Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg

Children, Young People and Education Committee

23/06/2022

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

James Evans MS
Jayne Bryant MS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Ken Skates MS
Laura Anne Jones MS
Sioned Williams MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Catherine Evans Cyfarwyddwr Cynorthwyol, Estyn
Assistant Director, Estyn
Hannah O'Neill Ysgrifennydd Rhanbarth Blaenau Gwent ac aelod dros Gymru o weithrediaeth yr Undeb Addysg Cenedlaethol
District Secretary for Blaenau Gwent, and National Education Union Executive member for Wales
Liz Miles Cyfarwyddwr Cynorthwyol, Estyn
Assistant Director, Estyn
Llinos Jones Pennaeth Ysgol Bro Myrddin, Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru
Headteacher of Ysgol Bro Myrddin, Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru
Mark Campion Arolygydd Ei Mawrhydi, Estyn
Her Majesty's Inspector, Estyn
Mary van den Heuvel Uwch Swyddog Polisi, Undeb Addysg Cenedlaethol Cymru
Senior Policy Officer, National Education Union Cymru
Menai Jones Swyddog Polisi a Gwaith Achos, NASUWT
Policy and Casework Official, NASUWT
Professor Ann John Athro Gwyddor Data Iechyd, Prifysgol Abertawe
Professor, Health Data Science, Swansea University

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Jennifer Cottle Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk
Sarah Bartlett Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Siân Hughes Ymchwilydd
Researcher
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 y cyfarfod am 09:16.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:16.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. 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 all 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, and all participants are joining via video-conference. A Record of Proceedings will be published as usual.

Aside from the procedural adaptations relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. Apologies have been received from Buffy Williams MS. Are there any declarations of interest from Members? No. I can see no declarations of interest.

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

I'll move on to item 2, which is our inquiry on pupil absence, and it's our fourth evidence session. I'd like to welcome all the witnesses today. Good morning. We have Mary van den Heuvel, senior policy officer for the National Education Union; Hannah O'Neill, who is district secretary for Blaenau Gwent, and the NEU executive member for Wales; Llinos Jones, headteacher of Ysgol Bro Myrddin, and she is representing Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru; and Menai Jones, policy and casework official of the NASUWT. So, as I said, you're all very welcome joining us here this morning. I know that Members have a number of questions to ask you, so we'll make a start. The first set of questions is from Ken Skates. Ken.

Thanks, Chair, and thanks for attending this morning, everybody. I'm going to begin by asking the question: what do you believe are the main reasons for the increase in general and persistent pupil absence? Anybody—

Thank you, Chair. So, there is a reason and a mixture of reasons at the moment for pupil absence, and obviously it's important that we recognise we're in a post-pandemic situation but also in a pandemic situation. So, COVID is not over, and we've seen consistently high levels of absence, obviously, during COVID and, since the start of the academic year, we've seen particularly high levels of absence amongst year 11 and year 13, so we're seeing the impact of COVID on those young people who are expected to sit exams this year in particular. So, that's a concern. There are lots of reasons. There's also long COVID and those young people with long COVID and other illnesses that they may have missed from spending less time in the classroom in the last couple of years. There are obviously mental health implications of the significant trauma that the whole of society has been through, so there is significant anxiety amongst young people, and trauma response, essentially.

We've mentioned exams, and obviously young people know that exams aren't quite everything that they were promised a few years ago. There's been an announcement that grade boundaries are going to be set somewhere lower than they were last year, so they know that grade boundaries are set in a way that they can't just work harder and all get the grades that they were expecting. So, there's some stuff about exams there that's really important that young people maybe didn't know before.

Then, of course, we've got those young people with additional learning needs. We've got poverty and that particular impact of the crisis in society in terms of poverty, and then we're a bit concerned about the fixed-penalty notices particularly adding to that crisis, and for those young people who can't afford to go to school. There's a massive range of things there, and I'm expecting into go more detail throughout the session. So, I won't hog everybody's answer, but that's a sort of overview, Ken. I hope that's helpful.

09:20

Does anyone want to add anything else? Oh, you're on mute. Sorry. Go on. We can hear you now.

Dwi'n meddwl hefyd bod agwedd pobl tuag at addysg yn gyfrifol am beth o'r absenoldebau yma, a dwi'n meddwl bod y pwysau mawr ar y cydbwysedd bywyd a gwaith wedi newid agwedd. Dwi ddim yn meddwl bod plant na rhieni yn meddwl bod addysg mor bwysig â beth oedd e. Mae hwnna'n rhywbeth rhyfedd i'w ddweud, ond mae yna waith mawr i'w wneud i ddarbwyllo rhieni ynglŷn â phwysigrwydd addysg unwaith eto, oherwydd eu bod nhw'n teimlo—. Mae yna orbryder, mae yna bob math o bethau, ond, am y tro cyntaf, rŷn ni'n gweld, gydag arholiadau allanol, plant yn ffonio yn dweud, 'Dŷn ni ddim moyn ei wneud e wythnos hyn; fe wnawn ni fe wythnos nesaf.' Wel, na, dyw'r sefyllfa ddim yn caniatáu ichi wneud arholiad allanol wythnos nesaf. Felly, mae agwedd pobl tuag at addysg, dwi'n meddwl, wedi newid yn ystod y pandemig.

Mae dysgu ar-lein wedi effeithio hefyd, achos mae yna lot fawr o ddisgyblion yn meddwl eu bod nhw'n gallu parhau i ddysgu ar-lein. Maen nhw wedi hoffi'r syniad o ddysgu o adref a chael y syniad o ddysgu o'u cartrefi, ac maen nhw'n dal o dan yr argraff bod hynny'n iawn. Ac oherwydd bod yna gymaint absenoldebau COVID, mae lot fawr o ysgolion wedi parhau gyda dysgu ar-lein yn rhannol gydag ambell i cohort, felly mae hwnna hefyd wedi bod yn broblematig.

I also think that people's attitudes towards education is responsible for some of these absences, and I think that the great pressures on work-life balance have led to a change of attitude. I don't think that children and pupils think that education is as important as it was. That's a strange thing to say, but there's a job of work to do to convince parents about the importance of education once again, because they feel that—. There is anxiety, there are all kinds of other pressures, but, for the first time, we're seeing, with external exams, children phoning in and saying, 'We don't want to do it this week; we'll do it next week.' Well, no, the situation doesn't allow you to do an external exam next week. So, people's attitude towards education, I think, has changed during the pandemic.

Online learning has also had an impact, because many pupils think that they can continue to learn online. They've liked the idea of learning from home, and having that sense of learning from their homes, and they are still under the impression that that is okay. And because there are so many COVID absences, many schools have continued with that online provision in part for some cohorts, so that also has been problematic.

Thank you, Llinos. Anything to add from anybody, before we go back to Ken? Menai.

Hello, there. Sorry, I'm having difficulty accessing the translation service, so I'm afraid I didn't hear the last speaker. But I did want to add—. I think Mary's given a very comprehensive overview in terms of Ken's question, and I did just want to add to that that another impact that we feel is creating and exacerbating the situation is the fact that a lot of the services that support young people are currently being impacted by COVID themselves, and therefore are perhaps in a poorer situation to offer support to those young people who need it. Thank you.

Thank you, Menai. If you haven't checked the globe at the bottom to check to English—I don't know whether you had done that previously—that will be able to access you to the translation. But maybe somebody from technical advice could help you.

Thanks. I'll see if I can do that. Thank you.

Thank you. Chair. Just briefly, do any of you think that the additional learning needs reforms may have had an impact on pupil attendance? Mary.

So, actually, we'd be a bit concerned—. The initial pupil level annual school census data came out a couple of weeks ago, and there were over 18,000 fewer young people identified from previous years, like this year, as having those additional needs. Now, there may be something to do with the definition there, but, actually, we've always had some concerns that the way in which the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 is actually structured means that there's a lot for the school to do in terms of support. So, we'd be a bit concerned, actually, that that could be leading to those young people not having as much support as they might have had previously, because the route by which you get the local authority involved is more complicated or more difficult for some schools. And it is very initial times, so we're hopefully ironing out some of the challenges to do with that.

So, we've said that we would really welcome more money for schools to get the proper support that they need to identify young people with additional needs. Schools can't do everything—and I think that that was what Menai was pointing to—so, schools can't do everything alone, and this is a real space where the support of the local authority would be really helpful in terms of young people with additional needs. But, of course, Meilyr Rowlands's report shows us that young people with additional needs might be home from school more and it could be that they found home learning a more supportive environment, but we don't want that to necessarily be the case, because, actually, schools should be able to support young people with additional needs. So, there's a lot of work to do there, I think, and embedding the ALNET Act is going to be—how that's embedded and how that works is going to be really critical. But more support is needed.

09:25

Thank you, Mary. Anyone else coming off Ken's question? Anything to add? No.

Well, just following up on an important point you made, Mary, we have heard that some learners gained positive benefits from remote or home learning during the pandemic and as a consequence are somewhat reluctant to return to the classroom. What do you consider to be the barriers to schools being able to support learners in some form of hybrid way, a blended way?

Hannah might be able to come in on this, but, basically, there are lots of things there, but one of them, fundamentally, is workload for teachers. So, it's additional workload, it's not about just teaching a lesson and the young people dialling in in a hybrid way—it's extra workload. But, Hannah, you might have something to say about that.

Yes, I can add to that, Mary. It is absolutely a workload issue and there are many teachers out there already who are trying to juggle both, because you'll find that they're teaching their practical, face-to-face lessons, but you do have these learners who do need online learning as well. And they are doubling up and providing additional work for these students. It's not necessarily that what you teach in the classroom is transferrable to home learning, particularly for your practical subjects—there's art, there's physical education, there are science experiments. It's very difficult. So, teachers are having to try and think of additional things that they need to provide to these learners in these environments. So, it is becoming more of a workload issue, particularly when you have colleagues out of the department, they're sorting out the workload and the lesson cover for other lessons on top of this. It does become an issue. And, of course, children that are working at home require the support of the teacher, that verbal conversation with them about what they're doing well and how they can improve. So, that takes that extra time as well, which is what you do in the classroom when you're teaching; you do speak to the students there and then, and if a teacher can't do that with the online learning, then those children are not receiving their full opportunity of how they can improve—they're missing that part of the learning experience.

Thank you. I agree with what previous speakers have said. I think that the other thing is that I'm not sure that there is proof that this is a beneficial learning experience, necessarily, and possibly more work needs to be done and more engagement, in the sense of the reasons why people are choosing to continue to work at home. But I would agree, it's a massive resources impact on teachers and schools, where they're still having to do the designed—. The whole system is designed around providing in-school education, so anything that they're doing to support those who are doing home learning is necessarily additional to that and requires a considerable extra input from those teachers. And the feedback that we're getting—and you will see from the evidence that we've submitted—is that teachers are under huge pressure doing that. And although they have tried to support that as best they can during these last few years, there is a limit and it's having a detrimental impact on their well-being, which is clearly going to have an impact on things ongoing. So, if it is something that is going to continue to be a Welsh Government policy, to try to support people to work at home, there does need to be an extra investment and a review of how that's going to happen going forward, because the current system isn't sustainable. Thank you.

09:30

Thank you. So, just moving on to another subject area—you may contribute or you may not—do you think that long COVID is an issue for pupils' attendance at schools?

