Persistent absence: ‘Obsessing about attendance’ is not enough

Post-Covid attendance rates signal a deeper malaise that requires more complex solutions than a punitive approach, says Dr Jeffery Quaye OBE in an article published by Schools Week.

A year after Covid restrictions were lifted, the pandemic continues to cast a long shadow across education. There are many challenges facing schools nationwide as we seek a return to normality, and key amongst these is pupil absence.

Recent government statistics show that the pupil absence rate is higher now than it was in 2018-19 and varies by geography. The same statistics reveal that the persistent absence rate (i.e. the proportion of pupils missing 10 per cent or more of school sessions) has significantly increased, from 10 per cent of pupils in 2018-19 to 22.3 per cent in 2021–22.

The situation is more alarming for pupils who are in receipt of free school meals. In 2018-19, there was a 3.2 per cent gap in terms of persistent absence between these pupils and their peers. By the end of last academic year, this gap had increased to 19.7 per cent. For pupils with special educational needs, the persistent absence gap between them and their peers has jumped by 14.1 percentage points to 32 per cent.

Across the education sector we are grappling with difficult questions, namely how to account for the increase in absence, and who to hold responsible for ensuring pupils attend school regularly.

Levelling-up secretary, Michael Gove has spoken in recent weeks of ‘restoring an ethic of responsibility’, suggesting that parents should face cuts to child benefit if they fail to send their children to school. While this is a message which many have bridled at, it is perhaps, at least, an attempt to focus minds on the challenge of persistent absence and the barrier to success it poses, particularly for our most vulnerable children.

High levels of persistent absence are concerning not least because of the safeguarding issues they raise. Children who aren’t in school are at risk from any number of malign influences. Intervention is crucial if we are to turn around this group’s life chances. We know that long-term educational disadvantage is causally linked with persistent absence, and this threatens to perpetuate a cycle of poor academic achievement, low employment prospects and limited life chances.

“Some families choose not to engage”

Aspirations Academies Trust serves many communities for whom our schools are a place of hope. We agree with children’s commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza when she says that school is “the best place for children to thrive, be safe and happy, and learn”. Our focus on attendance is relentless, and the schools in our trust draw on all available best practices to tackle the scourge of persistent absence.

But even in doing what de Souza suggests, by creating a culture that “prioritises and obsesses about attendance”, it is evident that some families choose not to engage and, in some cases, simply do not appreciate the value of education.

Educators and stakeholders with an interest in social justice, equity, and a commitment to high-quality education for all pupils, including disadvantaged and SEND pupils, should be critically exploring means to address this crisis, which is at least in part a crisis of confidence in education.

Pupils need continuous engagement with the curriculum to build knowledge. Failure to attend creates gaps in knowledge that prevent any meaningful understanding of new concepts, and in some cases means a failure to progress in basic literacy and numeracy skills.

School attendance is complicated, impacted by poverty, lack of parental support, mental health and disorganised lifestyles. In this post-pandemic era, there may be other contributory factors around changing attitudes to authority and the state too.

To address it, a multi-agency approach is required, involving government, local authorities, and schools. Sanctioning parents is unlikely to yield the desired outcome; every family is different and a one-size-fits-all approach is too simplistic a response.

Until there is a well-defined system that flexibly combines academic focus with support for wellbeing at a national level, the ambitious curriculum offered in schools will continue to take a back seat for some pupils and families, resulting in poor educational outcomes and lower employment prospects.

The aim must not be to blame schools or families or politicians, but together to bring these children out of Covid’s long shadow.