The reasons for increased levels of pupil absence in England are multiple and complex. Some were an issue before the Covid pandemic closed schools and disrupted the education of millions, but all have become more acute since, affecting huge numbers of pupils and their families. They include:
Anxiety and mental health issues
While poor mental health among young people was a growing concern before the pandemic, it has deteriorated since. According to NHS Digital, 18% of children aged seven to 16 had a probable mental disorder in 2022, up from 12.1% in 2017, meaning already overstretched NHS mental health services are unable to cope with rising demand.
In evidence to MPs investigating school absence, councils said they believed increased anxiety and lack of mental health support were driving a steep rise in pupils missing school, with some children struggling to leave home at all. Children are missing lessons while they await assessment and treatment. At school, meanwhile, cuts to pastoral support mean there is less help available for the many pupils who are struggling but not yet in crisis.
Deprivation and poverty have always been barriers to school attendance, but the upheaval caused by Covid and the cost of living crisis that followed has resulted in many more families struggling. Pupils eligible for free school meals – a key measure of disadvantage – have higher absence rates. In 2020-21 the absence rate for these pupils was more than double the rate for non-eligible pupils (7.8% compared with 3.7%).
Schools and charities say some parents cannot afford to ensure their child has a clean uniform or pay for bus fares every day. “With inflation and the cost of living crisis, their focus is around are they going to be able to feed their children at the end of the week,” said one charity worker. Given a choice of food or school, food wins.
Insecure, poor-quality housing is increasingly a barrier to children going to school, according to the education charity School-Home Support (SHS), which works with persistently absent pupils and their families to improve school attendance. SHS says 19% of the pupils it works with now cite where they live as a significant barrier to school attendance, up from 11% last year.
Typical problems are that families who are moved into refuges because of domestic violence, or into emergency accommodation after an eviction, can find themselves long distances from their school, making journeys expensive. Also, children in cramped, unsuitable accommodation have nowhere to do homework, which can make it challenging for pupils to engage with their studies and attend lessons regularly.
As well as absence as a result of being sick with Covid, children who missed out on a lot of social mixing during national lockdowns have not had the same exposure to common germs as previous generations, so have potentially been more susceptible to illness since, which has also contributed to increased school absence.
Government statistics for autumn 2022 show that 24% of pupils were persistently absent between September and December, missing at least 10% of sessions. The majority of those absences were caused by illness, with a rise in December linked to seasonal infections and the continued impact of Covid. More than 12% of pupils were classed as persistently missing because of illness.
Absences may have also increased since Covid as a result of the heavy-handed public health messaging associated with the pandemic, which has meant that post-pandemic rather than sending children into school with mild coughs and colds, parents are now more likely to keep them at home. This week, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, told parents they should send their children to school with a cold to boost attendance rates.
More parents working from home
New working patterns, including hybrid and home working, have made it is easier for some parents to be at home to look after children who are unwell, unable or unwilling to go to school. Some experts detect a “slightly more relaxed” attitude among parents.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, told the Commons education committee that since Covid there has been a peak in pupil absence on Fridays when many parents were working from home. “We’ve had evidence from kids: ‘Well, Mum and Dad are at home, stay at home’. We’re seeing slightly different attitudes in the post-Covid world.”
Special educational needs and disabilities
It is well known that children with special educational needs and disabilities are more at risk of absence from school, and that link has become more pronounced since the pandemic, which took a particularly heavy toll on many of these pupils.
While some children were unable to attend because of healthcare appointments, more often their absence was because the school was unable to deliver the required adjustments or provide a suitable learning environment, the children’s commissioner said.
Getting out of the habit
With Covid and national lockdowns, there is a theory that families and children lost the routine of going to school. After years of unquestioningly following a regimented timetable of getting up and off to school every morning, some families facing other challenges lost the habit and the capacity.
During lockdown, families were able to arrange their own time. Getting back to those old routines has been hard for some pupils. “They have lost important bits of their childhood and important bits of learning about getting yourself organised,” said one family support worker.