It is actually a problem, and I'm seeing more of it when I'm going to—. My own parents, even with my own students, parents are saying, 'We think they have long COVID. We're taking them to the doctor.' So, it is happening more and more where students are not coming to school because they are struggling with massive fatigue and all the other symptoms that go with long COVID. And I've spoken to reps across other authorities, and they are seeing an increase in this as well. It's all anecdotal information, but students are struggling with these things and they are saying to us, 'Miss, I think I may have long COVID.'

Key stage 3, and starting into year 10 as well.

I was just going to add that, of course, alongside this there's going to be—. Some of those symptoms that Hannah's described are also a trauma response. So, it's going to be really important that we have a trauma-informed approach going forward and the appropriate training in that. So, I think Hannah might have more to say, but that's important to go alongside that. Because, you know, we're still in early days in terms of identifying long COVID and exactly the implications, but some of those things will help through trauma-informed practice.

Okay. Thank you. And you've already mentioned—. Oh, sorry, Chair.

Menai wanted to come in. Sorry. Menai wanted to come in.

Thank you. Sorry. And I just wanted to add to that, I think the picture's really complicated and whether something is designated as being long COVID or—. I mean, our evidence from our members has come back saying that, of those who are supporting students who are working from home, 43 per cent say it's for mental health reasons. Well, of course, things like anxiety are also cited as a symptom of long COVID. So, I think it's a complicated picture, but, obviously, the end result is we need to put in place support for those young people. Thank you.

Thank you. Well, it does appear that anxiety has been raised right across school estates in Wales and further afield, for various reasons owing to the pandemic, and one has already been raised this morning, the anxiety associated with external assessments and examinations. Are any of you aware of methods by which learners are being supported in terms of their anxiety over external assessments? And if so, are you aware of any success in the support schemes that are being put in place?

Mae'n sefyllfa anodd iawn, oherwydd rŷn ni fel ysgol wedi penodi swyddog cynhwysiant newydd i gyd-fynd â'n swyddog iechyd a lles ni, oherwydd ein bod ni'n gweld cymaint o absenoldeb nawr oherwydd gorbryder. A dim bob amser gorbryder yn gysylltiedig ag arholiadau, ond gorbryder am awyrgylch yr ysgol yn gyffredinol—yn teimlo eu bod nhw'n methu ag ymdopi â chynulleidfa, gyda choridorau llawn, gydag ystafelloedd llawn, oherwydd maen nhw wedi gweithio o gartref, lot fawr o'r plant yma, am gyfnod hir iawn. Ond beth rŷn ni'n ei weld yn anodd yw cael digon o staff i gynnal y disgyblion. Nawr, byddwn i'n hoffi—. Rŷn ni'n trio rhoi pethau nawr, ein bod ni yn gallu cael cyswllt ar-lein gyda rhai o'r plant yma, i drio'u cael nhw'n ôl, achos ein gweledigaeth ni yw bod angen y plant nôl yn yr ystafelloedd dosbarth, dim syniad o ddysgu hybrid, oherwydd, fel dywedodd Menai a Mary hefyd, a Hannah, mae yna ormod o bwysau gwaith ar athrawon i barhau â'r system hybrid roedden ni ei gwneud. Ond eto i gyd, mae'n cynlluniau ni yn gysylltiedig â chael mwy o staff i mewn i'r ysgolion i fedru llwyddo gydag unrhyw gynlluniau, a hwnna rŷn ni'n gweld yn anodd ar hyn o bryd.

It's a very difficult situation, because we as a school have appointed a new inclusion officer to work with our health and well-being officer, because we see so much absence now because of anxiety. And it's not always anxiety related to exams, but anxiety about the school environment in general. They feel that they can't cope with large groups of people, with full corridors, with full classrooms, because they've been working at home, many of these pupils, for a very long time. But what we see a difficulty in doing is getting enough staff to support the pupils. We try to implement things where we can have that online contact with some of these children, to try to get them back in school, because our vision is that we need to get the pupils back in the classroom, not this idea of hybrid or blended learning, because, as Menai and Mary and Hannah have said, there's too much work pressure on teachers to continue with this hybrid system that we did have in place. But having said that, our plans are related to having more staff in schools to be able to succeed in any of our plans, and that's where we're seeing the difficulty at the moment.

09:35

I was just going to add, are you talking about specific exam support? Because, actually, what we know is, right across the system, access to child and adolescent mental health services is really difficult, so that's not helping in terms of that specific support. We do have admissions officers and so on—not admissions officers, but support for some young people, as Llinos has just said, in terms of welfare and attendance. But, actually, it's not universal. Also, it's about the exams themselves as well, and they've seen the previous couple of years of young people having to sit—the first year where it was just paper based and they didn't have to sit exams. So, the previous two cohorts of young people going through exams that kids at that age look up to have not had to sit exams in the same way. So, it's a real challenge; there's some universal challenge stuff there.

But also, there's the way in which exams work, and, like I said before, they know now that there's an algorithm and they know now that it's not quite as straightforward as, 'I do this much work, and I get this grade.' They know that the exams are going to be lower than they were last year, that's been announced by Qualifications Wales. So, they're very knowing about the system, as well as all of the challenges that they've had that we've talked about.

It's a challenge for the whole exam system, and an opportunity for us to have a think about, really, what are exams and what are they for, because if they're not working for young people in the way that they are, then we've got a new curriculum, we've got a real opportunity. I know Qualifications Wales is obviously doing some of that work, but we should get momentum behind this and engage those young people in what that is really for.

[Inaudible.]—what Mary have said. Year 11 students are very disillusioned with the exam system—they've seen what's happened, they've paid attention to the news more than they've ever done before because of the pandemic. They wanted updates on what was going on and what was going to impact them, so they do feel that they've been set up to fail before they even sit exams, and then coming back into school when they're not used to the structure of a school day starting at the time it does. It is difficult to get them into registration and then get them into first lesson, because they're not used to the way that education works. So, they have many challenges because of this, and, of course, being disillusioned with everything, thinking they were going to fail.

Also, support staff have had to play a massive role in supporting our learners as well, with mental health, trying to motivate them, encourage them. Form tutors have played a more active role than they've ever done before, trying to engage them, find out what's going on, how they've been impacted by the pandemic. As Mary and others have said, trauma has played a massive part. Children have been home for a significant amount of time. They have seen domestic abuse, they have seen family members dying because of COVID. They've not been allowed to bother with friends and socialise or see other family members. They've been very sheltered from everything that's going on, and then to be exposed back into the world of education and the community has been very stressful for them. So, support staff have had to play a very important role in trying to engage them with re-entering education.

Menai, did you want to come in? And were you able to hear the translation, actually? You were, fine, great, thank you. Good to check. Ken.

Thanks, Chair. I'm just conscious of time, and I'm going to roll two questions into one, if I may. First of all, are there specific groups of learners who are being impacted more by general and persistent absence? And then, secondly, can any of you say definitively whether the cost of attending school is a factor in pupil absence? Mary.

So, yes—I can say definitively, 'yes.' It's a real challenge, and I was about to mention those young people living in poverty. We use free school meals as a proxy measure, don't we, at the moment, and, obviously, Meilyr Rowlands's report showed that really strongly. However, it's the cost-of-living crisis coupled with expensive school uniforms and the possibility of expensive school trips. And the shame around this is really high—so, those young people not wanting to necessarily go to school. But can I just say that schools are trying really hard with some of this? It's not everybody, it's not universal, but most schools are trying really hard with some of this stuff. We are seeing a situation where, actually, schools are trying to make sure that—. Some schools have got an informal foodbank, and that's not okay; that's not where you want people to be picking up food, necessarily. You've got to make sure that this is a separate space for young people to feel safe. I can't remember your first question, Ken, I'm really sorry.

09:40

Yes, okay. So, particularly, obviously, Gypsy and Traveller young people; we've already spoken about additional learning needs being a higher cohort. But, actually, one of our issues around this is that we don't have a register, necessarily, or a database. There was consultation a while ago about having a register or database of young people so that, actually, local authorities know where their young people are, because we don't necessarily know everybody who's being educated at home at the moment, whether that's elective home education, what support they've got. We don't necessarily know all of those things. Some people might be on a school register but are actually being home educated. So, we need to know all of those things in terms of where young people are so that we can properly plan, so that schools can plan and that local authorities can plan, because some of this stuff is big stuff that schools can't do by themselves, but they are trying really hard.

O'n profiad ni fel ysgol, y plant hŷn yw'r broblem fwyaf o ran presenoldeb. Mae wedi cael ei amlygu, onid yw e, yn yr adroddiad, blwyddyn 11 a blwyddyn 13. Buaswn i'n dweud blwyddyn 10, 11, 12 a 13. Does dim byd o ran gender, does dim patrymau eraill gyda ni, ond mae yna batrwm o blant sy'n gwneud arholiadau, yn sicr.

From our experience as a school, it's the older children who are facing the greatest problems in terms of absence. It's been pointed to in the report in terms of year 11 and year 13. I would say that that's true for years 10, 11, 12 and 13 as well. There's nothing in terms of gender, there are no other patterns emerging with us, but there are patterns in terms of children who are sitting exams.

Yes. Thank you. I just wanted to add that I think we need to differentiate between those who have deregistered and those whose attendance patterns are that they're in attendance, they're registered in schools, but their attendance is inconsistent and below the level that we would like, because I think there could be different reasons feeding into those different patterns. But, I think what my other colleagues have said already and what has been well evidenced, really, is that there is clearly a very strong link between levels of poverty and school attendance.

We also noted in some of the figures that came forward from the Welsh Government that although attendance was perhaps still higher than average, there was a significant decrease in attendance among categories such as Asian students, and I think really what we need to do—. Obviously, the Welsh Government investment now in welfare officers needs to be put into place as soon as possible, because what we need to be doing is engaging with all of those people who have got their own very multifaceted reasons for being absent to look at actually examining some of those trends in more detail, and hopefully that investment will enable us to do that. Thank you.

Schools are working really hard on enrichment activities and bringing back those opportunities for students, but as Mary said, poverty is a big issue with that as well, and with enrichment activities comes non-uniform days out, and not all children can afford different items of clothing. When I was in school, it was all about very much designer brands, and if you didn't have them, you felt embarrassed. Over the last couple of years, I've not seen that for a while; people were happy with supermarket brands and high-street fashion. But, in the last few years, it's become very brand-orientated again, and you're talking about a pair of trainers over £150, jumpers at £60 to £70 a time, and children are embarrassed when they don't have these things, so that is a reason why they don't come in as well, because they feel shame about wearing the cheaper items of clothing and you've got that issue going on.

The cost of trips is a big issue as well, so schools are really trying hard to bring in more cheaper costing trips and, obviously, trying to support learners who can't afford to pay for them as well. But some parents are actually saying they can't afford to send their children to school because of the fuel in their cars. So, the cost-of-living crisis is starting to impact there as well. But also, parents are taking their children on holidays now. They want that enrichment activity. That's also a really important well-being decision to make for their family, to take them on trips. And it is very expensive in the school holidays, so, I can understand why they're taking them now, because they've not been away as a family for over two years.

09:45

Thank you, Hannah. Llinos, did you want to come back in, briefly, before we move on?

Ie, yn glou iawn. Mae yna gais enfawr nawr am wyliau ar gyfer disgyblion. Dwi'n cytuno â beth mae Hannah yn ei ddweud yn y fan yna—fe fydd e'n effeithio.

Yes, very quickly. There are huge amounts applications for holidays during the term, and that will have an impact. I agree with Hannah there.

Thank you, Llinos. Thank you, Ken. We're going to move on now to some questions from Laura Jones. 

