Headteachers and school leaders are becoming increasingly worried that a “cultural shift” in attitudes is causing a crisis in attendance, with more pupils absent than before the Covid pandemic.
Teachers say parents are now more reluctant to send children to school and more resistant to efforts to encourage attendance, with school leaders in England warning it may take years to repair national attendance figures.
Specialists who spoke to the Guardian said fears around illness had been heightened since the pandemic, and are being driven by worsening support for mental health as well as the strain experienced by the NHS and the cost of living crisis.
Their fears are supported by figures from the Department for Education (DfE) showing a sustained increase in authorised and unauthorised absences in state schools across England.
Secondary schools appear worst affected, with pupils missing more than 9% of classroom time in the first term of the latest academic year, compared with an average of about 5.4% in the five years between 2014 and 2019.
While illnesses accounted for a steep rise in children staying away during December, when many parents were concerned about strep A and scarlet fever outbreaks, the rate of unauthorised absences reported also rose by 70%.
Sheila Mouna, the headteacher at St Anne’s and Guardian Angels Catholic primary school in east London, said while parents had become more anxious about their children going to school, others were more willing to let them stay home since the pandemic.
“I think there’s been a cultural shift with people working at home, and some people – not all – seem to think their kids did OK at home, so things like that have become ingrained in some parents’ mind.
“But children need to be out and about, to be with their friends and learn to socialise. It’s not just academic,” Mouna said.
Stuart Lock, the chief executive of the Advantage Schools academy trust in Bedfordshire, said pupil attendance was a matter of concern for all school leaders.
“I thought it was a blip. I now think that this is an established crisis that is going to get worse and take years to solve,” Lock said.
“I don’t know how we’ll fix this – it feels like there has been a shift, and it isn’t dissimilar to the early 2000s when it was very hard to get a significant number of pupils to attend school regularly.”
Lock said the DfE was aware of the national problem and was looking at policies to improve attendance, but added: “I think this is going to be a big challenge for all of us this year.”
Stephen Aravena, the attendance and welfare adviser at St Anne’s, said there were pupils who normally have “very good” attendance who were now spending days out of school, with the mental health and resilience of parents as well as children under strain.
“The landscape has changed. Pressures like the cost of living, all these things are impacting on families, so that’s brought a whole range of new problems that we need to deal with. We need to find new ways of responding to that,” Aravena said.
MPs on parliament’s education select committee are to hold an inquiry next month into the growing rates of persistent absence, questioning education leaders on possible causes including economic disadvantage as well as Covid.
Robin Walker, the Conservative MP who chairs the education committee, said: “Missing school can seriously undermine a child’s education and future life chances. It is imperative that we take a nuanced and sympathetic look at the reasons why absence has become a growing problem.”
Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said the absence rates “should set alarm bells ringing”.
“The failures of the government’s Covid recovery scheme, plummeting pupil wellbeing and the growing epidemic of mental ill health in our schools is driving non-attendance, which will lead to lower attainment and lower life chances for children and young people,” he said.