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School attendance: analysing causes and impact in pursuit of solutions

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.


Even those with only a passing interest in education could not miss the latest topic of rising concern: attendance. Or, more accurately, the lack of it. Attendance has been described recently by school leaders, charities and commentators as the biggest problem facing policymakers and schools. The Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza, commented that greater levels of absence are becoming 'normalised'. The sudden, and seemingly persistent, rise in post-pandemic absence could have profound impacts on attainment and widening inequality. Understanding who has been affected by the surge in absence, and the potential drivers for the rise, is an important step in developing solutions.

What has happened to attendance after the pandemic?

Increases in some types of absence were already occurring before the pandemic, with unauthorised and severe absences (pupils missing 50% or more of school) on a gradual but steady upward trend in the years prior to 2019-2020. But 2021-2022 – the first academic year free of lockdown measures – saw a huge rise in almost all headline measures of absence. The overall absence rate (the percentage of school sessions missed), the persistent absence rate (the number of pupils missing 10% or more of sessions) and the severe absence rate rose by 50% or more in 2021-2022 in primary and secondary schools. Overall and persistent rates actually fell in special schools in 2021-2022, having risen sharply the year earlier.

Recent data for the 2022-2023 academic year shows that overall absence has largely levelled off. Rates in primary schools are marginally lower than the previous year, while the rate in secondary schools is marginally high. The picture is almost identical for persistent absence.

Where the biggest change has occurred is with the type of absence. Having spiked in 2021-2022, the authorised absence rate is now gradually falling in all settings. However, unauthorised absences have continued to rise, most noticeably in secondary schools, where the unauthorised absence rate is now 3.5%, more than double its value in 2018-2019.

In practical terms, an average secondary school class of 30 pupils last year had around three students missing in every single lesson, eight pupils who were absent for at least one day a fortnight and (almost) one pupil who was absent at least half of the time. This is, of course, a representation of the impact of national absence rates. Schools with a higher than average proportion of pupils on free school meals (FSM) and pupils with special educational needs (SEN) could have significantly more pupils missing on a daily basis. This level of absence will have serious impacts on attainment: only 11% of severely absent pupils and 36% of persistently absent pupils achieve grades 9 to 4 (the new A*-C) in English and maths, compared to 84% who missed no sessions during key stage 4. The absence rates we are observing now will eventually translate into profound and long-lasting inequalities for absent pupils. Getting good GCSEs greatly increases the chances of pupils progressing to further and higher education, earning more and living in better health, according to IFS research. Pupils who earn one grade more across nine GCSE subjects are likely to earn over £200,000 more across their lifetime. There are also wider potential implications for teachers and their pupils who are not frequently absent. It is much harder to deliver a structured curriculum when a significant number of pupils within a class miss portions of teaching throughout the year and require ongoing catch-up support.

While the most recent data shows that absence may be plateauing, an overall absence rate of around 7.5% and persistent absence rates at almost 50% for some groups should, therefore, be front of mind for education policymakers.

To bring absence levels back down, we need to understand what is driving non-attendance. Working with data from the DfE and Arbor (a company that provides management information systems and analytics for over 6,000 schools across the UK), we have been trying to understand what patterns of absence can tell us about potential drivers – and solutions.

Who is missing school?

Disadvantaged students (defined by the DfE as those eligible for FSM) and students with SEN were at much higher risk of absence prior to the pandemic, and this remains the case in the years following the pandemic. A staggering 47% of secondary school pupils eligible for FSM were persistently absent in 2022-2023 (an increase of 65% from 2018-2019). But data reveals that all pupils, regardless of disadvantage and additional needs, experienced significant increases in absence. Persistent absence rates more than doubled for non-FSM pupils over the same five year period, meaning the persistent absence rate of students eligible for FSM actually decreased relative to their peers. A similar picture emerges for pupils with SEN. Secondary school pupils with SEN support and those with an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) have persistent absence rates of over 40%, but the rises in absence they have experienced over the last five years are slightly lower, in relative terms, than their peers without SEN.

For pupil ethnicity, the data does not point toward significant disparities in absent rate rises. ‘White’ is the major group with the highest rate of absence (excluding the small ‘Unclassified’ group), both before and after the pandemic, but all ethnic groups had broadly similar increases in absence between 2018-2019 and 2022-2023.

The findings of widespread and indiscriminate increases in absence do not diminish the susceptibility or impact on vulnerable groups of pupils. Pupils from more deprived backgrounds and those with additional needs remain many times more likely to be absent, and are therefore much more susceptible to safeguarding concerns and poorer educational outcomes. So while attention should rightly be focused on improving attendance for the most vulnerable, this analysis suggests that the current crisis has its roots in issues that affect all pupils, regardless of background.