Thank you, Chair. Sorry, I've got so much noise going on in the background. Can you hear me okay?

I just want to say that holidays is something that really needs to be looked at by the Government. I know it's something they can't completely control, but I think there needs to be a big part played there because the difference in cost between term time and out of term time is astronomical and, as a parent, I'm well aware of that and what's going on.

But, also, we need a lot more work done on the home education register and home education full stop. But we're still seeing, regardless of that, a significant increase in the numbers being deregistered and being home educated. I'm just wondering what you thought the reasons were behind that. Mary's already said that perhaps there's a more supportive environment for some learners. And also, do you have any concerns about the reasons why there is an increase in the number of learners being home educated? I just wanted to ask those. Thanks.

I'm happy to go. I've been unmuted, so I feel obliged. I've already touched on some of this, but thanks, Laura, for the question. Like I said, it can be a supportive environment for some young people, because of the experience of COVID, because of their increased anxiety, because they've got additional needs that perhaps school can be a struggle, and school can be a struggle for some young people, but we really don't think that it is the best place for them necessarily. School has got such well-being opportunities, mixing with other young people and learning other skills for life, we think it's really important that young people are in school and, as we've already pointed to, it's going to be really difficult for staff to be additionally teaching those young people who are at home, or, if they're elected home education entirely, we don't have all of the support in the system, necessarily. So, we would say that the best place is in school.

I think that register is going to be really critical, isn't it—absolutely critical. But other than kids with additional learning needs and, obviously, the extra mental health support, like I've said, some young people are going to have had a trauma response to this. So, the school environment is going to be a really difficult place. So, it is about getting that support in place. We've talked a little bit about the welfare officers, but that's got to be a lot of intensive support right across the board.

I just wanted to echo that, yes, it's a massive concern. Socially and educationally, we firmly believe that it is important for as many people as we can get to be in school. The resource implications for that are also massive, clearly, if we're supporting people home educating. I think it is really important that when pupils are deregistered that parents and carers are examined as to the reasons for that so that, if there are push factors, I suppose, rather than positive factors for home education, and if the push factors are things that they don't feel that they're getting through the education system, obviously, we need to know about those so that we can put in plans to address them. Thank you.

09:50

That follows on nicely to what I was going to ask. Hannah's already touched on it, as have you, Menai—whether you believe that home-educating families receive enough support from local authorities, and whether we're doing enough to help those who want to go back into the system to get back into the system. Because I would always strongly argue that the social side of being in school, face-to-face learning, is just as important as the education itself in terms of getting children to where they need to be at the end of their educational journey. But yes, if you could answer those questions, that would be great, thanks.

Shall I start on that? I think one of the problems is that the way in which support is provided probably does differ massively from school to different local authority in terms of what they've got in place to support that, and as we've been saying, I think one of the issues is that the reasons why people are deregistering is because then they're not getting that support at the moment. We know there are resource issues in schools in dealing with these things, and that is probably what is causing a lot of these choices to deregister. It's a catch-22 situation for a lot of schools—if they didn't have those resources to support young people in the way that they felt was needed to start with, it's going to be all the more difficult to put that in place when they're not in school. We do really need massive investment to try to put the support in place to get those people back, but also, it's not just about getting people back, is it? It's also about sustaining that, so, these are not short-term fixes that we're looking at. Thank you. 

I was just going to say that I don't want to really speak on behalf of home-educated people. I expect they've got their own, very specific views. But as Menai said and as we've said already, we really would prefer that those young people were in school. It is important.

As we've talked about, prevention is also a big part of this—preventing them leaving in the first place before absence gets too bad. You've touched on welfare officers, but obviously the problem is, as Menai just said, that it's so different between authorities, and how we're reacting to this. That's obviously—[Interruption.] Sorry, that's my dog there—one of the major problems. But someone suggested in our last session that we have someone placed in schools to relieve the welfare officers, because obviously, they are so overloaded anyway. So, they can deal with the worst cases, but surely we need, as it's such a bad situation at the moment, to put someone in schools to deal with things before they get too bad, to catch those that are starting to form a pattern with absence, and see why that's happening and deal with it that way. What would you think about that? Sorry about the noise.

Byddwn i'n cytuno yn llwyr gyda hynny, fel rŷn ni eisoes wedi gwneud, yn penodi swyddog cynhwysiant sy'n ychwanegol at swyddog iechyd a lles, i gael y plant yma mewn i'r ysgol. Rŷn ni'n teimlo, ar hyn o bryd, yn ein system ni o bennaethiaid blwyddyn yn gyfrifol am hyn, doedd e ddim yn gweithio achos bod yna ormod o bwysau gwaith, a'n bod ni ddim yn gallu rhoi'r amser dyledus iddo fe.

Mae grantiau'r Llywodraeth wedi helpu yn hyn o beth, ein bod ni'n gallu cael athrawon arbenigol i edrych yn arbennig ar ambell i grŵp ffocws neu unigolion fan hyn a fan draw, ond yn sicr, beth sydd ei angen yw mwy o gyrff er mwyn i ni allu gweithredu. Oherwydd beth rŷn ni'n gweld ar draws awdurdodau yw bod yna—fel rŷn ni wedi clywed y bore yma—tipyn o wahaniaeth, onid oes, ar draws awdurdodau. Ac maen nhw hefyd yn cael problemau o ran staffio, ac yn y blaen. Felly, yn sicr, mae angen y peth yn yr ysgolion eu hunain, Laura. 

I would agree entirely with that, because as we've already done, we've appointed an inclusion officer who helps the other officers that we have to get these pupils into the school. Because in terms of our heads of year system, they used to be responsible for this, but that wasn't working because there were too many work pressures, and we couldn't give the time required to these issues. 

Government grants have helped in this regard, and we've been able to get specialist teachers to look specifically at some focus groups or individuals here and there, but certainly what we do need is more bodies so that we can take action on this. Because what we see across authorities, as we've heard this morning, is that there's a great deal of variation. They too are facing staffing problems, and so on. So, certainly, we do need this provision in the schools themselves, Laura. 

Okay. Mary, and then we're going to have to move on, unfortunately. 

I think Hannah had her hand up, too.

I don't mind giving Hannah—

That's fine. Thank you, Laura. With looking at attendance officers in school, I think there's the issue that they look at attendance in the morning, and they take the phone calls, obviously, of children that are absent that day, but then they have many more admin activities to do during the day, because admin teams are shrinking in schools. So, they do need that focused time and we do need a designated person who looks at it, not just for the hour in the morning, but looking at tracking and monitoring, supporting families and challenging where it's needed. Because it is about making the correct referrals and getting the correct engagement and support packages in place for these learners from a very early point, when you can see the decline straight away. But there is the issue as well that there are fines in place for families, and we are in a crisis with the economy, and families are struggling. So, I think it is a point where families are saying, 'Okay, well, my child has got 30 per cent attendance, I'm taking them out of school. I don't want the hassle of this, I don't want the pressure, I want to home educate them instead.' So, it's about getting in there before we get to that point as well.

09:55

Okay. Thank you, Hannah. We're going to have to move on now to questions from Sioned Williams. 

Diolch, Cadeirydd, a bore da. Cwestiynau sydd gen i ynglŷn â pholisiau a chanllawiau presennol Llywodraeth Cymru. Rŷn ni wedi cyffwrdd ar hyn yn barod, lle roeddech chi i gyd yn sôn eich bod chi'n teimlo bod disgyblion hŷn yn enwedig, efallai, yn datgysylltu o'r ysgol, ac efallai bod yna fai ar y system arholiadau am hynny. I ba raddau ydych chi'n meddwl bod y cwricwlwm a'r ystod o gymwysterau presennol yn cael effaith ar absenoldeb disgyblion? Ydych chi'n credu y bydd y cwricwlwm newydd yn cefnogi ymdrechion i ymgysylltu ac ailymgysylltu â dysgwyr, neu ydyn ni'n or-ddibynnol ar y cwricwlwm newydd yn hyn o beth?

Thank you, Chair, and good morning, all. I have questions on the policies and guidance of the Welsh Government. We've touched on this already, where you were all saying that you feel that older pupils in particular, perhaps, are feeling disconnected from school and disengaged from school, and perhaps the exam system is responsible for that, to some extent. What, in your view, is the impact of the curriculum and the range of qualifications on pupil absence? Do you think that the new curriculum will support efforts to engage and re-engage with learners, or are we overly dependent on this new curriculum in that regard?

Dwi yn meddwl, Sioned, ein bod ni'n or-ddibynnol ar y cwricwlwm newydd. Rŷn ni dan ryw syniad bod y cwricwlwm newydd yn mynd i achub y byd, ac mewn gwirionedd rŷn ni'n gweithredu cwricwlwm eang yn barod mewn ysgolion. Dwi ddim yn meddwl bod beth rŷn ni'n cyflwyno i'r plant yma yn mynd i wneud gwahaniaeth. Y gwir yw, mae'n gyfnod anodd iawn, iawn arnyn nhw, ac arnon ni. Dwi'n meddwl bod dylanwad y gwefannau cymdeithasol a beth maen nhw'n ei wneud ar-lein yn allweddol, oherwydd dwi'n teimlo bod y problemau yna'n dod i mewn i'r ysgolion hefyd, bod plant hefyd yn teimlo os ydyn nhw adref bod mwy o ryddid gyda nhw, ac wedyn dydyn nhw ddim yn moyn dod nôl i gaethiwed ysgol. Ac mae hwnna yn ei hunan yn anodd, beth bynnag sydd gan y cwricwlwm i'w gynnig.

I do think, Sioned, that we are overly dependent on the new curriculum. We have a sense that the curriculum is going to save the world, and truth be told we are already providing a very wide-ranging curriculum in schools. I don't think that what we present for these pupils is going to make a difference. The truth is that it is a very, very difficult time for these pupils and for us, too. I think that the influence of social media and what they do online is vital here, because I feel that these problems come into schools now and that children now feel that if they're at home they have more freedom, and then they don't want to come back into school. And that's very difficult to tackle, whatever the curriculum offers them. 

Thanks, Sioned. I would agree that it's going to be a real challenge to see how exactly the new curriculum is going to tackle this. It is potentially going to have some positive impacts—it has that potential—but the exams will not start to be taught for years yet. We've got to have those big conversations about exams. Actually, as I hinted at earlier, young people know about exams now, and they're essentially like a league, aren't they? So, if a certain number of young people do really, really well, then some other people are going to do not so well. So, you can't pull and expect everybody to do really well, because that's not the way that grade boundaries are set at the moment. So, that's a real challenge and something we need to look at really seriously. So, if we want everybody to do well, we could make solid grade bands. Those are different things for different conversations, but everyone doesn't know what they're aiming at, and I think young people know that and that's really hard. So, I don't see that exactly—.

This is new at the moment. Some schools are starting to teach the new curriculum and have been trialling it, and so on, and there's potential there for there actually to be some disincentives in terms of attendance, as we've talked about, in terms of extracurricular activity days, where you have to pay more money. Well, actually, if this is a bells-and-whistles experiential curriculum, we've got to make sure that doesn't include increased money for whatever it is. We've got to make sure that those people who can't afford to have equal access to the curriculum. So, I think it's going to take us a little bit of time, actually, to bed in and work out exactly what that looks like for everybody.

