Secondary school absence continues to grow in wake of lockdown

Posted: 11th August 2023

Source: Daily Telegraph

Record proportion of pupils missed at least a month of school in last academic year, according to Telegraph analysis.

Secondary school pupils are increasingly missing from the classroom as the legacy of lockdown impacts a generation of children.

A record proportion of secondary pupils missed at least a month of school in the last academic year, according to a Telegraph analysis of government figures.

More than a quarter – 28.3 per cent – of secondary pupils were recorded as being “persistently absent” in the latest school year, meaning they have missed at least 10 per cent of school.

The rate has risen since the previous year, when 27.7 per cent of pupils were regularly missing school. It has more than doubled since the three years prior to the pandemic, when around 14 per cent of pupils were regularly missing it.

Head teachers have warned that more children are skipping lessons because they are struggling with mental health problems since lockdown.

Meanwhile, MPs and education leaders fear the “social contract” between parents and the Government, which states that children must attend school every day unless there is a very good reason, has broken down.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he believes high rates of absence since the pandemic are “driven largely by a rising number of children who are struggling with their mental health and well-being”.

He said: “This has been exacerbated by lockdowns, which disturbed the daily rhythm and routine of going to school, as well as the cost of living crisis. These are complex issues that schools cannot solve on their own – they require the support of parents, local authorities, and investment from central government.”

Across all state schools in England, including primary and special schools, almost 1.7 million pupils missed at least 10 per cent of lessons, or around a month of school, in the last academic year.

The figure represents 22.3 per cent of all pupils, down from 22.5 per cent a year earlier but more than double the pre-pandemic absence rate of around 11 per cent.

The data do not include the proportion of pupils missing 50 per cent or more of school in the academic year, due to be published later this year.

Beth Prescott, a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Justice, said: “Today’s figures are yet more evidence of the need to end the school absence crisis. Failing this generation will store up problems for years to come, including unemployment and crime.

“The reasons for absence are complex. But since schools were shut down we’ve seen a rise in mental health-related absences, as well as evidence of a breakdown in parental attitudes to school attendance.”

Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has warned that school pupils are increasingly playing truant on Fridays, which she said could be because their parents are working from home.

Nick Fletcher, the Conservative MP for Don Valley, said: “The pandemic broke a long-standing social contract, which we must work to rebuild. The increase in home working isn’t helping either. Some of it might also be down to a breakdown in agreement about what schools should be offering pupils.

“Many parents will be turned off by the promotion of gender ideology, critical race theory, or schools running down our history. We need to re-look at the offer schools are making to parents, make the case for school’s importance for their children, and also offer intensive support for the most deprived families where social breakdown is contributing to this problem.”

Some families are receiving mentoring to tackle the problem. Under a government scheme, trained mentors are working directly with 1,665 persistently and severely absent children and their families across Knowsley, Doncaster, Stoke-on-Trent and Salford to support their return to school. The Government is expanding an existing scheme, run by Barnado’s.

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, said: “Barriers to children attending school are wide and varied. We are supporting parents and teachers year round to make sure children are in classrooms and ready to learn – from attendance mentors and school staff giving direct support to children and families, to our holiday activity and food programmes running over summer and helping prepare children for school in September.

“Being in school is quite simply the most important thing for children’s education, and so valuable for their mental health. We all – Government, schools, parents and young people  – have a part to play in making sure classrooms are full day in, day out.”

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