In 2023, as media headlines exploded with headlines about an ‘attendance crisis’ in the UK’s schools, I began to gather research by Adoption UK and other organisations as well as data collected by the Department for Education in England (this data is not available in other nations) to try to uncover how previously looked after children fitted in to this emerging story.

I reached out to those with lived experience and was immediately inundated with heartbreaking stories. Stories of children who had been unable to attend school for months and even years; parents who had unwillingly decided to home educate because there was simply no suitable school place available; families who had been driven to the very brink by inflexible attendance policies while their children were in mental health crisis.

We already know that many of the risk factors for absence and persistent absence are likely to apply to children who have been adopted or live with kinship carers on special guardianship or child arrangement orders. Care experienced children are more than twice as likely as their peers to have special educational needs, for example, and they are much more likely to have social, emotional and mental health needs as their primary area of need.

Adoption UK’s research suggests that more than 40% of adopted children will have time off school each year due to mental health and wellbeing concerns. 16% will miss five or more days for this reason.

Economic hardship is another factor linked to school absence and persistent absence. We know that many kinship and adoptive families face financial challenges after reducing working hours, or giving up paid work altogether in order to care for their children.

So, in light of what the research showed and what families and children had told me, I looked at the data from the Department for Education in England, expecting to find that absence, unauthorized absence and persistent absence was higher than average among this group of children.

What I actually found was something more surprising and considerably more complex – something that presents a serious challenge to the current nudge psychology methods being used to encourage parents to get their children into school.

As a whole, previously looked after children were not more likely to be absent from school. They had fewer unauthorized absences and were less likely to be persistently absent. Adopted and kinship care children were less likely to be absent due to illness than their peers.

The data simply did not support the headlines we’ve all seen about attendance in recent months. Among this group of parents and guardians the data provided no evidence that the social contract between schools and parents has been eroded, or that children are routinely staying home for runny noses and tummy aches, or that these families are taking a lot of cheeky holidays during term time.

But what I did see is that previously looked after children are more likely than others to be marked absent because they have been suspended from school. We already know that previously looked after children are up to twice as likely to be suspended compared to their peers in England.

They are more likely than others to be marked absent because they are attending essential medical appointments. Not surprising considering a legacy of unpredictable care, trauma, loss, abuse and neglect can often mean years of therapeutic support is needed. There is simply no benefit to chasing up families over their child’s poor attendance when that child is accessing support that will most likely improve attendance and educational outcomes in the longer term.

And they are more likely – much more likely – to be marked absent for ‘other’ reasons. These are Code C absences in England and include children who are attending school on agreed part-time timetables. At secondary school, previously looked after children are absent due to ‘other’ at least twice as much as their peers.

Research by Kinship charity shows that 8% of kinship care children are on part time timetables. Early data from this year’s Adoption Barometer survey suggests that as many as 17% of adopted children may be accessing school part time.

These are not children who don’t want to go to school. They are children who cannot go to school. Even where schools and parents are agreed that part-time attendance is the most appropriate way forward for a child, if a school is unable to provide any child with a full-time education because their needs cannot be met, then children and families are being denied a suitable education by the systems that are supposed to be providing it.

And we believe that authorized absences are just the tip of the attendance iceberg. When we also factor in those children who are marked present but sent home before the end of the day, those who spend time in internal exclusions and those whose parents have unwillingly chosen to home educate, as many as half of adopted and kinship care children may be facing serious barriers to getting into the classroom and staying there.

Attendance guidance differs between the four nations of the UK, as do the codes for recording absences. Data on educational outcomes for previously looked after children is not collected in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland which makes it difficult to get a clear picture of what is happening in these nations.

Yet we know enough from years of anecdotal and research evidence across the UK to see that the current attendance crisis is not a straightforward problem with straightforward solutions. For this group of children, and probably many others, persistent absence is a symptom – of schools, services, families and children under pressure.

Schools are facing significant financial constraints and struggling to recruit experienced staff, especially to provide classroom support to children with additional needs. Education welfare services are overwhelmed. Children face long waiting lists for assessments, diagnoses and support. Families are struggling with a cost-of-living crisis and essential services that are increasingly under strain.

The ’attendance crisis’ can only be addressed when we have a full understanding of the complex drivers of poor attendance, and when families and schools can access the resources, expertise and support they desperately need.

We are calling on governments in all four nations to:

Understand the children by collecting national data on educational outcomes for previously looked after children and using it to improve understanding of their needs, and assessing the effectiveness of measures already in place to support them.

Equip the teachers by improving training for education professionals on the impact of adverse early experiences, neglect, abuse and trauma, and conditions which disproportionately affect care experienced children such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Know the needs of children by improving procedures for the early identification of additional learning needs and fast-tracking routes to assessment, diagnosis and support for all care experienced and previously looked after children.

Review the codes used to record pupil absence, clarifying exactly what can be included in ‘other’ codes, ensuring that children are not penalized for absences due to essential medical and therapeutic appointments and introducing a ‘mental health’ absence code so that the impact of poor mental health on school attendance can be properly recorded and addressed.

It will not be easy or straightforward, but every child has a right to a full-time, quality education. Governments must commit to do what it takes to break the barriers to school attendance for all children.