Obviously, September—. It's not going to be a perfect curriculum now. We know it's not going to be rolled out across the whole of Wales. There are some opportunities to do things differently, and that is welcome—the principles are really welcome—but I think it's worth saying as well it's extra workload. And so, as much as we're seeing young people absent, we're seeing high levels of staff absence. And so, those people are getting ill from COVID. We haven't necessarily got the numbers of supply teachers involved. So, the potential for teachers and support staff in a class to give that extra support to those young people who've been off is hindered by the high levels of absence of staff, and the extra workload then for those who are left. So, there are massive challenges in the system. 

10:00

Thank you. I just wanted to say we've got massive concerns that rather than being of benefit, the new curriculum is, very much in the short term, potentially, going to undermine work to encourage young people back to school. Obviously, inherent in the national curriculum is the fact that teachers are going to be rewriting the curriculum, and that takes time. There's no additional ongoing resourcing or acknowledgement of that. Now, similarly, also what we see in research is that to encourage people to engage in their education and to return to schools, one of the key factors in that is that close engagement and interaction with their teachers. So, they need a high teacher-to-pupil ratio.

Of course, both of those factors are potentially working against one another, and that is a massive concern. Clearly, that is part of what has led half of the secondary schools in Wales to opt not to be introducing the new curriculum at this time. So, I think if there's a reliance on the new curriculum to address the issues that we have in pupil absence, I think that's really misplaced, going on the evidence that we are receiving from our members. Thank you. 

Diolch. Yn ei dystiolaeth ysgrifenedig i'r pwyllgor, mae Estyn wedi awgrymu bod yna bryder cynyddol am nifer yr achosion o ddefnyddio amserlenni llai gyda phobl ifanc. A ydych chi'n ymwybodol o hyn fel mater sy'n peri pryder? Llinos. 

Thank you. In their written evidence to the committee, Estyn have stated that there is an increased concern about the cases of using reduced timetables with young people. Are you aware of this as an issue that is causing concern? Llinos.

A ydym ni'n sôn, Sioned, am beth fydden ni'n galw yn 'bespoke curriculum', bod ni'n ceisio—? Achos y gwir yw, am y tro cyntaf erioed, rŷm ni wedi defnyddio lot mwy ohono fe dim ond fel abwyd i geisio cael disgyblion nôl, oherwydd os rŷm ni moyn i'r—. Rŷm ni'n sôn am yr education welfare officers. Cyn bod nhw'n fodlon edrych ar ddisgybl nawr, mae'n rhaid bod nhw wedi bod yn absennol am 10 diwrnod, ond hefyd y gwir yw os nad ydym ni wedi gwneud cynlluniau gyda nhw cyn bod ni'n cyfeirio, dŷn nhw ddim yn moyn edrych arno fe. Felly, beth rŷm ni'n treial ei wneud yw perswadio plant i ddod nôl, rhoi cwricwlwm—'bespoke curriculum' fel rŷm ni'n galw fe—i'w hannog nhw efallai, treial rhoi abwyd, 'Wel, dewch nôl am gyfnod o'r dydd.' Nawr, dyw e ddim y peth iawn i'w wneud, ond eto i gyd, dyna'r unig ffordd rŷm ni'n gallu cael rhai o'r plant yma nôl i'r ysgol.

Mae'n anhygoel y pethau bach rŷm ni'n ceisio eu gwneud i addasu, hyd yn oed lot fawr ym mlynyddoedd 10 ac 11 sydd yn moyn gadael pynciau er mwyn torri pwysau gwaith, yn moyn gwneud un pwnc yn lle tri phwnc. Ond, wrth gwrs, mae goblygiadau i hwnna o ran beth rŷm ni'n wneud gyda'r plentyn yna amser maen nhw i fod yn yr ail a'r trydydd pwnc. Ond y gwir yw rŷm ni'n gwneud tipyn mwy ohono fe, oherwydd dyna'r unig ateb sydd gyda ni i gael y plant nôl am ran o'r dydd. 

Are we talking, Sioned, about what we could call a 'bespoke curriculum'? Because the truth is, for the first time ever, we've used many more of these just as bait to try to get pupils back into school, because—. We're talking about the education welfare officers. Before they're willing to look at a pupil's case now, they have to have been absent for 10 days, but the truth is if we haven't made plans with them before we refer, they don't want to look at a case. So, what we try to do is to persuade children to come in, provide a bespoke curriculum, as we call it, for them, to encourage them perhaps to give them that incentive: 'Well, come back for part of the day.' It's not the right thing to do, but, again, that's the only way we can get some of these children back into school. 

It's incredible these little things that we're trying to do to adapt, and there are even a lot in years 10 and 11 who want to drop subjects to cut down on work pressures; they might want to do one subject instead of three. But, of course, there are implications to that, too, in what we are to do with that pupil when they're meant to be in the classes for the second and third subjects. But we are doing much more of this, because that's the only solution that we have to get the children back for part of the day.

I was just going to briefly say that it's not ideal, but for some young people, as Llinos has said, disapplication of part of the curriculum is necessary at the moment, and that is part of that trauma-informed response to make sure that young people are able to do the learning that they can. 

Just adding on to that, our members are saying that in this academic year they're seeing a higher level of students out of their lessons, whether it's because they have bespoke timetables due to attendance issues, or whether they're involved in intervention because of mental health issues—they're seeing the counsellor, they're seeing the well-being dog, or they're with the counsellor or other external provider. So, there is a higher level of students, both in key stage 3 and in key stage 4, missing from lessons because of a range of issues.

10:05

Thank you. Sioned. Sorry, Menai, did you want to come in briefly?

Yes, just to support what other people have said, really. I'm not sure that we've seen any particular evidence that the curriculum is being disapplied. But, ultimately, when that happens, that's always been an accepted possibility for schools to do that on a short-term basis to encourage people back to full-time learning, in response to health issues or whatever. Ultimately, if that planned process is going to help people return to school, that's surely better than an absence from attendance that is perhaps unmanaged and with no plan for a return to school. Thank you.

Diolch. Dwi'n meddwl roedd y pryderon roedd Estyn wedi'u mynegi o amgylch y ffaith bod disgyblion ar yr amserlenni hyn am gyfnod rhy hir. Efallai eu bod nhw ddim wastad yn cael eu hadolygu'n briodol. Ond, rwy'n derbyn y pwyntiau rydych chi i gyd wedi'u cyfrannu. 

Allaf i ofyn i ba raddau mae'r cyllid ychwanegol gan Lywodraeth Cymru wedi bod yn effeithiol o ran mynd i'r afael ag absenoldebau yn sgil y tarfu o ganlyniad i COVID-19? Rydych chi i gyd wedi cyffwrdd ar hyn yn barod, ond efallai y gallech chi sôn hefyd ynglŷn â chapasiti staff mewn ysgolion a chyrff eraill yn hyn o beth hefyd.

Thank you. I think the concerns that Estyn had expressed were related to the fact that pupils were on these timetables for too long a time. Perhaps they weren't always being reviewed appropriately. But, I do accept the points that all of you have made. 

May I ask to what extent the additional funding from the Welsh Government has been effective in tackling absenteeism following the COVID disruption? You've all touched on this already, but perhaps you could also talk a little bit about staff capacity in schools and other bodies in this regard.

Fi eisoes, Sioned, wedi sôn am y ffaith bod yr arian yna wedi bod yn allweddol i ni fel ysgol. Mae recriwtio staff i wneud y swyddi wedi bod yn broblem enfawr. Fe wnaethom ni eleni, er enghraifft, recriwtio heb wybod bod y grant yn dod, yn y gobaith y byddai'n dod. Os ydych ni'n gadael e tan ein bod ni'n gwybod bod y grant, does yna ddim pobl mas yn y proffesiwn. Rydyn ni'n edrych ar y pynciau craidd yn fwy na dim, ac mae athrawon Cymraeg fel aur, athrawon Saesneg fel aur. Felly, mae cael y capasiti yna wedi bod yn anodd iawn. Ond, yn sicr iawn, rydyn ni wedi elwa. Rydyn ni hefyd wedi elwa o'r cynllun pontio cynradd-uwchradd gyda'r Llywodraeth, rydyn ni wedi gallu darparu mwy o gyrff, a hefyd y cynllun athrawon newydd gymhwyso, pan ariannwyd athro newydd gymhwyso ar gyfer y flwyddyn mewn sawl ysgol hefyd.

Sioned, I've already said that this funding has been vital for us as a school. Recruiting staff to do these jobs has been a huge problem. This year, for example, we recruited without knowing that the grant was coming, and we did that in the hope that it would come. If we leave it until we are assured that the grant will be received, there won't be people out there in the profession for us to employ. We look at the core subjects more than anything, Welsh teachers are like gold dust, English teachers are like gold dust. So, getting that capacity has been very challenging. But, we have certainly benefited from the funding. We've also benefited from the transition project between primary and secondary from the Government, to provide more bodies in school, and also the newly qualified teacher scheme, where a newly qualified teacher was also funded for a year in several schools.

I was just going to say, we know that supply teachers is a particular challenge for schools, and for supply teachers themselves. We've seen fewer supply teachers after the pandemic—sorry, 'after the pandemic', as if we're all free of COVID. So, we see fewer supply teachers. Actually, in terms of their terms and conditions, fundamentally, that's really important; over the past few years, why would you go into a situation where you've got a high chance of catching a virus that you're not necessarily going to get paid time off for? Also, those people who may be slightly older in the system have retired or no longer work in supply because they're afraid about their vulnerability. Then the young people, of course, because more teachers have left, young people have got those jobs. So, it's great that young people are not doing supply and have got a job, but actually that's less supply in the system. So, when somebody is poorly, there isn't necessarily a member of staff to step in. So, there are some massive challenges, and we're obviously hoping that the Government really is going to look very, very seriously at that and how we can make that situation better.

Diolch. Un cwestiwn olaf gen i. Rwyf eisiau gofyn ydych chi'n cytuno â'r farn a fynegwyd yn adroddiad Meilyr Rowlands fod consensws eang cyn y pandemig ynghylch beth oedd yr arferion gorau ar gyfer gwella presenoldeb. Hefyd, beth, yn eich barn chi, fyddai canlyniadau cael trothwy cenedlaethol ar gyfer diffinio absenoldeb parhaus?

Thank you. One final question from me. I just wanted to ask whether you agree with the view expressed in Meilyr Rowlands's report that there was a broad consensus pre-pandemic regarding what constituted best practice for improving attendance. And, what, in your view, would be the consequences of having a national threshold for defining persistent absenteeism?

10:10

I'm going to confess that I don't quite remember that bit of the report, so I'm sorry. But what I was going to say is that, actually, I think we've spoken a little bit about needing to catch young people before they turn into persistent offenders, and, actually, some of that stuff, as we've said, is part of the bigger picture, that all of this is that schools can't do this by themselves. We've seen, in 2020, where schools stepped in and delivered free school meals and checked on their most vulnerable learners as much as they could from outside of the house. We've seen massive issues where, actually, we need social work support, we need local authorities—those links have got to be really clear. But from our perspective, I think it's just worth reiterating that fixed-penalty notices is just not the way that we're going to help this, and that we're really concerned about that, even if they are a last resort. The very families that we've all talked about in terms of being the most likely to have that persistent absence are not the families who need extra pressure in terms of money. 

Thank you. I just wanted to echo what Mary has said there. In terms of the question about the threshold, I think that that would be useful in terms of comparability, I suppose. Of course, that's always going to be an issue, then, longitudinally, because we haven't had that to date. But if we're looking for comparisons with other nations, that would obviously be helpful. I think, I suppose, a slight concern with that would be that that would then sort of almost become the aspiration for the rate of attendance, and it may almost feed into a culture of thinking 'Well, it's acceptable as long as wherever you set that.' So, that is a slight concern and is obviously something that would need to be addressed. Similarly, it would be concerning if then funding was linked to that alone, and if that meant that that was taken away from other institutions. Clearly, there are some schools who may have higher or lower rates that they're all—. We're ultimately talking about individual young people who need supporting in all of those circumstances. So, I think, it's complicated, isn't it, but I think those things need to be considered if that is the decision going forward. 

