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What keeps kids out of the classroom? The data behind the attendance crisis

School leaders, charities and commentators are all in agreement - falling pupil attendance is the biggest problem facing schools today. The Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel De Souza, has warned that absence is becoming ‘normalised’. Post-lockdown we’ve seen a huge rise in almost all the headline measures of absence. The rates of overall absence, persistent absence and severe absence have all increased by more than half in both primary and secondary school.

These are not one-off missed ‘snow days’ or a mischievous bunking off - persistently absent children miss 10% or more of school sessions and severely absent children miss 50% or more of their schooling. This comes with profound educational and safeguarding consequences. Persistently absent children are three times more likely to commit a criminal offence by age 17. Only 11% of severely absent children and 36% of persistently absent children achieve grades 9 to 4 in English and Maths.

What can a decade of attendance data can tell us?

Working with exclusive data from Arbor (a provider of management information systems and analytics for thousands of schools), in combination with publicly available DfE releases, we’ve been trying to identify the patterns of absences (both ‘authorised’ and ‘unauthorised’ by parents) and what’s driving them. By combining these data sets we’ve been able to make a comparison between pre and post pandemic daily attendance patterns over the last 10 years, something not possible using DfE data alone.

Here are five insights from our analysis of schools in England.

1) Pupils from all backgrounds are being impacted - not just the most vulnerable

The impact of the recent attendance crisis has been widespread and indiscriminate, not just confined to the most educationally disadvantaged groups.

Though disadvantaged students and students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) remain at much higher risk of absence, post pandemic it was pupils without additional needs or disadvantages that actually experienced the largest proportional increases in absence.

For example, pupils not eligible for free school meals (FSM) saw the levels of average absence increase by 55% (compared to a 44% for eligible pupils) and their rates of persistent absence more than doubled (compared to 63% for eligible pupils).

2) In secondary school, girls have been affected more than boys

For the first time, girls' attendance in secondary school is becoming significantly worse than boys. In 2018/19 attendance rates in secondary schools for girls and boys were broadly similar, with headline measures differing only by tenths of a percent. Four years later girls are experiencing higher rates of overall, persistent and severe absence.

Research from UCL shows that girls’ mental health was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and that they're likely to have taken on additional caring responsibilities. It's not surprising then to see within the data that female pupils have experienced a greater rise in overall, persistent and severe absence since the pandemic.

3) It’s not caused by parents working from home

Earlier in the year, Dame De Souza suggested a rise in Friday absences could be due to the increasing number of parents working from home and more recently Sir Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust, said that home working had affected parents’ obligation to get their children to school.

But our research found no compelling evidence that there's a connection between working patterns and absence. We found that in local authorities where more people report working from home, levels of school absences were actually lower not higher (our analysis did not isolate home working from other associated factors such as socio-economic status etc.). We also found that the increase in Friday absences aren't a uniquely post-pandemic phenomenon, having been on the rise in secondary schools since 2015/16.

4) Another wave of absenteeism could be coming

It's the youngest secondary school pupils that have experienced the biggest proportional rise in absence. Severe absence rates in Year 7 (age 11 to 12) have increased by almost 130% between 2018/19 and 2021/22.

This is a worrying sign for future absence rates. Attendance deteriorates as pupils progress through secondary school, so the disproportionate rises seen in Year 7 could be the beginning of a wave of worsening absence that will roll through schools in the coming years.

5) We may be able to learn from the handful of schools that kept attendance high

A very small number of schools seem to know the secret to good attendance - 27 secondary schools and 267 primaries (less than 1% and 2% of the total number of English state schools respectively) actually managed to improve their attendance during and after the pandemic. The majority were in urban areas but they didn't have a higher than average proportion of affluent pupils or lower levels of special educational needs.

In fact, we found almost no relationship between key school characteristics and the change in absence between pre and post-pandemic periods. We identified eight similar secondary schools (in terms of size and proportion of pupils with SEN, receiving FSM or who speak English as an additional language) and found that their overall, persistent and severe absence rates varied by as much as eight fold.

There’s more we need to understand, but we can still act now

There's still much more to be done to fully understand all the drivers of school absence. Though the evidence base for interventions is currently weak, there are steps that schools and policymakers can take now to help stem a future tide.

We need to do more to understand how parents and pupils' attitudes to physical attendance is changing, and what can be done to support them, including communicating more effectively with parents.

We also need to use data proactively. Schools produce significant amounts of attendance data, but it's rarely used to inform interventions or school policy, missing the opportunity to identify pupils at greatest risk and interrupt the trajectory towards serious absence.

The Behavioural Insights Team have also looked at how behavioural insights could help improve school attendance.


Tom Gunter

Tom Gunter

Tom Gunter

Senior Policy Advisor (Education), Rapid Insights Team

Tom joins Nesta as a senior policy advisor for the Rapid Insights Team.

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