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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

The post-pandemic rises in absence rates are staggering. The sudden surge in overall and persistent absence has left schools and policymakers scrambling for causes and solutions. Finding ways to bring pupils back into school is crucial – absence has a profound impact on educational attainment and, by extension, longer-term outcomes. The challenge is complex and widespread.

Our report finds that the rise in absence between 2019 and 2022 has affected pupils all over the country, with and without additional vulnerabilities (such as Free School Meals or Special Education Needs). Deteriorating mental health and a shift in long-held attitudes towards physical attendance (amongst parents and pupils) appear to be significant drivers of this change. Significantly, a small number of schools that have bucked the trend and lowered absence rates may hold the key to tackling this crisis.

What's in the report?

  • While absence has always been an issue that disproportionately affects pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, the recent rise in absence has affected pupils from all backgrounds all over the country.
  • The rise in absence rates for pupils in the early years of secondary school is a concerning sign that non-attendance habits are developing early and will worsen as pupils progress through school.
  • Friday absence rates have increased in recent years, but were already on the rise before the pandemic. This report found no evidence of a causal link between Friday absences and parents’ working from home.
  • Deteriorating pupil mental health is likely to be a significant factor, as is changing attitudes among parents and pupils to physical attendance.
  • There is no strong connection between known school characteristics and rises in absence during the pandemic.
  • A small number of schools have bucked the trend and managed to reduce absence in very challenging circumstances. Their approaches may be key to tackling
  • The rise in absence is likely to have a profound impact on educational attainment and long-term outcomes for a huge number of children.

Our recommendations

Policymakers must:

  • do more to examine the root causes of absence and build the evidence base on what works to reduce it
  • gain a greater understanding of pupils’ and parents’ shifting attitudes towards school
  • use behavioural science insights, including social norms messaging, to build pupil networks that can improve behaviour and increase attendance
  • use data to identify and preemptively support at-risk pupils
  • learn from the small number of schools who have managed to reduce absence during and after the pandemic.


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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Lucy Makinson

Lucy Makinson

Lucy Makinson

Head of Policy, Rapid Insights Team

Lucy is the Head of Policy for Nesta and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), and leads the Rapid Insights Team which sits across the two organisations.

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