Dŷn ni byth yn mynd i ddod nôl i sefyllfa fel oedd hi cyn y pandemig. Rŷn ni wedi colli dwy flynedd, a dwi'n meddwl ei fod e'n mynd i gymryd amser hir inni ddod nôl i efallai le roedden ni. Dwi’n meddwl bod eisiau ymgyrch fan hyn ar gyfer rhieni i ailystyried pwysigrwydd addysg, nid i'w cosbi nhw, ond i'w hannog nhw i ddangos effaith peidio â bod yn yr ysgol ar eu plentyn nhw. Achos dyw cosb, fel dywedodd Mary, ddim yn mynd i weithio. Ond dwi'n meddwl bod angen eu hala nhw i deimlo'n euog ynglŷn â'r ffaith, 'Os nad yw fy mhlentyn i yn yr ysgol, dwi'n eu hamddifadu nhw o gyfleoedd arbennig', a dwi'n meddwl mai hwnna yw e—ymgyrch genedlaethol, achos gallwn ni fel ysgolion ddim ei wneud e, i ddangos pwysigrwydd addysg i bob plentyn, a phwysigrwydd bod mewn cymuned mewn ysgol. 

We're never going to get back to a situation as it was pre pandemic. We've lost two years, and I think it's going to take a very long time for us to return to the position where we were. I think we need a campaign for parents to reconsider the importance of education, not to punish them, but to encourage them to do that by showing the impact of not attending school on their children. Because a punishment or a sanction, as Mary said, isn't going to work. But I do think we need to make them feel guilty about the fact that, 'If my child isn't at school, I'm disenfranchising them from special and particular opportunities.' And I think that's what it is—a national campaign. We as schools can't do it. It should be a national campaign to demonstrate the importance of education for every child, and the importance of being part of a community at a school.

Thank you, Llinos. Really helpful. We'll move on to questions now from James Evans, finally. James. 

Diolch, Cadeirydd. And I know it's been a long session, so I've got three short questions; I might roll two into one, if that's okay, in the interest of time, Chair. 

So, my first question is going to be: to what extent do you think that schools and other bodies are effectively engaging parents to support pupil attendance to get our learners in schools, and are there are any barriers there to the effective support that schools can give to parents? And I'll roll this question in because you mentioned it last time, Llinos: to what extent do you believe that the use of the FPN, the fixed-penalty notices, for regular non-attendance, can actually help get pupils get back into schools, so parents do believe that there is some punishment to not having their children in school? I don't know who wants to kick off there, guys. Maybe Llinos because it rolls into your last answer, really. 

Dwi ddim yn meddwl, James, ar hyn o bryd, bod y fixed-penalty notices yn mynd i weithio. Nawr, dwi'n meddwl bod angen ymgyrch i gychwyn i ddangos, i annog, achos yr un peth ag os ydych chi'n dweud wrth blentyn i siarad Cymraeg yn y dosbarth, os ydych chi'n cosbi, wnawn nhw ddim, os ydych chi'n annog, fe wnawn nhw. Rhyw fath o reverse psychology yw e—ein bod ni'n edrych ar rieni, a dweud, 'Wel, dyma beth maen nhw'n ei golli os nad ydyn nhw—.' Ond os mai pen draw hynny fydd mynd i'r notices, mae hwnna'n rhywbeth yn bell, dwi'n meddwl, lawr y lein, oherwydd dŷn ni ddim wedi cyrraedd fanna eto.

Mae'n rhaid cydweithio â'r rhieni yma. Ac er ein bod ni'n ceisio cydweithio, dwi'n dal i fynd nôl at y syniad—syniad rhieni—o work-life balance, ac mae hwnna'n effeithio ar beth maen nhw'n ei deimlo. Dwi'n cael rhieni'n dweud, 'O, dyw e ddim yn yr ysgol heddiw, roedd eisiau brêc arno fe.' Ha, ha, ie, ocê—iawn, ond mae agwedd rhieni wedi newid, ac mae eisiau newid yr agwedd yna, a dwi'n meddwl mai ymgyrchu i wneud hynny yw'r ateb, nid cosbi.

I don't think, James, that the fixed-penalty notices, as they currently stand, are going to work. I think we need a campaign initially to encourage, because if you tell a child to speak Welsh in a classroom, if you punish them, they won't, if you encourage them, they might. So, this is a kind of reverse psychology, isn't it—that we look at parents and say, 'Well, this is what they'll lose out on if they don't do this.' But if the consequence of that will be moving towards the notices, well that's something that should happen, I think, far down the line; we haven't reached that point yet.

We need to work with these parents. And although we try to work with them, we still go back to this idea, that parents' idea, that the work-life balance is having an impact on what they feel. I have parents saying, 'Well, he's not at school today, he needed a break.' Well, ha, ha—yes, that's fine, but parents' attitudes have changed, and we need to change that attitude, and I think we need a campaign to do that; that's the response, not punishing them.

10:15

I just wanted to add to what Llinos was saying. I think the fixed-penalty notices are perhaps important to have, but they're the nuclear option, aren't they? That's what you would go to when all other reasonable measures have been undertaken. And to come back to the initial question, about how effectively people have been engaging, obviously, schools and related institutions have been doing their best, but resourcing is a massive issue. And as Llinos has indicated, early on, and I know that we submitted in our written evidence, one of the concerns is that, in a way, in some schools, like Llinos was saying, you take the gamble, you make the investment, perhaps in staff to assist with this sort of work, not knowing necessarily whether that funding is coming. The danger is that perhaps not all schools will feel able to take that approach, and I think there needs to be confidence given to them that they are going to get the resources and the funding to do that, so that they can make that engagement with families, which is obviously so important in trying to secure good attendance from learners. Thank you.

I was going to say, does anybody else want to come in—Mary or Hannah? No.

Happy to. I totally agree with what's just been said. I've already said it's the worst thing for the worst group, in terms of fixed-penalty notices, because, as Llinos has already said, education is all about positive reinforcement, it isn't about punishing people. Hannah might have something to add.

Okay. Hannah, and then I'll bring Ken in briefly. Hannah.

Hi, James. I would just like to add that teachers' workload with this has gone up massively. They're phoning home on a regular basis to talk about how they can support the learners in the lessons, things that they're struggling with, things that they're behind with, because of, obviously, attendance issues. So, they're working additional hours every day, phoning home, making sure that parents are fully aware of the issues with their own subject areas. And, as well, we're phoning home from the pastoral side of things, to engage with these parents. But what you are seeing is that more parents are engaging with the process, and there is more conversation going on at parents' evening, and I think parents' evening being back face-to-face has been welcomed by communities. So, that is positive, and it's a refreshing experience to see parents in front of you as a teacher, to have those conversations. But much more work is being done in schools to support all learners with poor attendance, or with students not achieving their potential because of issues that we've already discussed. But it's a workload issue as well, and teachers are going to end up being ill because they're doing above and beyond—they are doing a significant amount more work every day, and myself included in that. So, it is difficult, but it's how we can bring more funding and more support to support the communities, on top of everything that's being done.

Okay. Is that the end of your questioning, James? I realise this is the last minute, so if you—

I've got one more question, but I can make it short if Ken makes his short.

Okay, and then we'll have to finish there. Keep it short, and then we'll have to finish there. So, brief answers as well—that would be great.

You go for it, James. I don't think I need to ask mine.

Okay. So, mine was just on community-focused schools and the work that they do outside the school day, with their community focus and trying to bring all the community together to help pupils. So, how effective do you think they are at supporting parents and learners in relation to school attendance? What do you think the barriers are to implementing more community-focused schools right across Wales?

10:20

Yes, really quickly. So, yes, community-focused schools are really great, particularly in principle, and schools that are in their local communities. And the more, particularly that building can be used outside of school hours—great, particularly for enrichment: so, no longer school, but other activities that not every young person is going to have the opportunity to do, if somebody's not providing it—brilliant. We've got to be really careful. So, I think it's really important that we keep talking about this because, like I said earlier, a foodbank in a school is not necessarily a good thing and we don't want to add to a sense of shame and discourage young people from going to school. So, we've got to be really careful about how we think about that, particularly as a resource, as a building—it's really important. What we've got to be careful about as well is, of course, workload for teachers, and, of course, although some members of support staff might want extra hours, not everybody is going to want to, so it's really important how we think about the workforce and that going forward.

I think the idea is fantastic, but I think obviously we need more information about a shared understanding of what that means. And it is a concern that, if this is left to individual schools, children are going to be the losers, because not every school is perhaps going to be able to make the same offering and this needs to be co-ordinated on a local authority basis if it's going to really make a difference. And, again, the resourcing is vital. Teachers and other school staff are, as we've heard, completely overloaded already; they're not going to be in a position to help this to occur. They need more resourcing and investment, and that obviously takes time, that takes co-ordination. And that is an increasing burden on headteachers if they are left holding that position. So, we certainly welcome the additional funding into looking into that, but it is a massive investment and we need to see more money and more evidence about the money that's going to be invested into that if it's going to be a success.

Thanks, Menai. I'm going to bring Ken in quickly here.

No, no. I'm going to bring Ken in and then if everybody can wrap up, then, with Ken's question.

Thanks, Chair. I hear what you say about fixed-penalty notices. We've also heard from local authority representatives. Would anybody disagree that fixed-penalty notices, and the use of them, are designed first and foremost to uphold a child's right to education?

Can you rephrase that question, Ken?

Yes, sure. Fixed-penalty notices are designed to uphold a child's right to education—is that correct?

If I can come in on that. I'm sure that that is obviously why the fine is there. Whether it effectively achieves that I think is more in question.

Just to add, obviously, I work with children's rights—article 28 is the one you talk about, Ken—I'm fully aware of them. And I can see how it would be in place to support that child coming back into school if they're out, but we need to find out why that child isn't there in order to support them, and to punish the parent—the child is going to lose out as well financially, if the parents are going to be fined, so that will then impact other articles that they are receiving as well. So, we have to be very careful that the family are re-educated, I suppose, with the campaign that Llinos has talked about and to support them coming back in, because there are a lot of articles, and to make sure they have one, they're going to be affected by having the others.

I had to ask because there's a bit of a gulf emerging in views on this, so I'm really, really grateful for your answers. Thank you. 

Yes, thank you very much, and thank you for taking the time this morning to give us evidence. We really appreciate it. We have run over time, but I think, given such important evidence you've brought to us as well—. So, you will receive a transcript of the proceedings today. Diolch yn fawr. Thank you for coming to give us that evidence today. We will now take a technical break and we'll bring in the next witnesses.

10:25

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:25 a 10:27.

The meeting adjourned between 10:25 and 10:27.

3. Absenoldeb disgyblion—sesiwn dystiolaeth 5
3. Pupil absence—evidence session 5

[Inaudible.]—this inquiry today on pupil absence. We've been joined by Catherine Evans, assistant director, Liz Miles, assistant director, and Mark Campion, Her Majesty’s inspector. You're all very welcome. Thank you for joining us. We've got a number of questions this morning from Members. We'll make a start with questions from Ken Skates.

