Last reviewed 4 October 2023

A new report from Parliament’s Education Committee has highlighted that the most recent full-year statistics (for the 2021/22 academic year) show an overall absence rate of 7.6%, up from around 4–5% before the pandemic.

The report, Persistent Absence and Support for Disadvantaged Pupils, notes that authorised illness was the main driver of the increase, at 4.4%, (whilst unauthorised holiday absences sat at 0.4%).

However, 22.5% of pupils were persistently absent, which is around double the pre-pandemic rate, and 1.7% of all pupils were “severely absent” compared to less than 1% pre-pandemic.

Committee Chairman, Robin Walker, said: “With nearly a quarter of all children missing 10% or more of their sessions, it is right that ministers have repeatedly said that school absence is a top priority. But as we heard throughout our inquiry, the reasons for this crisis are complex and varied. Many in the sector are greatly concerned, even dismayed, that things aren’t returning to a greater degree of normality, and in the meantime children are missing out.”

The cross-party Committee explores in its 79-page report how growing demand for mental health services and special educational needs (SEND) support, as well as cost-of-living pressures and other issues, have compounded a problem that worsened following the Covid lockdowns but remains present.

The most recent statistical release from the Department for Education (DfE), relating to the autumn term 2022/23, shows that persistent absence had risen to 24.2% of pupils.

Committee recommendations

Among the suggestions put forward by the committee to tackle these problems are as follows.

  • The Government should deliver on its commitment to introduce a register of children not in school to be fully operational for the 2024/25 academic year.

  • The DfE should implement statutory guidance on expectations for attendance to be applicable from September 2024.

  • It should conduct an audit of support provided by local authorities to tackle persistent absence.

  • It should instruct schools and local authorities to explore methods of support for pupils and families before the use of fines or prosecution, ensuring that legal intervention is a last resort only.

  • It should require local authorities to report on school attendance levels for pupils who have attended a breakfast club or holiday club and, if a significant impact can be demonstrated, the Government should consider this in future funding decisions;.

  • It should prioritise resource for inclusion and assessment in mainstream schools, to ensure they are adequately set up to support SEND pupils and address the current level of unmet need, and therefore improve their attendance rates.

  • It should also lead a cross-government assessment of the scale of mental health difficulties amongst pupils, and review the current provision of support available in schools and outside of them.