Increased school absence – how did the pandemic affect school attendance

Published 06/02/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

Schools closed to the majority of pupils for two main periods during the COVID 19 pandemic. Firstly, between March and September 2020 and then roughly between Christmas 2020 and Easter 2021. Although many schools stayed open for children of key workers and vulnerable children, for most pupils there was a huge change to the way they had to learn. Even when schools were open for face-to-face learning, there was continued disruption to schooling throughout the more acute phase of the pandemic.

The Welsh Government commissioned former Estyn Chief Inspector Meilyr Rowlands to review the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for school attendance. His report, published in February 2022, analysed data on school attendance and absence, gathered information and evidence and made recommendations to the Welsh Government.

The way in which Welsh Government collects, analyses and publishes maintained school attendance data changed during the pandemic and so it’s difficult to fully identify trends or draw detailed conclusions about current school attendance compared to pre-COVID., However, it’s clear that attendance has been below that of previous years. Welsh Government data shows that overall absence was between 3.5 and 5 percentage points higher, almost double the level before the pandemic.

The Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee wanted to understand why COVID-related disruption to normal schooling had made school attendance poorer and what that meant for learners, especially for particular groups of learners, such as those eligible for free school meals. The issues of pupil absence and its impact on learning and well-being was raised with the Committee during annual scrutiny of Estyn in December 2021 and the Committee undertook a short, focussed inquiry between May and June 2022. In its inquiry, the Committee also considered the support parents received and how effective were the Welsh Government’s policies in relation to pupil absence in general.

Why don’t pupils attend school?

There has always been a wide range of factors that negatively affect pupils’ attendance at school. These include:

  • Poverty, disadvantage and learners eligible for free school meals;
  • pupils with special and additional learning needs;
  • parental influence and families with complex and multiple needs; and
  • anxiety, mental health and wellbeing and disengagement issues.

All these were made worse by the pandemic.

In addition, the Welsh Government’s research identified new COVID related reasons:

  • COVID 19 as an illness, self-isolation and school-directed absences;
  • anxiety, mental health and wellbeing issues relating to health and education concerns;
  • disengagement and more relaxed attitudes to learning and attendance

The Committee heard much evidence about how COVID and the consequent restrictions had impacted pupils’ mental health and that this was a key factor in relation to non-attendance at school. These included anxiety about returning to the normal school routine, and the pressure of exams. Meilyr Rowlands reported:

Learners emphasised the sheer shock they experienced when re-integrating back rapidly into school after a long period of lockdown and disruption. […] Learners reported that many learners had lost some of their basic social and study skills, including the ability to focus on study for an extended time. All this added to the stress and pressure they felt on returning to school and coping with academic work and a suddenly unfamiliar social environment.

In addition, the Committee heard that school closures had given some parents and pupils a more accepting attitude to non-attendance.

The cost of schooling

The cost of living and poverty was also highlighted by some giving evidence to the Committee as a barrier to going to school, particularly the cost of school transport. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales noted that attendance figures are “significantly lower” for children in year groups which are not entitled to free travel, that is, those below or above compulsory school age.

While there was anecdotal evidence that the cost of living and the cost of the school day in general was a barrier for some in attending, the Children’s Commissioner was clear that persistent absence needs to be seen in the context of poverty. She said that tackling child poverty “needs to be a key driver in reducing absence”.

What does missing school mean for a pupil?

The most obvious consequence of school absence would appear to be the impact on a learner’s academic attainment. The Welsh Government said that “attendance has a strong impact on learner outcomes, standards and progression and that examination outcomes strongly correlate to attendance rates”. This ultimately impacts on a young person’s longer term education, training and employment opportunities.

Missing school may also have an impact on pupils wellbeing. This includes mixing with friendship groups, building resilience and accessing the mental health support that schools can offer to its learners.

How did the pandemic impact home education?

The Committee heard from the National Association of Head Teachers that the “best place to educate and support learners is in school”. However, there was a significant increase in the number of families removing their children from the school register and choosing home education compared with prior to the pandemic. There were 2,626 pupils known to be home educated in 2018/19 compared with 4,681 in 2021/22.

The Committee didn’t consider the pros and cons of elective home education, but wanted to explore why there was such an increase. For some parents, this had been a positive choice, following the necessity of home schooling during school closures. But some parents said they had felt “forced into home schooling”. This was for a range of reasons including a lack of appropriate school placement for children with additional learning needs or because of the penalties arising from persistent school absence. During the acute phase of the pandemic, the Welsh Government said that it would not be appropriate to issue fixed penalty notices for non-attendance at school.

Cost of living and going to school

The Committee recommended that the Welsh Government should commission an urgent study into how the increased cost-of-living is affecting pupils’ ability to attend school, supported by an action plan detailing what will be done to address any of the issues it highlights. In accepting this recommendation, the Welsh Government said it was in informal discussions with a local authority about a research proposal to take an in-depth look at attendance in secondary settings. This would focus on which approaches and interventions most benefit lower income families and their engagement with education.

The Senedd will debate the Committee’s report on 8 February 2023 and you can follow the debate on Senedd TV and read the transcript afterwards.

Article by Sian Hughes, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament