Schools in England are seeing “a huge amount” of pupil absence on Fridays with children staying at home with their parents following a shift in attitudes post-Covid, MPs have been told.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, told the education committee that persistent absence from schools is “one of the issues of our age” and called for a “razor sharp focus” on the problem.
The committee heard that mental health issues, disadvantage and unmet special educational needs and disabilities were all key factors behind increased persistent absence in schools post-Covid.
De Souza said she had data analysis showing that 818,000 of the 1.6 million children who were persistently absent across the autumn and spring terms in 2021/22 were off school for reasons other than illness. “I think that’s very serious,” she said.
She also told MPs that discussions with families had revealed a number of additional reasons why children were missing school. “One is because of online learning in Covid, there’s a little bit of ‘well, why can’t we just have online learning’. So that attitude has come through a bit.”
She also pointed to analysis of attendance data – both before and after Covid – provided by a number of large multi-academy trusts, which showed a jump in the number of pupils not attending school on Fridays, a trend that did not exist before the pandemic.
“We’re seeing a huge amount of Friday absence that wasn’t there before,” she told the committee. “Parents are at home on Fridays. We’ve had evidence from kids: ‘Well, you know, mum and dad are at home, stay at home.’” More parents are working from home as work patterns changed post-Covid.
MPs also heard that a “cultural shift” away from schools as purely places of academic learning with a new emphasis on enrichment activities and pastoral care could help improve attendance.
Alice Wilcock, head of education at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) thinktank, said increased academic pressure to catch up, plus the feeling that activities pupils enjoyed such as sport or music were being squeezed out of the curriculum, were “fostering” a disengagement from education.
She called for a particular focus on severe absence, where pupils miss more than 50% of school sessions, and said the CSJ had seen the numbers multiply over the past 10 years to 118,000 children. As of autumn 2020, more than 1,000 schools had an entire class worth of children who were severely absent.
Meanwhile, long waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) meant pupils suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues which make attendance difficult were effectively “being pushed out of school”, MPs were told.