School absence has been the subject of much discussion since the first lockdown over two years ago. Yesterday the government launched its latest plans to tackle absence to coincide with newly released national statistics on absence in all schools during the autumn term 2022. This blog takes a look at the extent to which children in England are missing out on school.
These statistics are set against a backdrop of mounting evidence of widening attainment gaps and deteriorating mental health among secondary school pupils in the aftermath of the pandemic. We know, from previous data, that already vulnerable and marginalised groups – such as disadvantaged children and those with special educational needs –are much more likely to be absent from school.
Improving attendance has the potential to narrow educational inequalities but evidence on how to do this is weak. Understanding why children are now missing so much time in school, including circumstances beyond school such as mental health and poverty, has become one of the most pressing priorities in education.
Overall absence – the big picture
The high levels of absenteeism during the peak of the pandemic have risen further still and have become more entrenched in the form of higher rates of persistent absence.
In the 2022 autumn term, the overall absence rate was 7.5 per cent, compared with 4.9 per cent in autumn 2019 (the last term of data prior to the pandemic) and having been consistently below 5 per cent in recent years prior to 2019. Overall absence is now at its highest level since the start of our series in 2006.
The Department for Education attributes most of the increase in absence to illness (which includes positive COVID-19 cases) which increased from 2.8 per cent in autumn 2019 to 4.5 per cent in autumn 2022. This is correct, but it is also not the whole story. There has also been a smaller but notable increase in unauthorised absence over this period, from 1.3 per cent to 2.1 per cent.
While there are distinct patterns when we look across phases, it is clear the trend in unauthorised absences pre-dates the pandemic. In primary schools, unauthorised absences have been on a long-term, upward path since the start of the series in 2006, whilst in secondary, unauthorised absences had been gradually falling until 2015 but have steadily increased since then.
Figure 1: Overall absence rates rose further in autumn 2022 in primary and secondary schools to their highest levels since the series began in 2006
Persistent absence has risen rapidly since the pandemic
Persistent absence is defined as when a pupil misses at least 10 per cent of possible sessions. This translates to around 7 days of absence across a term. The overall rate of persistent absence has risen sharply, from 13.1 per cent of all pupils in autumn 2019 to 24.2 per cent in autumn 2022 – its highest rate since the start of our series in 2006. To put this into perspective, a persistent absence rate of 24.2 per cent equates to over 1.7 million pupils.
In autumn 2022, there were 125,000 pupils (1.7 per cent of all pupils) who were severely absent, missing 50 per cent or more sessions. Although this is a very small minority of pupils, its relative size has also almost doubled since autumn 2019 (when it was 0.9 per cent).
In primary schools, the growth in severe absence was concentrated during the peak of the pandemic (in 2020/21) and this has since fallen somewhat. In secondary, severe absence was gradually increasing prior to the pandemic (from 2013) and has since accelerated.
Figure 2: Persistent absence reached its highest level since 2006 in primary schools in autumn 2022 and fell slightly in secondary schools, from its peak in autumn 2021
To get a sense of how far we are from pre-pandemic norms in different parts of the country, we create an ‘excess absence’ measure that compares the average number of days absent in autumn 2022 data (in pink) to autumn 2019 (green), the latter capturing the last term of data prior to the pandemic.
We base this gap on the average number of days absent in the autumn term rather than the percentage absence rate to make it more intuitive.
We split this gap measure into one of three reasons (in shades of grey) to help distinguish between illness as a driver of higher absence, as opposed to other authorised reasons or unauthorised absences.
On entering the pandemic, overall absence was lowest in Outer London – with an average of 3.0 days of absence in autumn 2019 – and highest in the North East at 4.1 days. To contextualise these regional gaps, nationally pupils experienced 3.4 days of absence in autumn 2019.
Since then, absences have increased in all regions (and by 1.5 days nationally) but not to the same extent. By autumn 2022, absence was highest in the East of England (at 5.4 days) – making it the region which experienced the biggest increase in absences (rising by 2.2 days) – and lowest in Yorkshire and The Humber (at 4.6 days), whilst the national absence by autumn 2022 was 5.0 days.
Children and young people in these two regions seem to have had different experiences during the post-pandemic period. The East of England has experienced relatively high increases in illness (trailing only Inner and Outer London) but also the highest increases in unauthorised absences. This contrasts with Yorkshire and The Humber which, like the North East, saw virtually no change in its level of unauthorised absences.
Figure 3: By autumn 2022, Yorkshire and The Humber had the lowest overall level of absences whilst the East of England had the highest
Local authority variation
Variation is even more marked at local authority level. In the autumn term of 2022, the three local authorities in England with the lowest overall absence levels were Wigan (3.0 days), Camden (3.9 days) and Trafford (3.9 days).
Absences were highest in Barnet (6.1 days), Hammersmith and Fulham (6.0 days), and Darlington (6.0 days). None of these three areas made the short-list announced by the Department for Education for its expanded attendance mentoring programme (currently underway in Middlesbrough and to be extended to Doncaster, Stoke-on-Trent, Salford and Knowsley), though Salford and Knowsley both feature in the ten local authorities with the highest overall levels of absence in autumn 2022 (shown below). The nature of their challenges over the post-pandemic period have been different in these two authorities – with Salford’s increased absence being driven by more authorised absences since autumn 2019 whereas Knowsley has been affected by both rising authorised and unauthorised absences.
Figure 4: Only two of the ten local authorities with the highest levels of overall absence in autumn 2022 have been selected by the government for the expanded Attendance Mentors programme, Salford and Knowsley
We can also consider the areas that have experienced the biggest changes in absence between the autumn terms of 2019 and 2022. As a benchmark, across England as a whole, pupils experienced 1.5 days more absence in autumn 2022 than pupils in autumn 2019.
Only Wigan, which had the lowest overall absence nationwide in autumn 2022, experienced a fall in absence during this period. The three localities experiencing the biggest increases were all in London: Barnet (an increase of 3.3 days), City of London (+2.9 days) and Hammersmith and Fulham (+2.8 days). Indeed, London dominates the list of the ten local authority areas most affected by increases in absence over this post-pandemic period shown below. Among these ten, six also have some of the highest increases in unauthorised absences nationwide (the exceptions being Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham, Wolverhampton, and Bromley) which again points to the varied challenges facing different parts of the country.
Figure 5: London boroughs dominate the list of the ten local areas most affected by absence increases between autumn terms of 2019 and 2022 but their drivers are varied
Good school attendance is seen as important in its own right, but it also impacts on pupils’ attainment across all phases, as well as longer-term outcomes such as post-16 destinations. Given that absence rates are not spread evenly across the country, it also has implications for regional imbalances in educational outcomes and long-term productivity. It also serves as an indicator of wider issues such as deteriorating mental health among secondary school pupils.
Whilst all three core absence measures are at historic highs, this isn’t solely a story of COVID cases driving higher illness absences since 2019. The causes are complex, they vary across the country and some of the trends in the data pre-date the pandemic. It is therefore timely that January 2023 saw the launch of the Education Committee’s inquiry into persistent absence, with a focus on supporting disadvantaged pupils. We will have to wait until the July 2023 data release to understand how absence has affected different groups of pupils, including disadvantaged pupils. But against a backdrop of wider crises facing education related to mental health problems, the rising cost of living and a workforce crisis in teaching, it is essential that the inquiry focuses on understanding the root causes of why children are not in school.
You can find the Department for Education’s latest national absence statistics here.