Thank you, Chair. Firstly, what do you believe are the main reasons for the increase in general and persistent pupil absence in Wales?

Most of the increase has been related to the pandemic, either because of COVID-19 absence itself, or a combination, and that's taken pupil attendance below 80 per cent. We know that some young people have had COVID more than once during the last academic year, and obviously those periods away from school will have contributed to their absence. For a small number of pupils, their emotional well-being and mental health has been affected in the long term by the pandemic, and they've really struggled with returning to school, so again another group that potentially fall into that persistently absent category. Some of those struggled with the routine of going back to school and experiencing high levels of anxiety as well. These are unlikely to be recorded as absence due to COVID, so they're contributing to that increase in other absence categories.

Thank you. I've got a wasp in the room now. To what extent do you believe that uncertainty or anxiety about exams may have exacerbated pupil absence?

I think this has been a factor for some pupils, particularly those who have already been struggling, finding their mental health and well-being difficult, and then pressures due to exams will have exacerbated some of that anxiety that they were already dealing with.

10:30

In terms of data, what are your views on the availability of data on pupil absence? What sort of additional information could help schools and councils understand the many issues relating to school attendance? 

We think that more data would be very helpful. It would help us to do a fuller analysis and to identify patterns and trends at a much more granular level—so, for example, being able to analyse attendance codes by local authority or by groups of learners, for example those who are eligible for free school meals, and also looking at those that are persistently absent but maybe haven't had absence because of COVID-19 itself. I think being able to cut that data in a number of different ways and have a fuller analysis would really help to understand particular patterns and help Welsh Government and local authorities to really tailor their support to address the issues. 

Okay. That's really helpful. Thank you. Are you aware that costs of attending school may be a contributing factor in rising levels of absence, and has it got worse, do you think, since the pandemic?

We haven't got any evidence that the cost of attending school and its impact on attendance is worse since the pandemic. However, the cost of living in general, we believe, has had an impact on attendance. Those living in rural areas, if they miss the bus, they can't afford the public transport. And we've also got a couple of concerns around the costs of visits and trips. We know that some schools subsidise this heavily, but that's not always the case, and that can add to the emotional strain on children; they're not getting the same experiences of opportunities as their peers.

Thank you. Finally from me, Chair, how and to what extent have different groups of learners been affected by general and persistent absence, for example learners who are disabled, black, Asian and ethnic minority groups, young carers and care-experienced learners? And what more do you think should be done to support them?

We've got some particular concerns around those pupils with additional learning needs who had their education disrupted, sometimes because of the lack of adult support that was available due to the COVID experience; sometimes they got switched off from school because learning online didn't work for them in their particular circumstances. And we feel that those who have additional learning needs is an area of concern currently and going forward.

What more can be done for these groups of learners? Well, hopefully the levels of attendance will rise as more staff become available, both within schools, and as services reopen up and are able to give them the support that they need. We also know that some communities have been adversely affected, particularly some of those black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who were hit very badly by the pandemic. I know of one school that has worked exceptionally hard to work with that community, and that seems to be the key: getting community leaders on board and understanding all the precautions that the school has taken, and encouraging them back into education. It's taken a lot more time for some of these schools to rebuild some of those relationships because the community was so fractured and so affected by the pandemic in the very early stages, but there are signs, in the few schools that I've spoken to directly, where those communities are coming back in to school.

Liz, would you be able to share with us some more information about that school and some of the good practice that's gone on, or point us in the direction of that?

Do you want me to name the school?

No, it's fine. Could you send more information to the committee? It would be really helpful to see some of the good examples of where that's worked really well.

Thank you, Liz. Thank you, Ken. Moving on to questions now from Laura Jones.

Thank you. Chair, you're completely right, I think that would be really valuable, because the support and how schools have reacted across Wales has been completely different, and I don't think that's a good thing, so it would be valuable.

The impact on attainment is difficult to measure, as you have stated. From the data available, we can see that the proportion of U grades awarded for pupils entering for GCSEs in English and maths in Wales in 2021 increased significantly compared to the previous year. What do you believe the short-term and long-term risks and consequences are for learners, for example in terms of mental health and well-being, on learning and attainment? Thanks.

10:35

Bore da, bawb. Thank you. The correlation between attendance and attainment is well documented, and the cause and effect is quite obvious in many respects, isn't it? We know that attendance at school is a powerful predictor of outcomes at the end of key stage 4. We've previously reported that the students who have over 95 per cent attendance at school are almost twice as likely to achieve a C grade in English or Welsh and mathematics, compared to a student with less than 90 per cent attendance. Of course, we've been through an unprecedented period with the pandemic, and everybody's attendance has been hit, so those kinds of traditional parameters around what you might expect have gone by the way. And, of course, they haven't sat examinations for two years until this summer, again.

Until isolation rules were lifted, some pupils will have been absent from school due to COVID, but nevertheless still well enough to learn. Maybe they had the virus, someone in their household had the virus, or maybe their family were keeping them off school for their own protection. Maybe they had a holiday coming up; we noted dips in attendance towards the end of terms for that reason. So, while pupils have been absent from school, some of them have been able to continue with their learning better than others due to the varying levels of support they've received, either from their school or from their family. Of course, a consequence of the pandemic is that learners generally are now better placed to learn from home, for any reason, in the future.

Pupils often cope with short-term absences and catch up with their learning fairly quickly, although, of course, this still does depend on school and family support levels and their own personal motivation. And the pressure to catch up is more challenging for learners in key stages 4 and 5 who are working towards external qualifications. Where you've got longer term absence or regular short-term absence, this has a much greater impact; it's difficult to catch up if a lot of learning has been missed. They'll have important gaps in knowledge and key skills won't have been developed, and that's where the school-level interventions are really important to support the pupils who were affected by those longer term absences.

We noted our concern, as you mentioned, in our response about the proportion of learners who received U grades last year, and I think that the concern would be where are those students now, and what support are those students receiving. In the destination survey, the not in education, employment or training at 16 figure doesn't really tell us the full picture about the extent to which young people are engaged in education, employment or training; it just gives us that initial destination. But we know from other data that 10 per cent of learners aged 16 to 19 typically are not in education, employment or training in Wales. So, we have a concern about that cohort of learners last summer.

The correlation between attendance and well-being is less straightforward. Missing a lot of school and getting behind in your learning can clearly have a negative impact on the learners' well-being, and in the short term, that could result in low self-esteem or anxiety around returning to school. And the longer the absence, of course, the greater the impact may be. And we know that, in the long term, poor mental health is associated with weaker outcomes at key stage 4.

However, there is an alternative narrative here too that's important. Some pupils may have poor attendance at school because of their mental health. Sadly, school is not a pleasant experience for all learners. It may be because they feel unfairly treated, maybe they feel bullied or harassed, they don't feel valued, or they don't feel that their individual needs are being met. And for these learners, being absent from school over the last two years, for whatever period of time it may be, may, in some ways, have been a tonic for them, and being off school may actually have had a positive effect on their mental health. In these cases, the thought of returning to school is problematic. For those pupils, it's important that schools work carefully with families to understand what the issues are for those learners and ensure that school is a more positive experience for them on returning to school. And while it's important to provide support services to those learners and families, and they may be external support services that the local authority or partners provide, it's equally important that schools themselves consider how they may need to change the way they work and understand where the young person is coming from.

10:40

Thank you, Mark. Laura. You're on mute. You were on mute at the start, Laura, so do you want to start again? You're okay now.

Yes, you're right: being able to track where those learners are is very important. Those U-grade students, where are they now? Are they at home being educated, are they getting the support they actually need? Do you think the support given to home learning is adequate from the local governments? I'll ask you that now, but also, we can see that home education, from the limited data that there is, is on the increase. Do you think that it's absolutely vital that the data around home learning and who is actually doing it, and what learners are doing it in terms of, are there additional learning needs, are they free school meals based, are they, as you just described, unhappy for other reasons? We need to have a much clearer picture about why people are going to be home learning and deregistering from schools now. I think that's a really big part of this, and then, obviously, ensuring that they are getting the support that they need, targeted support that they need for their various different reasons at home. As you said, it suits some people, as we've touched on, to have home learning for the reasons you outlined, but for those numbers, it's absolutely essential, don't you agree, that that data needs to increase? And do you have any concerns about the numbers of people now deregistering and being home educated? Do you think it's actually because we're not supporting children well enough to come back into school? Thanks.

Yes. I mean, it's likely that some of those pupils who've moved to home education were those that I just described, that school wasn't the most pleasant of experiences for them, and having had some time away has helped them and their family to reflect on that, and they've obviously taken that decision to deregister the children. Some of them do return, who are deregistered. So, we are seeing some children return to school, but, clearly, there's a large number who have remained in home education and we do indeed have more children in home education now than we have in the school population in our smallest local authority. So, it is a concern to us, not because home education is inherently damaging, because it's not, but because we don't have a statutory system in Wales to ensure that children who aren't in school or other provision receive their right to a suitable education.

Ironically, the introduction of statutory guidance for home education from Welsh Government was a casualty of the pandemic, because there wasn't room in the Senedd to proceed with the introduction of that guidance. But we would support the introduction of statutory guidance, which we think would certainly support local authorities in their work with home-educated families as well as schools.

Of course, local authorities do currently have, often, skilled staff who are working with home-educated children and their families, through voluntary arrangements, and they offer a variety of support, from access to resources, access to examination centres, access to assessments for additional learning needs and so on. And they also help to make sure that the children and families have access to the sorts of support services that other children in schools have access to, like school-based counselling or youth services and things like that. And sometimes, where you've got groups of families who collaborate as home educators, they work with that group as well.

But, of course, if this is all voluntary and if those families don't make themselves known or don't wish to engage with the local authority, there are very limited powers currently with the local authorities to intervene in terms of making sure that children have a suitable education. They're currently required to try and identify children who are not in school that ought to be, but there's not much else that they can do if the families aren't willing to be involved.

And I think the pressure that local authorities are under now is clearly greater, with twice as many families in home education as there were at the start of the pandemic, but no difference, really, in the size of the teams in local authorities. Clearly, their resource is much more spread around in terms of their ability to engage and provide support to those home-educated families and try and keep track of where there are issues, potentially, as well. So, additional funding would be needed to even get back to the pre-pandemic level of support for home-educated families in Wales, and that's before you introduce any statutory guidance, which would put additional responsibilities onto local authorities that would probably benefit children in ensuring that their right to education is there.

You mentioned data, and it's really important, as you say, to try and understand who is moving from school into home education. To be fair, there was quite a lot of information around, pre pandemic, about this. So, we were able to see which year groups children were being deregistered from, and you could see where there were pinch points, which times of the year children were more likely to move out of the school. We knew information about their background, their gender, their ethnic background, their free school meal entitlement. All that information was available pre pandemic. So, we would have expected local authorities, in particular, to have analysed their local data and picked up patterns with particular schools, particular year groups or particular groups of children that seem to be being deregistered by their families. That data wasn't generally published by Welsh Government. So, the only data that you will find if you do a search on home education in Wales on the Welsh Government's website is the high-level information about the number of learners and the rate of learners by local authority by year.

10:45

Thank you for those comments and answers. That's fine. Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, Laura. We'll move on to some questions from Sioned Williams.

