeze – which he described as a “slap in the face”.

Addressing the Education Secretary’s comments, Mr Whiteman said: “There is ambition contained in his address but unsurprisingly after only two weeks in office we are yet to see the detail.

“Our plea to the new Secretary of State is to enter into genuine collaboration with us so that we can bring the ambition of his speech to life free of dogmatic philosophical barriers.

“Now he has had the chance to address school leaders directly at our conference, we hope this will be the springboard for the type of education system we know this country needs.”

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