The number of in-person school days missed by pupils more than quintupled in the first full year of the Covid-19 pandemic, new data shows.
Department for Education statistics show pupils missed 328 million days learning in school due to absence in 2020-21, of which 270 million days were missed because of Covid.
In 2018-19, the last normal year before the pandemic, 59.6 million days were missed.
Today’s publication shows the government’s official absence statistics for schools for the full 2020-21 academic year for the first time.
In the autumn of 2020, when schools faced substantial disruption due to high Covid rates and whole bubbles being sent home, pupils were recorded as not attending 7 per cent of possible school sessions due to Covid, equivalent to over 33 million days.
In the spring term, when schools closed again to most pupils, the proportion of sessions missed rose to 57.5 per cent, or almost 219 million days.
Pupils not going in because of attendance restrictions were recorded as absent due to Covid, even if they continued to learn at home.
Schools began to reopen to more pupils from March 2021. In the summer term, the Covid absence rate dropped to 4.3 per cent, the equivalent of 17 million days missed.
Over the whole year, a further 4.6 per cent of sessions, or over 58 million days, were missed due to reasons other than Covid. This is broadly in line with previous normal years.
Persistent absence rises
Today’s data also shows the proportion of pupils who were persistently absent rose in 2020-21.
In 2018-19, 10.8 per cent of pupils missed 10 per cent or more of possible sessions. In 2020-21, the figure was 12.1 per cent, equating to around 870,000 pupils.
The proportion of pupils missing 50 per cent or more of their possible sessions in 2020-21 also rose, from 0.8 per cent in 2018-19 to 1.1 per cent in 2020-21. This equates to around 82,000 pupils.
It comes after ministers expressed fears that the pandemic has exacerbated persistent absence problems, and launched a pilot of a live attendance tracker in a bid to clamp down on the issue.
Persistent absence higher if Covid counted
But persistent absence levels are even higher still once Covid isolation is taken into account, according to analysis from Education Datalab.
According to Datalab’s own data, which is collected directly from schools, the proportion of pupils missing 10 per cent or more sessions soared to over 50 per cent at secondary level and just under 40 per cent at primary in the autumn of 2020.
Persistent absence remains high, with 26 per cent of primary pupils and 34 per cent of secondary pupils having missed 10 per cent or more sessions so far this year.
Severe absence – pupils missing over half of sessions – also remains at over 3 per cent in secondary schools, the same level seen in autumn 2020.
The figures are higher than government data because Datalab counts Covid isolation, while the DfE does not.
Datalab found that increases in persistent absence were driven by rises in authorised absence, with unauthorised absence rates remaining similar as in previous years.
Absences higher among SEND, FSM pupils
In 2020-21 overall, pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) had higher rates of absence than other pupils.
But the DfE said this was down to vulnerable pupils being prioritised for school attendance during lockdowns. For those who did not attend, their absence was recorded as authorised.
The overall absence rate for pupils eligible for free school meals was 7.8 per cent across the year, more than double the rate for pupils who were not eligible, at 3.7 per cent.
Disadvantaged pupils were also more likely to be persistently absent than their non-disadvantaged peers – 24.4 per cent compared to 8.3 per cent.
In line with pre-pandemic trends, pupils in years 10 and 11 had the highest absence rates.