Is school optional nowadays? In summer 2022, 140,000 children were classed as ‘severely absent’ from the classroom, a rise of 134 per cent on before the pandemic. Some 1.5 million pupils – one in five children – are ‘persistently absent’, which means they miss more than 10 per cent of lessons. The problem is getting worse: for secondary students, absence rates in the first half of the 2023 autumn term were higher than in the same period a year before.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has vowed to make ‘tackling attendance’ her ‘number one priority’. Today, the government has announced £15 million of investment to expand its ‘attendance hubs’ programme to over 2,000 schools.
Yet this money will make little difference if we don’t explore the reasons children are missing school in the first place. Many politicians and policy researchers focus on the impact of lockdowns and the breakdown of the social contract between schools and parents. However, school absence is too complicated to have one single cause.
Illness is still the main cause of pupil absence in schools: this time last year health authorities were actively telling parents to keep their children at home if they were unwell. Weakened immune systems post-lockdowns and poor ventilation in schools do not help matters, but schools have always been a petri dish for bugs.
What has perhaps changed is our cultural attitudes towards illness. If we are feeling under the weather, adults – and children – can now seemingly ‘work from home’, and given that half of adults still work at least sometimes remotely, having an unwell child is no longer the childcare crisis it once was.
Unauthorised absences are where it gets more complicated. Poverty plays a part: last year, almost 40 per cent of disadvantaged pupils were persistently absent, whilst pupils with free school meals are three times more likely to be severely absent than their more affluent peers.