Following the publication of DfE data on pupil absence in England for the 2021/22 autumn term, we have analysed how pupil absence has changed from before the Covid-19 pandemic. There had been an increase in both authorised and unauthorised absences since the pandemic, with a much larger number of sessions now being missed due to illness.
In this analysis, we look at pupil absence rates across England, taking the number of sessions missed because of a particular reason and dividing this by the total number of possible sessions. A session is defined as a morning or afternoon period, with a school day therefore being made up of two sessions. For example, if pupils missed 10,000 sessions due to authorised study, and there were 1,000,000 possible sessions, the absence rate for this reason would be 1%.
- Authorised absence has risen by 1.7% points since the Covid-19 pandemic
- Unauthorised absence has risen by 0.3% points since before the Covid-19 pandemic
- 7 million extra school days were lost due to pupil illness in Autumn 2021/22 compared to before the Covid-19 pandemic
- The increase in absence due to illness is consistent across all vulnerable pupil groups
- However, FSM eligible pupils have seen a seven times greater increase in unauthorised absences than pupils who are not eligible
- Pupils with EHCPs, or those requiring SEN support, missed 0.3% more sessions due to unauthorised reasons compared to pupils with no identified SEN.
England’s increasing absence rate
Figure 1 – % of total possible sessions lost due to different absence reasons
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, pupils were absent for approximately 3.6% and 1.3% of possible sessions due to authorised and unauthorised reasons, respectively. Authorised absence has since risen by 1.7% points in the 21/22 Autumn term and unauthorised absence has risen by 0.3% points. These figures equate to pupils missing over 15 million more sessions as a result of authorised absence alone, which is equivalent to nearly 8 million school days or 1.1 days per pupil. Within authorised pupil absences, there has been a notable jump in the number of sessions being missed due to illness, seeing an increase of 1.5% points, or 7 million more school days in Autumn 21/22. In fact, since the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in sessions lost due to every authorised reason, including study and religious reasons, with the only exceptions being for appointments and holidays, which have seen a decrease.
Key Finding: 8 million additional school days were missed compared with pre-pandemic
Absence due to illness is on the rise
Figure 2 – % of possible sessions lost due to pupil illness
As mentioned previously, pupil absence as a result of illness has increased in 2021/22 compared to before the Covid-19 pandemic, making up approximately three quarters of the total absence increase. This is equivalent to approximately 7 million extra school days being lost nationwide due to pupil illness. When exploring the details of this increase in absence due to illness, we see a consistent rise across all groups of pupils discussed in this analysis. The smallest increase was among pupils with an EHCP, at 1.35% points, while the largest increase was for female pupils, at 1.6% points. As this increase is seen across the board and not isolated to one group of pupils, it would be interesting to explore the potential reasons for this. For example, could this be explained by more parents taking their children out of school at any sign of illness to protect both their child and other children; a hangover from advice that was given to parents when pupils returned to school following the nationwide lockdowns? Delving into regional absence data in the future would allow for any potential links between increased pupil absence due to illness and regional Covid-19 infection rates, lengths of enforced lockdowns, and population density to be explored for any interesting findings.
Key Finding: Three quarters of additional absences were for pupil illness
Vulnerable groups are missing more sessions due to unauthorised absences
Figure 3 – % change in sessions lost due to unauthorised absence from 19/20 for different pupil groups
An absence is classified as unauthorised when the school has not approved the pupil’s time off school. This is particularly problematic as it can mean the school has no knowledge of the pupil’s situation. In extreme circumstances, long periods of unauthorised absence can lead to a pupil effectively vanishing from the education system, with the exact number of so-called “ghost” pupils being unknown. While the rate of unauthorised absence has increased across the board, as shown in figure 3, the starkest increases since before the pandemic are seen within vulnerable pupil groups such as those eligible for free school meals (FSM), pupils with EHCPs, and pupils on SEN support.
Pupils who are currently eligible for free school meals or have been in the last six years (FSM ever6) have recorded seven- and six-times larger increases in unauthorised absences, respectively, compared to their non-eligible counterparts. This could potentially be explained by the current cost of living crisis having a greater impact on vulnerable families, impacting their ability to send their children to school.
Furthermore, pupils with an EHCP and pupils requiring SEN support have much larger increases in unauthorised absences compared to pupils who have no identified SEN. This could reflect the increased challenges that in-person schooling presents to vulnerable pupils following a period of online learning that was delivered during the pandemic. Taken alongside the figures that 1.7 million pupils were regularly absent from school in Autumn 2021/22, this data highlights the struggles schools have faced following the Covid-19 pandemic in ensuring pupils return to school and absence rates fall in line with those seen before the nationwide lockdown and home learning was introduced.
Key Finding: Vulnerable pupils are missing much more school for unauthorised reasons compared to pre-pandemic
The analysis we have conducted here highlights the alarming rise in pupil absence following the Covid-19 pandemic and how vulnerable groups in particular are seeing larger increases in unauthorised absence compared to their peers. The underlying reasons for this warrant further investigation to provide an evidence-base for policy-makers to improve pupil attendance. The government has recently responded to the overarching issue of pupil absence by making the improvement of these figures a priority by improving information gathering on the topic and providing schools with additional support. We will be looking to see whether these measures have any impact on attendance figures in future releases of pupil absence data.
It is no secret that a pupil’s attendance in school plays a key role in a pupil’s academic performance. For example, in 2019, pupils who did not achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths had an absence rate of 4.7% whereas pupils who did achieve the expected standard and those who achieved the higher standard had 3.5% and 2.7% absence rates, respectively. We hope the DfE will publish attainment data with absence rate breakdowns, for example, on the average attainment or average progress scores for pupils missing 10% or 20% of sessions. This would allow more useful conclusions to be drawn on how pupil attendance can impact pupil’s academic outcomes.
If you’d like to discuss more detailed absence analysis, please do get in touch.