Persistent absence from school is a concerning and growing issue for many schools and children across the whole of the UK. In fact, this year the Department for Education reported the rate of persistent absence has reached an average of 22.6%, with special schools reporting 39.8% and secondary schools reporting 27.2% of pupils being persistently absent. This means over one in five pupils have missed 10% or more of their possible school sessions.
The long-term impacts of persistent absence are harmful to a child’s future person and prospects, with a clear negative correlation identified between pupils who are persistently absent and their academic achievement levels. These pupils also risk a higher likelihood to be excluded from school or drop out. Further, pupils with high absence rates often find it more difficult to connect with their peers, or face increased difficulties in their social and emotional development.
While school absences were already a serious issue prior to 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic certainly exacerbated it further, with a Schools Week investigation last month reporting a 60% rise in pupils who were home educated at some point in the academic year, as opposed to pre-pandemic levels. Many believe this is largely due to increased anxiety amongst pupils and their families, and stunted social and emotional development.
For example, local councils across England have reported a vast increase in anxiety levels in pupils and their parents which has hindered them from attending school. Additionally, the DfE’s Study of Early Education and Development (SEED) reported a clear increase in difficulties in children’s socio-emotional development following the lockdown period. These difficulties were even more severe for children with special education needs, who showed acute rises in emotional development issues and hyperactivity.
These issues are further exacerbated by rising costs, inflation, and wider funding pressures, which have, in many cases, forced schools to decrease the number of support staff and specialised teachers they can employ. This then translates to less support for children facing difficulties with anxiety or socio-emotional development. Said budgetary constraints also hinder the level of pastoral care a school can offer, particularly impacting vulnerable pupils, such as those with SEN, who require additional support.
Moreover, school absence goes beyond the issue of anxiety and emotional development and can also be a result of challenges within the home. In fact, the link between children facing economic disadvantages and persistent absence is stark, with nearly 40% of pupils who qualify for free school meals reported consistently absent, against 17.5% of pupils reported who do not qualify. For many low-income families, paying for bus fares, lunches and supplying clean uniforms every day is increasingly difficult to afford as the cost-of-living crisis persists.
Given the increase in persistent absence, what changes will need to come to protect learning outcomes?
While many in the sector have suggested a re-evaluation of the current education system, with the view that perhaps full-time hybrid learning is the future, this is unlikely to take full effect in the foreseeable future given the gaps many schools and families face in access to digital tools. The best approach to protect learning outcomes, prevent lost lessons and support socio-emotional development is to encourage classroom attendance on a full-time basis with an increased support for schools to provide effective provisions.
This will need to include a robust initiative to address anxiety levels and emotional difficulties amongst pupils, while also providing tangible solutions for disadvantaged families. A comprehensive plan will require effort across the whole sector; within schools, local authorities and attendance support organisations, and underpinned by support from the Department for Education. Ideally, the plan would incorporate reassuring public health safety advice from the Government, paired with additional support for schools to attract and retain specialist teachers that will ease the transition back to school full time for vulnerable pupils.
Appreciating this is a tall order, it is important to note that impactful change in this area will not happen overnight. Key decision makers will need to take a long-term, empathetic approach that focuses on restoring pastoral care where possible and using innovative methods of support that goes beyond the classroom.
It is probable the future of education will look very different in the coming years, with significant concessions being made for increased mental health needs and tight economic situations amongst pupils and their families. However, it is still crucial to make an effort towards restoring the status quo of daily face-to-face learning, as that is the tried and true way to ensure pupils are meeting key learning benchmarks, safeguarding their future prospects, and building socio-emotional skillsets.