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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.


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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