One factor where large differences in absence rates are seen is pupil year group. Rates are typically lowest in year 4 of primary, after which they increase every following year, generally peaking at either year 11 or 12. The increases in severe absence as pupils progress into and through secondary school are the most eye-catching, with rates almost trebling between year 6 and 7, and then trebling again between year 7 and year 11.

The pandemic has not changed the overall patterns of absence, but pupils in years 7, 8 and 9 have experienced some of the largest proportional increases in overall, persistent and severe absence. Severe absence rates in year 7 have increased by almost 130% between 2018-2019 and 2021-2022. This is a worrying development as far as future absence rates are concerned and lends weight to recommendations given to the Education Select Committee (during oral evidence on attendance) that schools prioritise early identification and intervention for rising absenteeism.

There is also a relationship between pupil gender and changes in attendance. In 2018-2019, 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, they are diverging, with girls experiencing higher rates of overall, persistent and severe absence (this is addressed in more detail later). This is not the case for primary, where boys still have marginally worse attendance than girls.

Are some schools coping better than others?

Almost all schools have seen their attendance worsen over the course of the pandemic. In the chart below, just 267 primary schools (out of over 15,500) have seen their attendance rates improve (indicated by orange points). For secondary schools, just 27 (out of the just over 3,000 in our data) have better overall attendance rates in 2021-2022.

In general, schools with higher absence rates before the pandemic have seen bigger increases in their absences, post-pandemic. However, within this picture, there is still substantial variation. Even ignoring outliers, a school with pre-pandemic absences between 5% and 6% might now be facing absences of anywhere from 5% to 15%.

There is very little relationship between key school characteristics (size, location, composition) and the change in absence between pre- and post-pandemic periods.

Schools with higher proportions of pupils on FSM or higher levels of pupils with SEN have higher rates of overall absence, persistent and severe absence, but there is no apparent relationship between FSM and SEN level and change in absence between 2018-2019 and 2022-2023.

So, key school characteristics appear to have had little bearing on how they have coped with the rising tide of absence. We have identified a small number of schools with similar characteristics that have experienced vastly different changes in absence rates. Examining eight secondary schools of similar size that also have FSM, SEN and EAL rates within 10% of each other, we find overall absence rates and persistent absence rates of some schools almost double that of others, while severe absence rates differ by a factor of eight. These are only headline characteristic measures, and the true demographic picture of these schools will be more nuanced. Nevertheless, this comparison, and the discovery that a small number of schools have improved attendance over the last four years, suggests there are valuable lessons to be learnt about the influence of individual school policies and approaches on reducing absence.

A horizontal bar chart shows the Size, FSM %, SEN support %, EHCP%, EAL %, Overall absence rate, persistent absence rate and severe absence rate for ten unnamed schools. The schools have relatively similar values in all categories, but differ significantl

How has the attendance crisis impacted different areas of England?

The change in absence between 2018-2019 and 2021-2022 varied across the nine regions of England. Regions in the South East fare much better on average than other regions, while the regions in the North, West and North East of England experienced the largest increases in absence over this period.

Examining trends at a smaller scale, we see that some local authorities have experienced much greater increases in overall, persistent and severe absence than others. Tower Hamlets experienced a rise in overall absence between 2018-2019 and 2021-2022 of just 1.7%, while Torbay’s increase was over 4%.

Torbay, Plymouth, St Helens and Bradford top the list of local authorities with the greatest increase in overall, persistent and severe absence, while Tower Hamlets, Lewisham, and Hammersmith and Fulham are in the lowest 10 in all these categories. Almost all the 27 schools identified earlier as bucking the trend of increased absences are in urban areas, with nearly half (13 out of 27) based within the M25, and seven within London Boroughs. We know that schools in urban areas tend to be better resourced than those in rural areas and struggle less with recruitment.

Deprivation within a local area has an impact on attendance. The figure above shows how overall and persistence absence within a local authority increases, albeit marginally, with greater proportions eligible for FSM. It also provides clues about the indiscriminate nature of the recent rises in absence. While the relationship between FSM and absence remains after the pandemic, the correlation is now weaker, with points scattered more widely from the trendline. This suggests that local deprivation (as measured by FSM) is not a key driver of the post-pandemic spike in absences.

What is driving increased absences?

