More than one in 10 secondary school pupils have been absent since schools and colleges in England fully reopened this month, and school leaders fear that a small core of older students have become disaffected and unwilling to return to the classroom.
Schools have been open to all pupils for three weeks, and the numbers attending state schools nationally are the highest since the pandemic hit, but around 150,000 secondary school students have been absent each day, over and above those out of school for Covid-related reasons.
One deputy headteacher at an academy in the north of England said: “Many of what I might call the usual suspects have been missing, and when we track them down they say ‘oh I thought I had Covid, miss’ or say they have been self-isolating.”
Other school leaders say year 11 pupils have been more likely to be absent, both this term and before Christmas. Among other year groups, some children have been kept away by parents worried about exposure to the coronavirus, with numbers rising each time a school reports that outbreaks have occurred.
While the reopening of schools has gone smoothly so far, particularly compared with the disruption before and after Christmas, policymakers will be anxious to see numbers return to normal levels with pupils having lost so much teaching time over the past year.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s difficult to draw conclusions on school attendance following the most recent lockdown because there are so many factors involved which affect attendance rates. However, we are concerned about the possibility that some secondary school pupils have not returned to school.
“What we may be seeing is a number of year 11 pupils who have become disengaged during the course of lockdown and who have not gone back. This is worrying because there is a danger of these young people drifting into a situation where they don’t go on to further study, training or employment. We know that schools and local authorities will be endeavouring to follow up such cases, but it is clearly difficult with young people in this age group.”
Year 11 pupils are those who would be sitting GCSE exams in the spring. With exams cancelled and replaced by assessments, some heads have previously said a proportion of pupils aged 16 may lack motivation, especially boys and those from disadvantaged families.
Analysis by the FFT Education Datalab has found that absences have been higher in year 11 than in any other year group. More than one in five (21%) year 11 pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were recorded as absent during the autumn term of 2020-21, and 14% of other pupils in the same year group.
The FFT found that disadvantaged pupils had a higher rate of absence compared with other pupils in the same schools, and it noted: “There is a risk that disadvantaged pupils could be further disadvantaged when it comes to GCSE grades in the summer.”
Barton said ASCL members suggested that “a small proportion of parents” may be keeping their children at home because of concerns over Covid transmission. “It is important that these young people return to school as soon as possible,” Barton said.
Data from the Department for Education shows that after pupils returned on 8 March, attendance in secondary schools rose from 81% to 89%. The high level of absences was attributed to some schools staggering their start dates, but attendance remained at 89% to the end of last week, and teachers and school leaders who spoke to the Guardian said they hadn’t seen much change this week.
The 11% absence rate includes the just over 2% who were recorded as absent for Covid-related reasons, with most of that being the nearly 60,000 pupils self-isolating after being in close contact with a confirmed or suspected Covid case in their class.
But the remaining 9% of pupils is roughly double the usual rate of absenteeism in normal times, which runs at around 4.5% of the mainstream school population. That would mean around 140,000 to 150,000 more secondary pupils are absent compared with pre-Covid terms.
In primary schools, absences appear to be much closer to normal, with 92-95% of pupils in attendance and close to 3% absent for Covid-related causes.
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.