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Class struggle – school attendance matters

6 November 2023

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A new report calls for action on the level of school attendances in England. These fell after the coronavirus pandemic and have not recovered since then. The picture is the same across Britain.

The report, titled Missing Children, Missing Grades, was published on 2 November by the Children’s Commissioner for England. It details the attendance and attainment of English pupils in their GCSE exam years during 2020-21 and 2021-22. It found a strong correlation between school attendance and attainment.


That’s not a surprising finding, but concerning given the data about attendance. This shows that over a third of these pupils were absent for more than one in ten of their school sessions over the two exam years. That’s double the rate in 2018 – an alarming decline for a critical period of these children’s education.

It’s not just England. This dramatic increase in school student absences since the pandemic is happening across Britain.

The Welsh government released data in October showing that persistent absences are now three times what they were prior to the pandemic. It had previously used a higher threshold to define persistent absence, but has now reduced that to ten percent, in line with England.

And a report from a Scottish think tank has found that one-third of school pupils in Scotland missed ten per cent or more of their school sessions in the year 2022-23.

"We risk failing a generation of children.”

Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England said: “If we don’t act now, we risk failing a generation of children. There must be a culture of regular attendance in place, with schools properly equipped to tackle persistent and severe absence.”

De Souza has consistently raised the issue of falling attendance rates ever since the pandemic. She has advocated measures to tackle the problem, without much progress so far. And she has justification in describing school attendance as “the issue of our times”.


The report has several recommendations on how schools and others can help get all children back to school. One of them is that the Department for Education should roll out a national training programme. The aim would be to further equip school leaders, governors, and attendance officers to act to improve pupil attendance.

Another recommendation is that the government should introduce a unique identifier for children, based on the NHS number. This would allow different agencies to share information and put together the right support to help children stay in school. Many people would be surprised that such a system does not already exist.

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has not yet announced when it might look at the impact of the pandemic on education. The parliamentary education committee began an inquiry in 2020, claiming that it would cover both short and long term effects. It produced a report in July 2020 about the cancellation of exams that year, and that’s all. It has taken no evidence since July 2021.

No waiting

There’s no reason to wait for parliament and politicians and their inquiries to act on school attendance. There is a clear set of proposals for England which move beyond the system of fines for parents whose children miss school.

Wales has issued new guidance, though it doesn’t seem to go as far as the ideas for England. So far nothing new is emerging from the devolved administration in Scotland.

Everywhere in Britain it will be up to parents, teachers and other education workers to make recommendations work – or if necessary to call for the creation of realistic plans. Otherwise the education of a generation of children will be permanently damaged, to the detriment of the whole of our class.