A deterioration in pupil mental health and a cultural shift in attitudes towards attending school, both fuelled by habits developed during the pandemic, are often cited as causes of the recent surge in absence. It is also claimed that reductions in school resources and new parental working patterns have created the conditions that have allowed attendance to deteriorate.

Are certain types of absence behind the increase?

In general, two attendance categories stand out as being responsible for the sharp increase in absence that occurred in 2021-2022: ‘authorised illness’ and ‘unauthorised other’. The illness rate (not including Covid-19) rose very sharply that year and was responsible for almost 60% of the increase in overall absence in secondary schools and for 77% of the increase in primary. This rise comes off the back of 12 years in which absence due to illness had been in steady decline. A fifth of the rise in overall absence in primary schools and over a quarter of the rise in secondary schools was due to ‘unauthorised other’ – a classification covering anything that is not an unauthorised holiday or authorised lateness and typically used when parents do not provide a reason for an absence.

Are cultural shifts behind the rise in absence?

There has been no substantial survey to date into the views of pupils and parents on schooling, pre- and post-pandemic, and how these views are affecting attendance. Limited research from the University of Exeter suggests a shift in parental views on the role of schools in educating their children started emerging during the pandemic, with more parents now positioning themselves as having a more important role in educating their children. An investigation by Ofsted also found that many parents now believe remote learning is a suitable substitute for attendance, even in situations not related to Covid-19. Parental perceptions of the risk of illness and increased anxiety feature predominantly as reasons for not sending their children to school after the pandemic.

The rise in Friday absences, recently highlighted to the Education Committee during its inquiry into school attendance, has been described as a symptom of a growing number of parents working from home and allowing their children to remain at home. By analysing data from Arbor, we have been able to make a comparison of pre- and post-pandemic daily attendance patterns, something that is not possible using DfE data alone. In 2021-2022, Friday absence in secondary schools was higher than any other day of the week. In primary schools the pattern is slightly different, with low absence rates at the start and end of the week. But Monday and Friday absence is not a uniquely post-pandemic phenomenon. Friday absence rates (relative to the weekly average) have been increasing each year in secondary schools since 2015-2016.

The conditions for higher Friday absences are arguably more present now than before the pandemic. Office usage surveys and London transport data indicate that many more people are choosing to work from home on Mondays and Fridays. At the same time, DfE attendance data reveals that the biggest drivers of the increased Monday and Friday absence was ‘authorised illness’ and ‘unauthorised other’. These categories lend weight to suggestions that an increasing number of parents are allowing their children to stay home on a Friday – either providing no reason for the absence or claiming their child is unwell. However, data that is publicly available at the local authority level does not support the argument that home working parents are driving Friday absence rates. Local authorities with a higher percentage of people that never work from home have higher levels of overall absence. Although the correlation is relatively weak, this is the opposite relationship to what we would expect if parental working patterns were driving absences.

Despite the coverage that Friday absences have received, the impact on overall attendance levels is low. If we artificially return Friday absence rates in 2022-2023 to their pre-pandemic levels, then the improvement on overall attendance rates is about a tenth of a percent (from 90.36% to 90.43%). If we go further and make Friday absence rates the same as they typically are on a Thursday, then the attendance rate rises again, but only to 90.65%. The consideration of Friday absences is valid, given the stark differences across the week and the potential impact on learning, but the overall impact of Friday absence is limited and the connection to parental attitudes is currently hard to prove. More pupil-level data on Friday absence and a large parental survey would help create a clearer picture.

Impact of absence on mental health and attainment

What is the impact of mental health on attendance?

Mental health is frequently cited by school leaders and charities as a driver of low attendance. There is a large body of evidence showing that pupils with diagnosed mental disorders are more likely to be absent from school and the pandemic undoubtedly affected many young people’s mental health, while making it more difficult for them to access support services. Making a definitive link between specific mental health conditions and their impact on attendance is challenging. The ECHILD dataset, linking health, education and social care, is released this year and will become a powerful tool for understanding the connection between mental health, attendance and attainment. There is some evidence currently within available DfE data that pupils with SEN relating to their mental health are experiencing higher levels of absence than their peers. Pupils with a diagnosis of Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) had the highest rates of overall, persistent and severe absence in the years leading up to pandemic. They have also experienced some of the highest rises in absence rates post-pandemic, particularly when it comes to severe absence.

