Third of 15-year-olds persistently absent from school in England since September

A third of 15-year-olds have been persistently absent from classrooms in England during the current school year, according to research that shows absence rates remain stubbornly higher than before the coronavirus pandemic.

The analysis of attendance rates at more than 7,000 state schools in England found that 14- and 15-year-olds – pupils in years 9 and 10 – have been worst affected, closely followed by those in year 11.

The FFT Datalab, which compiled the data, revealed that almost 5% of teenagers in years 10 and 11 were classed as severely absent, meaning they had missed at least half of the autumn term. Across all year groups it estimated that about 170,000 pupils in England could be classed as severely absent.

The high rates of absence in years 10 and 11 are of particular concern, according to headteachers, because of knock-on effects on GCSE results. GCSE courses are usually two years long, with exams taken at the end of year 11. Previous research published by the Department for Education (DfE) shows that pupils with high rates of absence get worse results overall than pupils who attend more often.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – mainly those eligible for free school meals – were particularly prone to absence, according to the FFT data. It found that 50% of disadvantaged year 10 pupils were persistently absent, missing at least 10% of school time, nearly double the rate of other pupils in the same year group.

Headteachers who spoke to the Guardian said parents were more willing to allow their children to stay home, and in some cases were more relaxed about their children being out of the classroom since the Covid pandemic.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There are a large number of winter illnesses currently circulating, while the impact of the pandemic, which reduced engagement with learning and broke down routines, still appears to be contributing towards lower attendance.

“Persistent absence from school harms academic attainment and emotional development, and it is concerning that attendance continues to be lower than before the pandemic.

“A huge amount of support has disappeared, and efforts from schools to improve attendance will require help from parents and local authorities and significant government investment if they are to truly succeed.”

Illness was the cause of the sharp rises in absences before Christmas, as strep A and scarlet fever outbreaks as well as continuing Covid infections emptied classrooms. But unauthorised absences also rose steeply, according to the DfE’s data, and more than a quarter of all pupils were categorised as persistently absent.

Dave Thomson, the FFT’s chief statistician, said children whose absences were grouped into one or two long periods were less likely to continue missing school for the rest of the year, compared with those who missed days spread throughout a term.

“Notwithstanding the efforts of schools to improve attendance, this would suggest that for many pupils, persistent absence is a temporary state,” Thomson said.

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The higher absences are not confined to England. The Welsh government’s statistics show that daily absence rates have reached 15% among year 11s in the school year to date, with one in 10 days being missed overall. More than half of all absences in Wales have been because of illness, while unauthorised absences account for 30% of days out of the classroom.

Cardiff council has this week launched a publicity campaign aimed at parents, after concerns that attendance rates at the local authority’s maintained schools has still not recovered.

Sarah Merry, the council’s cabinet member for education, said: “Before the pandemic, Cardiff had made significant progress in improving attendance across our schools and this had been consistently good for a number of years. However, due to the significant disruption experienced by pupils and their schools during the pandemic, attendance levels have dropped with many learners still missing days regularly.”

The council said one reason was that “families with a poor attitude to attendance have become further entrenched and often a more casual approach to attendance from other families has emerged”.

Other reasons included pupils facing barriers caused by anxiety or mental health, while absences relating to illness were a result of many parents “feeling overly cautious about sending their children to school”.

Absences in Sotland also remain higher than pre-pandemic levels. Glasgow city council has launched a pilot project aimed at encouraging children who are attending school less than 60% of the time.

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