Since becoming Children’s Commissioner, I have made tackling school absences one of my top priorities. I first came into this role in March 2021, after 30 years of experience in education as a multi-academy trust leader and headteacher. The nation was emerging from successive lockdowns and children’s education had been immensely disrupted. I sensed that there were deep issues unravelling in our school system. We have since seen that school absence rates have become stuck at crisis levels.
I fear that attendance has become the issue of our time. The number of children regularly missing school has more than doubled compared to pre-pandemic and we are only making slow progress in steadying school absence rates. Worryingly, over 120,000 children are missing at least half of their time in school.
I am deeply concerned about the damage caused by school absences: thousands of children are missing out on their right to education. I have therefore made tackling school absences a core priority for my office. One of the first things I did when I became Children’s Commissioner for England was carry out The Big Ask, to hear from children about their key priorities, concerns and needs coming out of lockdown. The Big Ask showed how much England’s children prize education: they see it as important in and of itself, and as a pathway to opportunity.
However, The Big Ask also shone a spotlight on the group of children who had begun to disengage with education entirely. Despite desperately wanting to learn and to return to school, these children faced daunting barriers to attendance which were holding them back from achieving their true potential. I have put these children’s voices at the heart of my work on education.
In 2021, I launched my Attendance Audit which drew on the stories and experiences of hundreds of children who were struggling to attend school. I spoke to children who were persistently and severely absent and those who had fallen out of the education system entirely. They told me that the reasons for absence were complex: some needed support with mental health issues, others lacked the special educational needs provision they needed to access education. No matter what the barriers were, children consistently told me that they wanted to be in school and that they wanted support to return.
This report looks at the relationship between school attendance and academic attainment. As Children’s Commissioner, it is my mission to make England the best place for children to grow up. I want every child to be able to access their right to education and to leave school armed with the qualifications that they need to get a brilliant job and to thrive in later life. I am deeply concerned by this report’s findings that children who attend school less regularly are less likely to get the GCSEs that they need.
This report finds that:
- School absence has become endemic in Key Stage 4. Over the last couple of years, over a third of all pupils in Key Stage 4 were either persistently or severely absent for at least one year.
- Poor attendance has a dramatic relationship with GCSE results. While 78% of all children who were rarely absent in both years passed at least 5 GCSEs including English and maths, only 36% of children who were persistently absent in both years and just 5% of children who were severely absent in both years reached this same standard.
- When pupils’ attendance improves, the likelihood of achieving qualifications at the end of school massively increases. More than half (54%) of pupils who were persistently absent in Year 10 and then rarely absent in Year 11 passed at least 5 GCSEs including English and maths, compared to 36% of pupils who were persistently absent in both years.
Our findings confirm the strong link between absence and attainment. Schools can offer a broad range of benefits to children including the opportunities to learn and gain vital qualifications. However, the benefits of school go beyond academic results. They can also be places of social and emotional development. If we want to offer every child the best chance in life, it must start with ensuring that they can regularly attend school.
It is my ambition that every child should be in school 100% of the time. This is a mighty ambition but one that we must meet because children can only benefit from an education if they are actually there.
I know that many people across our school system share the same resolve to help our nation’s children return to school. As part of my work as a member of the government’s Attendance Action Alliance, I spent this summer speaking to school leaders and multi-agency groups who are trying to tackle school absences.
This report draws upon the findings of these discussions and provides a plan for system reform which, if implemented, would help to improve school attendance and enshrine all children’s right to education.