Bore da. Dwi eisiau gofyn cwpwl o gwestiynau ynglŷn ag effeithiolrwydd polisïau a chanllawiau presennol y Llywodraeth. I ba raddau ŷch chi'n meddwl bod y cwricwlwm a'r ystod o gymwysterau rhwng 14 ac 16 oed yn cael effaith ar absenoldeb disgyblion? Rŷn ni wedi clywed tystiolaeth mai'r disgyblion hŷn yma sydd yn fwyaf absennol o'r ysgol. Ydych chi o'r farn hefyd y bydd y cwricwlwm newydd yn rhoi cyfle i ailennyn diddordeb dysgwyr, neu ydych chi yn pryderu efallai bod yna orddibyniaeth ar gyflwyniad y cwricwlwm newydd i wneud hynny?

Good morning. I wanted to ask a few questions regarding the effectiveness of existing policies and guidance from the Welsh Government. To what extent do you think that the curriculum and the range of 14-16 qualifications are having an impact on pupil absence? We've heard evidence that it's these older pupils who are most often absent from school. Are you also of the view that the new curriculum will provide the opportunity to re-engage learners and spark their interest, or do you feel that there is an over-reliance on the introduction of the new curriculum to do just that?

Diolch yn fawr. Yn amlwg, mae ansawdd y cwricwlwm yn cyfrannu'n bwysig tuag at brofiad pobl ifanc yn yr ysgol, ac mae'n bwysig bod y cwricwlwm yn diwallu diddordebau ac anghenion yr holl ddisgyblion o fewn yr ysgol. Mae ehangder y cwricwlwm i ddisgyblion ym mlwyddyn 10 ac 11 wedi culhau dros y blynyddoedd. Dŷn ni wedi gweld hynny, bod nifer yr opsiynau sydd ar gael wedi cwtogi dros amser, a dŷn ni hefyd yn ymwybodol bod rhai cyrsiau, yn enwedig cyrsiau galwedigaethol, yn gallu bod yn ddrutach i'w darparu, ac mae ysgolion wedi gorfod cwtogi cyrsiau sydd ddim yn hyfyw o'r cwricwlwm os oes dim ond nifer fach, efallai, o ddisgyblion wedi dewis astudio'r cyrsiau hynny. Mae angen wedyn ystyried os yw'n bosib rhedeg y cyrsiau yna.

Fodd bynnag, mae yna nifer o enghreifftiau lle mae ysgolion yn cydweithio'n dda er mwyn ehangu'r ddarpariaeth sydd ar gael i'w disgyblion ac yn defnyddio technoleg, er enghraifft, trwy e-sgol ac yn y blaen. Felly, mae yna ffyrdd o gwmpas ac mae gweithio mewn partneriaeth yn amlwg yn allweddol.

O ran a fydd Cwricwlwm i Gymru yn rhoi cyfle i ailennyn diddordeb, yn amlwg mae Cwricwlwm i Gymru yn gyfle i ehangu'r cwricwlwm. Yn ogystal, mae ansawdd yr addysgu yn allweddol, sicrhau bod y profiadau ehangach mae disgyblion yn eu cael rili yn diwallu eu hanghenion. Wrth baratoi ar gyfer Cwricwlwm i Gymru, mae ysgolion yn cynllunio i sicrhau bod ehangder a dyfnder digonol i'r cwricwlwm. Mae Cwricwlwm i Gymru yn herio'r ysgolion i godi dyheadau i ddarparu cwricwlwm ysbrydoledig a'r pedwar diben, rili, yn greiddiol i hynny. Felly mae'r gwaith mae Cymwysterau Cymru yn ei wneud nawr i edrych ar yr ystod o gymwysterau a fydd ar gael i'n pobl ifanc ni yn mynd i fod yn allweddol hefyd.

Thank you very much. Clearly, the quality of the curriculum makes an important contribution to the experience of young people in schools, and it's important that the curriculum meets the needs and interests of all pupils within school. The breadth of the curriculum for those in years 10 and 11 has narrowed over the years. We've seen that, that the number of options available has declined over time. We're also aware that some courses, particularly vocational courses, can be more expensive to provide, and schools have had to cut courses that aren't viable from the curriculum, if only a very small number of pupils have chosen to study those courses. They then need to consider whether it is possible to run those courses.

However, there are a number of examples where schools co-operate well to expand the provision available to their pupils, and are using technology, for example, through e-sgol and so on. So, there are ways around this, and working in partnership is clearly vitally important in that sense.

In terms of whether the Curriculum for Wales will provide an opportunity to re-engage pupils, clearly, the Curriculum for Wales is an opportunity to expand the curriculum. In addition, the quality of teaching is vital, ensuring that the wider experiences that pupils receive do genuinely meet their needs. In preparing for the Curriculum for Wales, schools are planning to ensure that there is a sufficient breadth and depth of courses with regard to the curriculum. The Curriculum for Wales challenges schools to raise their aspirations, to provide an inspiring curriculum, and the four objectives are at the heart of that. So, the work that Qualifications Wales is doing now to look at the range of qualifications that will be available to our young people is going to be vital too.

Diolch. Oes rhywun arall eisiau dod i mewn ar hynny?

Thank you. Does anybody else want to contribute on that?

Ocê, diolch yn fawr. Pa effaith mae capasiti staff mewn ysgolion a meysydd eraill fel gweithwyr cymorth ieuenctid wedi ei gael ar fynd i'r afael ag absenoldeb disgyblion yn eich barn chi?

Okay, thank you very much. What impact has staff capacity in schools and in other areas, such as youth support workers, had on tackling pupil absence, in your view?

10:50

Yes. You've already heard, I think, from education welfare services in a private session with them, so I'm sure they will have explained in more detail than I can the impact that the pandemic has had on their work. But, of course, where those services would traditionally have worked, say, with pupils once their attendance dipped below 80 per cent, and that was the threshold they worked to, that's no longer relevant due to the very high number of learners that would be in scope for those services. So, they've had to readjust and focus their resource on the most vulnerable pupils. Sometimes, you're talking below 30 per cent as a threshold at points during the pandemic in terms of their capacity to work with learners and families, intensively anyway.

So, we have pupils and families around Wales currently who would have previously received support from education welfare staff, and other services like the youth support service staff, but that are either not receiving a service currently or are receiving a very limited service, simply because of the capacity to provide the support at the same level as it was pre pandemic.

Increasing capacity quickly in specialist services is really challenging. You can't just take on a whole load of extra education welfare officers or school-based counsellors, or whoever it may be. So, of course, the services themselves may well have struggled with staff absence. So, as well as struggling to recruit additional staff, they're actually struggling to maintain their own team because of the impact that the pandemic has had on their own staff team.

And, the impact this all has, of course, is that it results in schools having to try and mitigate for the lack of that external support service capacity, so that schools' own services then become stretched in trying to work with a broader number of learners with their own staff, and we know that schools have been trying to recruit some additional staff who have responsibilities to engage with families, but actually some of those schools have also been struggling to recruit. So, it's not without a will sometimes; it's just the challenge across the system of trying to recruit people who can provide additional capacity across all levels of the system, really, from universal right through to intensive targeted support services.

Diolch. Ond eto, yn y dystiolaeth rŷch chi wedi'i darparu, rŷch chi wedi nodi bod Llywodraeth Cymru wedi darparu cyllid ychwanegol ar gyfer pethau fel gwasanaethau cwnsela, ond wedyn bod gwasanaethau yn hanner yr ardaloedd awdurdodau lleol wedi gweld gostyngiad yn y niferoedd sy'n defnyddio'r gwasanaethau o'i gymharu â'r flwyddyn cyn hynny. Beth ŷch chi'n meddwl yw'r rheswm dros hyn? Pam nad yw pobl ifanc wedi bod yn defnyddio'r gwasanaethau cwnsela hyn? Ydych chi'n credu bod angen gwneud mwy i hyrwyddo'r gwasanaeth yma, ac os felly, pwy ddylai fod yn gwneud hynny?

Thank you. But, in the evidence that you've provided, you've noted that the Welsh Government has provided additional funding for things such as counselling services, but that the services at half of the local authority areas have seen a drop in the numbers accessing those services as compared to the previous year. So, what do you believe is the reason behind this? Why haven't young people been accessing these counselling services? Do you think that more needs to be done to promote the availability of these services, and if so, who should be doing that?

If I can carry on there, thank you. You're right, although I'm not sure it's necessarily to do with the demand issue from young people. We don't actually have data about the number of young people who have requested or been referred for counselling services in the way that, for example, we do for CAMHS. So, we don't know how many are waiting and we don't know how long they wait; that data isn't captured. So, although the number of young people accessing services in the last full year that we have the data for is lower than we perhaps would have wanted to see, it may well actually be a result of capacity in counselling services themselves to take on young people, and, of course, there's huge variability across Wales in that respect. We're aware of where some services in some local authorities have had real problems internally with their own services, which is why the number of young people receiving services is so low; it's because simply there isn't the capacity there to take them on, not because young people don't know about it or they haven't been referred.

Of course, counselling services, like many services, moved online during the pandemic. There are pros and cons of online counselling, and young people, if you ask them, will give you mixed responses. Some young people actually like the fact that there's now online counselling available—I won't say quite post pandemic because we're not fully out, we're in a recovery period. But, most services that moved online have retained a degree of online service, and some young people like that. There are other young people who like face-to-face counselling and stopped attending and stopped engaging when the services moved online. So, it's not that one is better than the other; it's good to have options for young people. A key issue, therefore, is that we simply don’t know what the demand is, but we know that there are problems with the capacity in a lot of the counselling services around Wales, and, as I mentioned earlier in relation to education welfare services, it’s very difficult to suddenly recruit extra counsellors. Where do you get qualified counsellors from when all local authorities are all looking to increase capacity at the same time in the middle of a crisis, really, where such staff are very much in demand across the whole public?

10:55

Diolch, roedd hynna'n hynod o ddefnyddiol yn esbonio hynny yn eich tystiolaeth. Diolch. Un cwestiwn bach olaf gen i: beth fyddai canlyniadau cael trothwy cenedlaethol ar gyfer diffinio absenoldeb parhaus?

Thanks for that, that was very, very useful in explaining that in your evidence. One final question from me: what would be the consequences of having a national threshold for defining persistent absenteeism?

Sometimes, choosing a single indicator can drive unhelpful behaviours, and we’ve seen that in the past with other indicators that have been chosen in relation to education. I think we need to take account of the fact that the range of local authority services varies. Not all schools necessarily have a service-level agreement with their education welfare service. Some schools choose to make their own arrangements. So, we’ve got different pictures around Wales in terms of the services that are available, and it’s really useful to be able to analyse attendance data thoroughly, as Cath mentioned earlier, and at school, at local and national level, it’s really important that leaders are able to analyse data intelligently. You might want to look at how many pupils are below 90 per cent, 85 per cent, 80 per cent, 50 per cent, and there would be good reasons for exploring a range of different scenarios. And of course the child who has 80 per cent attendance will not have a similar profile to another child with 80 per cent attendance. How much of that is physical illness, mental illness, religious observance, family holidays? There are a range of factors, and so working with families and pupils, irrespective of a particular percentage of attendance, you’ve got to take into account the particular context of that family and that child’s circumstances to make sure that your support is tailored to that. So, while, up until recently, we had the 80 per cent as broadly what the Welsh Government had used for its definition of persistent absence, and that is a useful point, if you only focused on that, it could well have an adverse effect on the way in which support was provided to children and families. So, being able to have a range of options in terms of looking at attendance patterns is more helpful.

Thank you, Sioned. Some final questions, then, from James Evans.

Thank you very much, Cadeirydd. I’ll try and be as succinct as I can. To what extent are schools and other agencies effectively engaging parents to support pupils who are regularly having attendance problems, and what do you consider as being the barriers to providing effective support for parents?

