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EPI analysis of post-pandemic pupil absence reveals rapid rise in persistent and severe absences

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New analysis from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), using absence data released yesterday by the Department for Education (DfE), compares pre-pandemic and post-pandemic levels of pupil absence. It shows that: 

  • The high levels of absence experienced during the pandemic have risen further still, with rates remaining well above pre-pandemic levels and including higher numbers of persistent absentees. The overall rate of persistent absence has risen rapidly since 2019 and severe absences have almost doubled.
  • Persistent absence, where a pupil misses at least 10% of possible sessions, translates to around 7 days of absence across a single term. Between autumn 2019 and autumn 2022, the overall rate of persistent absence has risen from 13.1% of pupils in 2019 to 24.2% in 2022 (representing over 1.7 million persistently absent pupils).
  • The number of pupils severely absent from education, those missing at least 50% of sessions, has almost doubled, rising from 0.9% of pupils in 2019 to 1.7%.
  • This growth in the numbers of pupils missing out on school for significant periods of time should represent cause for concern for policymakers, particularly given mounting evidence of widening attainment gaps in the aftermath of the pandemic, and deteriorating mental health among secondary school pupils.

This increase in pupil absence is also not being felt evenly across the country, with certain regions worse affected than others:

  • In autumn 2022, the highest rates of absence were experienced in the East of England (5.4 days), despite having below average absence prior to the pandemic. In contrast, Yorkshire and The Humber featured the lowest rates of absence (4.6 days) in autumn 2022.
  • Whilst Inner and Outer London entered the pandemic with the lowest overall absence rates in the country, by the autumn term of 2022 absence rates across London had increased by the largest amount outside of the East of England. This was predominantly the result of increases in authorised absences due to illness.
  • Whilst Outer London’s absence rates prior to the pandemic (3.0 days) were lower than the national average at that time (3.4 days), by autumn term 2022 this had risen to 5.0 days; the sharpest increase in absence outside of the East of England over the course of the pandemic. Inner London also saw smaller but notable increases in absence rates during this period, rising from 3.1 days to 4.9 days.
  • At a local authority level, absences the three local authorities in England with the lowest overall absence levels were Wigan (3.0 days), Camden (3.9 days) and Trafford (3.9 days). Absences were highest in Barnet (6.1 days), Hammersmith and Fulham (6.0 days), and Darlington (6.0 days).
  • The analysis reveals that the local authorities worst affected by pupil absences (Barnet, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Darlington) are not included on the Government’s expanded attendance mentoring programme.

Understanding the root causes of absence and the barriers which prevent pupils attending school will be vital to developing an effective strategy to reverse these worrying trends. Pupils from low-income backgrounds, those with special educational needs, and those with long term physical or mental health conditions are at greater risk of absence than their peers. It is critical that any strategy to combat absence reflects its range of causes and addresses the importance of providing greater support to children with additional needs.

You can read the full analysis from EPI here.  

You can also view the Department’s most recent 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:

“Today’s data makes clear that absence rates remain far from pre-pandemic norms, with the share of pupils persistently absent at its highest since 2006.  

“Given past data shows vulnerable pupil groups are more likely to be absent than their peers, it is critical that any strategy to combat absence reflects its range of causes and addresses the importance of providing greater support to children with additional needs.  

“It’s important to recognise that these challenges go far beyond the school gates, whether that be the need for a cross-government child poverty strategy or providing greater support to young people with poor mental health.”

Key statistics:

  • In 2022’s autumn term, the overall absence rate was 7.5%, compared with 4.9% in autumn 2019 (the last data prior to the pandemic) and having been consistently below 5% in recent years prior to 2019.
  • DfE attributes most of the increase in absence to illness (including COVID-19), with the illness rate increasing from 2.8% in autumn 2019 to 4.5% in autumn 2022.
  • Notable increases in unauthorised absence also occurred over this period, rising from 1.3% to 2.1%.
  • The overall rate of persistent absence (where a pupil misses at least 10% of possible sessions) has risen sharply, from 13.1% in autumn 2019 to 24.2% in autumn 2022 – its highest rate since the start of the series in 2006.
  • The overall rate of severe absences has also almost doubled during this timeframe, from 0.9% to 1.7%.

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