We also know that pupils are reporting feeling less safe in school and that this will undoubtedly be impacting attendance. One in 10 pupils report missing school over a period of six months before being surveyed, as a result of feeling unsafe in school. Female pupils are disproportionately affected, with elevated psychological distress, self-harm and suicide attempts at a much higher rate than their male peers. Research from UCL shows that girls’ mental health was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and that they are likely to have taken on additional caring responsibilities. It is 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.

What is the likely impact on attainment of current attendance levels?

The impact of attendance on GCSE attainment is profound. 84% of pupils with perfect attendance during key stage 4 achieved a ‘standard’ pass (grade 9 to 4) in English and Maths in 2018-2019. This falls to less than 50% for pupils with an overall absence of 10% (persistently absent, equivalent to missing one day of school every fortnight). This is significant when we consider that the average overall absence rate has risen from 4.7% in 2018-2019 to 7.5% in 2021-2022, that an additional 430,000 pupils are now persistently absent and around 44,000 more are severely absent.

The effect of attendance on GCSE attainment is difficult to establish from exam data, as grade boundaries are adjusted each year based on a number of parameters. While the percentage of pupils achieving at different grades will remain roughly constant due to these shifting boundaries, the approximately half a million additional pupils that are now persistently or severely absent will be much further down the curve and are therefore far less likely to obtain GCSE passes in English and Maths.

Had the grade boundaries between 2018-2019 and 2021-2022 not been adjusted, we estimate that the proportion of pupils obtaining a ‘standard’ pass (grades 9 to 4) in English and Maths would have fallen from 68% to 60% and the proportion obtained a ‘good’ pass (grades 9 to 5) would have fallen from 46% to 38%.


The marked increase in absence rates in 2021-2022, which has been sustained in 2022-2023, is rightly a cause for concern for schools, parents and policy makers, given the implications for safeguarding and learning.

Absence remains an issue that disproportionately affects pupils from deprived backgrounds and those with special educational needs, harming further these pupils’ educational outcomes. But the recent attendance crisis does not appear to have exacerbated this existing inequality. The widespread impact on pupils with differing needs and backgrounds suggests there is less of a connection to socioeconomic drivers and perhaps more of a root in pupils’ and parents’ perceptions of the value of school.

Some signs point towards the fact that the pandemic has added fuel to growing parental fears and dissatisfaction with the current nature of education. 2021-2022 saw an explosion in persistent and severe absence that was already on the rise before the pandemic, as was the level of unauthorised absence. Many parents were told that schools were not safe spaces and that learning could take place at home. Higher levels of Friday absence may be a sign that these parents are more willing to let their children remain with them when they work from home, but the pandemic appears to be an accelerant, rather than a trigger.

It is clear that mental health is playing a role in rising absences and the impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt long after the last lockdown. Pupil mental health (and its likely influence on behaviour, attendance and attainment) is a growing challenge for many schools. Large-scale pupil surveys (such as those being carried out by the Children’s Commissioner) and new datasets linking health and education should shed more light on how pupils’ experiences influence their mental health, perceptions of school and attendance.

The largely indiscriminate nature of the crisis, which speaks to widespread changes in attitudes towards physical attendance, poses a unique challenge for schools and policymakers. Efforts to tackle the attendance crisis must therefore be guided by our understanding of its root causes. The effectiveness of interventions will depend drastically on the origins of the problem. When resources are scarce (as is likely over the coming years), there is an even greater imperative to fund interventions that work.

This analysis, and previous work conducted by BIT, points towards four areas for further research.

  • Getting to the root causes of absence and understanding what works in reducing it. Policymakers must interrogate the huge volume of data available and build the evidence base on the effectiveness of attendance-based interventions, which is currently relatively weak.
  • Getting to the root causes should include building our understanding of pupils’ and parents’ attitudes towards school; it is clear that attitudes towards physical attendance have changed, but little detail is known about the reasons pupils and parents have for absence.
  • Steps are already being taken to understand how social norms messaging can improve attendance. Evidence suggests that providing parents with information on the number of days their child has missed, and the likely impact on educational outcomes, can incentivise better attendance. BIT is already conducting trials on attendance text messaging to parents. More should be done to determine how to scale these approaches.
  • More could also be done with the significant amount of attendance data recorded by schools to identify and preemptively support at-risk pupils. Historical attendance patterns could be used to identify incoming pupils at greatest risk of absence and inform the use of targeted interventions. Live attendance data could be used to quickly identify pupils with changing attendance patterns and disrupt trajectories towards persistent and severe absence.
  • Establish if there are similarities in the policies and practices of schools that have managed to reduce absence during and after the pandemic. This could offer valuable insight into approaches that could be implemented in schools across the country.


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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