14th July 2022

Back into school: New insights into school absence – evidence from three multi-academy trusts

As Children’s Commissioner for England, it is my job to listen to children. To make sure that everyone understands what they need to thrive, to be happy and healthy. I want every child to feel heard and listened to. That their views, experiences, and outcomes are prioritised and that we deliver meaningful change for children. That is why, when I took up post last March, the first thing I did was to launch The Big Ask survey. It is the largest-ever survey of children in England with over 550,000 responses, giving children the opportunity to tell me what matters to them the most.

The Big Ask was launched as we were emerging from the pandemic, and I heard loud and clear from children just how much they had missed school. They told me how they missed learning face-to-face with their teachers, they missed spending time with their friends, and they missed the extra-curricular opportunities provided by their schools that brought joy and excitement to their lives. The pandemic fundamentally recast the relationship and role of schools in children’s lives. These testimonies from The Big Ask confirm what I observed in my career as a teacher and headteacher and as Children’s Commissioner, that school is the right place for children to be. And yet, since even before the pandemic, there is a group of children who struggle to attend school regularly and who have fallen through the gaps in our education system.

I have made attendance an absolute priority as a result. The unique and extensive research, evidence, and policy work that my office has conducted has found that there is no one answer or driver as to why some children do not attend school regularly, or in some cases, at all. Indeed, there is not even the data to show how many children are missing from education altogether. What we do know is that in autumn 2021 there were 1.7 million children persistently absent from school, meaning that they missed at least seven days of school in the term, and 98,000 children severely absent, meaning that they missed at least 35 days of school in the term. Vulnerable children were more likely to be absent nationally: 33.6% of pupils receiving Free School Meals (FSM) were persistently absent in autumn 2021, compared to 20% of pupils not in receipt of FSM.

My ‘Attendance Audit’ is shining a light on the current issues and what the solutions are to fixing attendance. This report is the fourth in a series of publications from my office as part of this. In this report I wanted to test a hypothesis that attending in the first week of a new school year was important if a child was to have good attendance throughout the rest of the term. To prove this, I needed to go beyond termly statistics and look in-depth at the daily patterns of children’s attendance, to understand the impact of the first days of term and at what point an absence from school should trigger support. This is unique and has not been done before. My previous research tried to understand why children miss school, this report provides the evidence for when schools need to intervene, before a child becomes persistently or severely absent.

This analysis found two striking things: firstly, children who missed the second, third and fourth day of a new term were predicted an overall absence of almost 45%, or 31 days across the term, significantly more than their peers who attended those first few days. Secondly, whilst Fridays are the most common day for children to be absent, it is actually those children who miss mid-weekdays, Tuesday-Thursday, who are more likely to be habitually absent from school.

We know that the reasons for absence are complex – it is a system issue as well as an individual one. For some, the pandemic has led to disengagement, for others it is waiting for a Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) assessment, and for some it is the lack of appropriate provision. Some children cite mental health as the reason for poor attendance, theirs, or that of their parents, for others it is caring responsibilities. Whilst parents are responsible for ensuring their child goes to school every day, and is ready to learn, we need a system that supports that for every child.

My target of 100% attendance in September is about everyone that works with children, and has a responsibility towards them, coalescing around an ambitious target. It is not about blaming parents if the system cannot, at present, support their child attending school. It is an ambition for the system. To achieve it, we need system wide alongside child-level solutions.

This evidence provides a roadmap for schools and local authorities to target limited attendance resource, to providing interventions immediately to those children who miss one of the first few days of term. We don’t need to wait until a child has already missed seven or more days of the term to intervene and ask whether that pupil requires additional support. I want to see schools and local authorities working together to support these children and their families, so they don’t slip through the gaps in education. This analysis shows that this can be done. Now let’s get on and do it.