One in 10 GCSE-year pupils absent from English schools each day

Posted: 29th June 2023

Source: The Guardian

Exclusive: Extraordinary levels of absence fuelled by anxiety, illness and cost of living crisis.

One in 10 GCSE-year pupils have been absent from school in England each day this year, up 70% since before the Covid pandemic, a Guardian investigation has found.

Thousands more teenagers are attending school only part-time as anxiety, illness and the cost of living crisis fuel extraordinary levels of absence.

A major cause is the growing rate of unauthorised absences, which are more than twice as high as in pre-pandemic years.

Analysis of state school rolls by the FFT Datalab research consultancy estimates that year 11 students, aged 15-16 and studying for their GCSE exams, missed 4.5% of all sessions for unauthorised reasons up to mid-May, compared with 2.1% in 2018-19.

Combined with a further 6.4% of sessions missed through illness or other authorised reasons, year 11 students missed nearly 11% of their scheduled time in school, compared with 6.4% in 2018-19.

School leaders have turned to a new wave of attendance officers and education welfare officers to fill gaps left by local authority cuts.

Schools are now employing “emotionally based school avoidance” councillors or authorising part-time timetables to help students overcome anxiety or other barriers making it hard for them to attend.

Dave Thompson, the chief statistician at FFT Datalab, said about 34,000 pupils nationally were believed to be attending school only part-time, with 18,000 given approval to be absent for at least two days a week. Year 11 students had the highest proportion, with one in 100 attending part-time.

“While this number sounds small, given that there are over 8 million pupils in state schools, there are several other groups of young people of a similar size for whom full-time education in a state-funded mainstream or special school is not considered suitable,” said Thompson.

Stuart Lock, the chief executive of the Advantage Schools multi-academy trust in Bedfordshire, said this year he had recruited attendance and education welfare officers so that all four schools in the trust had them.

“From the early 2000s there were massive improvements in attendance. Parents accepted the idea that their children needed to be in school wherever possible. What’s happened is that all those hard-won gains have been lost since Covid,” said Lock.

The use of attendance officers “withered away”, according to Lock, because of the improvements, making them an easy target for spending cuts by local authorities which were themselves underfunded, and leaving schools unprepared for the sudden shift after Covid.

The FFT Datalab analysis suggests that one in five year 11 students have missed the equivalent of a day each week during term time, while one in 20 have been absent for half the time – meaning that absences have remained elevated since 2021-22, when Covid was rife.

Researchers at University College London’s centre for education policy and equalising opportunity have studied the attendance rates of year 11 pupils affected by the Covid-era lockdowns, which at their worst closed schools to all but the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

The researchers found that persistent absence was more concentrated among children affected by food poverty, high levels of psychological distress or special needs, rather than “the caricature of a school truant who is missing school simply because they don’t feel like turning up”.

Ruth Robinson, the executive principal of the Swindon Academy, said her secondary school had previously surpassed national attendance levels despite being in a highly disadvantaged area. “But following on from Covid, we have had huge challenges.”

Some students lost their ability to easily socialise and have become more anxious being at school and around their peers.

Robinson, who has been a headteacher for 20 years, said: “It is true that anxiety is an issue and if you couple that with cutbacks that mean we’ve got long waiting lists and referral times for child and adult mental health services and counsellors, it’s very hard to get the right support for a child who is genuinely anxious and is having anxiety attacks, panic attacks, at the thought of coming to school.”

Robinson’s school has introduced an “emotionally based school avoidance” coordinator to help anxious students return to the classroom.

“They might visit the child in their home, they might have a meeting so the child comes into school with the parents for 15 minutes. They have their own special room where children are welcomed back into school, maybe for an hour at first, and then the coordinator will walk with them to their first lesson back, and we gradually get them back into class.”

“We’ve not had to have that level of support and provision in place prior to the pandemic,” Robinson said.

She added that the new approach and a “robust” strategy had paid off, with the school’s latest attendance rates recovering to above the national average.

Christina Jones, the chief executive of the River Tees multi-academy trust based in Middlesbrough, which runs alternative provision for students who have been excluded or are at risk of exclusion, said her schools found the post-Covid environment more challenging despite their practice at dealing with absences.

“What we will do is try and unpick it all and find out exactly what are the barriers for each student. It’s very time-consuming and can require quite a lot of perseverance,” Jones said.

“Anxiety is one of those [barriers]. It can come from the family, it can come from the individual. And sometimes there’s a very good reason for that anxiety, it may be related to the relationships in a family. If you worry that your mother is going to be beaten up while you’re out at school, that’s not going to encourage you to attend.”

Part-time timetables were one way of dealing with those difficulties, according to Jones.

“Some learners do really struggle to maintain regulated behaviour within a school environment. And when they do struggle, that’s when you’re risking injury to them, to other pupils and to members of staff as well. So it’s also got to be a carefully considered plan.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was working with schools and councils to identify and support persistently absent children, adding: “Attendance rates since the pandemic have improved and the vast majority of children are now in school and learning. But we remain focused on ensuring no child falls through the cracks.”

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