Voices: ‘Cutting benefits if your kid plays truant’ – sorry, are we back in the Victorian era?

Controversially for a remain-voting Labour supporter, I’ve always thought there were a few things to admire about Michael Gove.

He is clever, and he is interested in good public policy. This is an unusual mix in a politician. Some – not all – of his education reforms were worthwhile. There are aspects of the school system today that are unquestionably better because he brought his massive brain to bear on its failings. During his brief stint in charge of prisons, he was genuinely progressive.

But then he goes and reminds us all that he is also totally misguided about some really profound things. This week was a case in point. This week, the secretary of state for levelling up decided to tell us that he thinks cutting the benefits of parents who fail to get their kids to go to school is a very good idea.

Such a policy would, he explained, help to restore an “ethic of responsibility”.

Before I run through the many and varied ways in which he is wrong, it’s worth saying that he is right to pinpoint this as an important issue.

The problem of absenteeism in our schools is a huge one – and getting bigger. It is reported widely, but not widely enough. Some 35 per cent of poor children were persistently absent in autumn 2021 and spring 2022, compared with 18 per cent of their most affluent peers.

Indeed, figures released last week show that in autumn 2022, 13.3 per cent of pupils were persistently absent solely due to illness, which was nearly three times higher than the figures for the last autumn term before the pandemic in 2019, when the rate was only 5 per cent. The lost learning is deeply worrying – as are the knock-on consequences for social mobility.

The reason for these eye-watering figures is (Mr Gove take note) not that poor parents are too morally impoverished, and too darned comfortable on the sofa bought with dole money, to get their kids up and ready for school in the morning. The reason that young people in their millions are missing school is a set of profound social problems that will categorically not be resolved by making their parents even poorer.

This assertion is based in fact, as opposed to Victorian morals.

First, there is a crisis in youth mental health – one that has been deepened by Covid. In focus group after focus group, I have spoken to parents who are deeply worried about what has happened to their children – especially teenagers – as a result of a lack of socialisation during lockdown. They are also, not unreasonably, spooked by the rise of social media and its impact on young people. They paint a truly bleak picture of what it is to be a teenager in 2023. This manifests itself in many ways, including refusing to go to school.

Schools report a rocketing in the number of students who are struggling, while young people’s mental health services have been cut to the bone and are unable to help. Waiting lists are a disgrace.

And then, of course, there are the pervasive consequences of the jump in domestic poverty brought on by the cost of living crisis. The teachers I speak to explain that this is leading to challenging home lives and a lack of social cohesion. Put simply, if you are struggling to know where the next meal is coming from, then your kids’ school attendance record becomes a less pressing concern.

Then, finally, there are cutbacks to the very services that are designed to help families who are struggling with their children not going to school. It’s no secret that local authorities have borne the brunt of years of austerity, and that this has had a marked effect on mental health provision, but there are other, less high-profile services that have been brutalised.

One charity that works in this area, School Home Support, has recently revealed details of a freedom of information request that showed that a quarter of Early Help referrals – designed to ensure that families get support from councils – are returned to schools without action, causing issues to escalate.

Taken together, these factors comprise a hideous cocktail; one that will make reversing the problem of students missing from the classroom a mammoth challenge.

What is completely clear, from talking to schools on the front line of this huge absenteeism problem, is that if we really want to do something about addressing it, we need to rebuild local services; and, very definitely, that we must not cut the benefits of those who need them the most.