Yes, thank you. We know, during the pandemic and post pandemic, that school staff provided and continued to provide vulnerable families with considerable additional support to encourage them to get their children to school. There are things like doorstep visits by staff or education welfare officers to engage the family in explanations. What’s really pleasing is that school leaders are telling us that they now have a much better understanding of the needs and circumstances of the families within their school communities, and they’re engaging well with parents on very many different levels. They’ve also identified that stronger multi-agency working, such as with agencies in health, youth justice and social services, has helped them to provide a much more joined-up approach to supporting learners to improve their attendance. But generally, the barriers to effective support are if a multi-agency approach can’t be used, because of availability of staff either within the school or within the services, inability to recruit to posts, or the capacity of the service to meet the current level of need. Otherwise, sometimes, even when a multi-agency approach is being used, if relationships break down to a point between the home, school and other services, then it's very difficult to re-engage with the family and get those children back into school. That's one of the greatest barriers. 

11:00

Okay. Does anyone else want to come in on that? No. Okay, that's fine. My next question: do you have any views on the extent to which the use of fixed-penalty notices for regular non-attendance can help tackle pupil attendance?

We think that the use of fixed-penalty notices could be the last resort when all other options have been exhausted when trying to secure improved learner attendance. As I just said, many schools are working tirelessly with families and external agencies to try to secure that improved attendance for individual learners, but if it has got to the point where all other options have been exhausted by the school and the other agencies and they believe they have no further avenues to explore, then in those instances, a fixed-penalty notice may be appropriate. 

Okay. Does anybody else want to come in on this—Mark or Catherine? No. That's fine. So, what is your view, then, on how community-focused schools can effectively support parents and learners in relation to school attendance, and what barriers do you think there are to implementing community-focused schools across Wales?

We've published thematic and annual reports in which we've highlighted the benefits of schools working with families and communities as community schools, and we think now, more than ever, it's vital that schools reach out to their communities in order to support the learning and well-being not just of pupils but of their families as well. And the response of the education community during COVID-19 has shown that schools can do this. During the pandemic, schools worked with a range of partners. Staff in schools have run local foodbanks, they've worked to deliver IT equipment, and we've seen a can-do attitude—innovation and collaboration to support the well-being of pupils and their families. And they've also worked well with other services. 

I'm not sure if you're aware, but in July 2020 we published a report on community schools, because we felt it was timely that we contributed our thinking about how we can work towards a post-pandemic system that builds on strong community spirit and civic responsibility. And what we've found is the features of an effective community school that are particularly relevant and that is: the role of the school in working with parents to build community leadership and community resilience; the importance of family learning, particularly programmes that help parents develop their confidence to support their children; the value of co-located services organised from the school as a hub, which enables not only families but residents to access a range of support in an accessible place; and the benefits of strategic collaboration and shared ownership of community school strategies; and the last one is the importance of strong, tenacious leadership that understands the challenges faced by that community that the school serves.

One of the biggest barriers is that, despite the evidence for the potential for community schools in all the research literature, in Government policy, the vision for community schools in Wales has not been realised in a comprehensive or sustained way. And, over time, the concept of community schools has been interpreted in a variety of ways, and that has left us a legacy of different types of provision. And I think the provision was described in a report by the Public Policy Institute for Wales in 2016, and they talked about largely unco-ordinated provision at a local or national level, because most developments are at school level, usually driven by individual leaders who have a strong moral purpose and an understanding of the value of working with families in their communities.

If you'll allow me, Chair, I have an additional question, if that's okay.

On pupil attendance, we all know that pupils are under a massive amount of pressure at the minute with regard to standards and achieving the correct, appropriate grades, because if they don't, they can't go to the universities of their choice. This is putting a huge, huge mental strain on our pupils, and that obviously feeds up to the staff, who are under a huge amount of pressure from the regulator. And since I've got Estyn in front of me, I couldn't not ask this question, because Estyn do—as a school governor—come breathing down the necks sometimes of schools to make sure that standards are maintained to a higher level. That puts teachers under an awful lot of pressure, which means they're putting a lot more pressure on pupils. And if you've got some pupils who aren't as academically minded as others, and because the curriculum before was always very focused on outcomes, of Bs and A*, whatever, if pupils weren't achieving that, I think they felt undervalued and didn't want to go to school because they felt so much pressure. Do you recognise, as a regulatory body, that sometimes the pressure put on our schools and education establishments can actually feed pupil absences, because they actually feel so much pressure to achieve that they can't actually do what the teachers expect them to do because they're being pushed by regulators to achieve a certain standard? Who wants to fire on at that one? 

11:05

I'm happy to come in, and maybe other colleagues might want to say something. We resumed core inspections back in February. Before then, we'd spent the pandemic engaging with all education and training providers in Wales, and that really helped us to understand the challenges and the pressures that schools and their communities were facing. Last summer we resumed our face-to-face monitoring of schools causing concern, and we've been engaging with those schools. They had a named inspector who worked with them. We felt that after half-term in February was the right time for us to resume inspections, and we asked for volunteer schools to help us to pilot our new approach to inspection. And the context of schools has been a really important part of restarting our inspections—[Inaudible.]—the challenges, working with schools, so that inspection is something that is a partnership, it's not something that's done to a provider. 

The fact that we have serving school leaders as part of the inspection team and the nominee role is a really important part of that inspection. And a key change to our new inspection arrangements is that we've been piloting the removal of summative grading. So, we are focused on making sure that inspection helps to identify those strengths in areas for improvement within a provider, but we're not boiling that up to a summative grade, which could make inspection even more high stakes. We've also worked to make sure that we're communicating our work better in engaging with teacher unions and headteacher unions to make sure that we've got as much information as possible about inspection on our website, on our social media, and I think busting some of those myths around inspection as well.

Following on from our pilot inspections, we've also had surveys with teachers and with school leaders. So, we're really pleased that over 400 teachers and school leaders have given us direct feedback following their school inspections, and we're now considering how we can take that feedback on board as we roll out inspection further in the autumn term.

Can I jump back in, Chair, if that's okay? I know and I've been told by governors from across my constituency that they are petrified of Estyn, because if Estyn come in and give a bad Estyn report, it gives a way for local authorities to rationalise schools and say, 'We can close schools in this area because you're not meeting standards', and it gives excuses to close schools. And that puts an awful lot of pressure on teachers—from the governors down to teachers and down to pupils—to achieve, to make sure that they're maintaining a certain standard, even though you do have blips in cohorts, because I know as a governor of a high school, one year you can have A* pupils, the next you can have Bs and Cs; that's just the way cohorts work. I think that puts an awful lot of pressure on staff and pupils to achieve when they have this 'points mean prizes' system that if you don't achieve, you could be under threat of something else. And I think it does put a lot of pressure on pupils, which does tend to push pupils out of school sometimes, from the experience that I've seen. 

We understand that there are going to be different views, and that's part of the reason why we've been working over the past two to three years to really evolve and adapt inspection. That's why triangulation of inspection is really important, and not basing a judgement on, for example, outcomes at the end of key stage 4. We are looking at that broader feedback from learners, from parents, from teachers themselves, and that's one of the reasons why we've renamed inspection area 1 in our new framework as 'learning', to give that stronger focus on learning throughout a young person's time in school, rather than 'standards', as it was called previously, which was sometimes interpreted as that summative outcome for that young person. 

The experience for all learners is important in inspection. We are focusing on the experience of groups of learners, those pupils with additional learning needs, pupils who have experienced more disadvantage, as well as our more able learners as well. So, actually, looking at things through the lens of our young people is really important for us as an organisation.

11:10

Okay, thank you.

Thank you so much for joining us this morning. We really appreciate the evidence that you have given. Just to say, you'll be receiving a copy of the transcript for checking after that, so thank you very much. Just to committee members, we are now going to have a short comfort break. So, we will stop the broadcast now.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:11 a 11.33

The meeting adjourned between 11:11 and 11:33.

11:30
4. Absenoldeb disgyblion—sesiwn dystiolaeth 6
4. Pupil absence—evidence session 6

Good morning and welcome back to our sixth evidence session on pupil absence. For this session we're joined by Professor Ann John, professor of health and data science at Swansea University. Welcome, Professor John. We have a number of questions to ask you, a number of questions from all Members, but I'm going to make a start. I just wonder if you could tell us and explain about the background to your research on pupil attendance and neurological disorders.

Basically, I do a lot of work looking at children and young people's mental health, and suicide and self-harm prevention. As you know, more than half of mental health problems are evident by the age of 14, so schools are a really important place where we can intervene early and provide appropriate support and skills in how to manage mental health. So, that's why we do a lot of work that focuses on schools. 

Attendance, absence and exclusions has been strongly associated in many studies with future trajectory. So, pupils' attainment in school, which is why it's an important factor for schools, but also employment and where you are economically in the future and mental health are predicted by those issues. So, that's why we did this work. Lots of the studies that are out there are quite small in scale. They go into schools, they do surveys, but, often, the very pupils that we're interested in aren't in school to answer those questions. So, the work that we do is based in the adolescent mental health data platform and the secure anonymised information linkage databank at Swansea University. And that's where we—in a privacy protecting way for those of you that don't know about it—with anonymised data, can link healthcare data. So, that's that routinely collected data when you see your GP or your hospital, so all the things that they enter on the computer, and also, the routinely collected data from schools, so absences, exclusions, attainment, special educational needs status And we can anonymously link that data to really look at those associations at scale for all the pupils in Wales. 

11:35

Thank you. That's really interesting. We've got some questions from Members now. Ken. 

Thanks, Chair. First of all, with regard to the data, what data did you use to inform your study? Can you talk us through the raft of data that was available to you and what you selected?

We took primary care data, so that's data from around 85 per cent of general practices in Wales. When people go and see their GP, there's a number of things that get recorded—some diagnoses, but also hospital letters, that sort of data. We looked at that. We looked at hospital data as well, so outpatient appointments and hospital appointments. And then we linked that with what we call the national pupil database, the educational data set, which had attendance, exclusions and special educational needs status. And that, in a nutshell, was the data that we linked together and looked at.

Where this data is different is that the mental health issues that we were looking at have been assessed by doctors. That involves people going to see their doctor, the issue being recognised and recorded. So, I would say that some of the quite stark relationships that we saw with absence and exclusion, and a range of mental health, neurodevelopmental and self-harm issues, were probably underestimated, because, as we all know, lots of people don't make it into services with these issues. 

Thank you. And you considered both occasional absence and persistent absenteeism. Is that's correct?

That's an interesting question. We're looking at things at scale. We looked at data for 414,000 children between the years of 2012 and 2016. In order to make that analysable, because we were looking at so many disorders, we defined absence as more than 10 per cent in any year. Persistent absence in Wales, when we did this study, was defined at 20 per cent. In England, it's at 10 per cent of available sessions. There's an Estyn report, which I'm sure you're all aware of; I can't quite remember the year, but it basically showed a strong association between absence at higher levels than 10 per cent and, I think, more than 40 per cent of children not achieving grades A to C at GCSE level.

So, I think, although what we looked at wasn't the technical definition in Wales of persistent absences, it's important to note that lots of the evidence relates to where absence is more than 10 per cent. And I guess it's worth noting, because our study was pre COVID, the levels of absence that are occurring in Wales and England at the moment. We haven't returned to levels that were pre COVID. 

Okay. You've answered quite a few of my questions, actually, but I'm just going to ask, did you weight or take account of factors such as deprivation or ethnicity?

11:40