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Pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs experience twice as many absent days as their peers

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New analysis by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), reveals that growing levels of pupil absence in the wake of the pandemic are being felt most acutely by disadvantaged children and those with special educational needs.

By autumn 2022, some of the largest increases in absence were experienced by pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs, facing an additional 2.5 days of absence compared to autumn 2019.

Earlier this year, EPI’s analysis of absence figures revealed that absence was up across the board, with the overall rate of persistent absence having risen from 13.1% of pupils in 2019 to 24.2% in 2022 (representing over 1.7 million persistently absent pupils).

Through comparisons between absence rates amongst different pupil groups, today’s analysis finds that the most vulnerable children are far more likely to experience absence than their peers, and these gaps have widened since 2019. It’s likely that increasing absence levels will further worsen attainment amongst many of these vulnerable pupils, relative to their peers. 

Key findings:

  • During the autumn term of 2022, disadvantaged pupils were absent for 7.1 days in total, compared to 4.1 days experienced by their non-disadvantaged peers.
  • Whilst disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils both experienced more absence by autumn 2022 compared to autumn 2019, this increase was more acute among disadvantaged pupils, causing the disadvantage absence gap to widen to 3.0 days.
  • Pupils with no identified Special Educational Needs (SEN) were absent for 4.5 days in the autumn term of 2022, but pupils with varying needs of SEND support experienced far higher absence rates:
    • Pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan were absent for 8.4 days
    • Pupils with SEN Support were absent for 6.8 days
  • Again, these absence gaps have widened since the autumn term of 2019: pupils with special educational needs experienced around 2 more days of absence by autumn 2022, compared to 1.4 more days for pupils with no identified SEN.
  • Pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs have experienced some of the biggest increases in absence, totalling 9.4 days over the autumn term of 2022 – an increase of 2.5 days since autumn 2019 and over twice the level of their peers with no identified SEND (4.5 days in autumn 2022).
  • Autistic pupils also faced increasing absence rates (an additional 2.2 days of absence) totalling 7.4 days.

To counter this worrying increase in absence amongst vulnerable children, EPI makes three recommendations that seek to tackle the drivers behind increasing rates of absence.

  1. Schools should be better supported to identify pupils who might benefit from early intervention and provide targeted support, learning from the experience of the nine new Attendance Hubs.
  2. Given the strong correlation between socio-economic disadvantage and pupil absence, the government should urgently implement a cross-government child poverty strategy.
  3. Due to the role of mental health as a barrier to attendance, it’s clear that mental health support teams in schools are vital, but these services need greater investment to meet the scale of demand across the country.

You can read EPI’s full analysis here.

You can also view the Department’s updated national absence statistics here, as well as the Government’s plan to tackle post-pandemic absence rates here.

Emily Hunt, Associate Director at the Education Policy Institute, said:

“It’s concerning that the most vulnerable children within our schools are experiencing the largest increases in absence in the aftermath of the pandemic. Many of these pupils already face significant barriers to their learning while in education. Given this, it’s critical any strategy to tackle absence reflects its range of causes and provides greater support to our most vulnerable children with often complex needs. Supporting schools to understand where and how early intervention can be most effective, as well as implementing a cross-government child poverty strategy and substantially increasing the coverage of mental health support teams within schools across the country would be positive first steps.”

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