Ofsted wants GPs and pharmacies to help schools combat an “overly risk-averse approach” from parents to “keeping children out of school” amid stubbornly-high absence rates.
The watchdog told the Education Committee’s persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils inquiry that schools were still facing many of the “new challenges” to attendance following the pandemic.
This included a “propensity” among parents “to keep children home for any illness”, as well as keeping children off school “unnecessarily because of proximity to Covid”.
“These factors…have blurred the boundary of what level of intervention is needed for absence,” Ofsted said in evidence submitted in February and published on Tuesday.
“An important conversation needs to be had, including with the medical profession (especially GPs and pharmacies), about how to help parents get the right perspective and balance, and avoid an overly risk-averse approach to keeping children out of school.”
MPs launched an inquiry to investigate absence from school and support for disadvantaged pupils back in January.
Official statistics show persistent absenteeism soared in the wake of the pandemic.
In the years before Covid, school absence hovered around 4.7 per cent. But it rose to 7.5 per cent last year, according to Department for Education (DfE) data.
Persistent absenteeism – where pupils miss 10 per cent or more classes – has more than doubled, rising from 10.9 per cent in 2018-19, to 22.5 per cent last year.
In research on tackling the issue last year, Ofsted outlined what it defined as new challenges that emerged from autumn 2021 – the first full school year after lockdowns.
This included higher-than-usual numbers of pupils with non-Covid-related illnesses and parents keeping children home unnecessarily because of proximity to Covid, such as a relative testing positive.
Ofsted said in its evidence that since such issues emerged, it had seen “several successful strategies” to tackle them by schools.
These included “communicating” high expectations for attendance to families, reassuring anxious parents and providing practical help such as arranging transport.
Rising rates of persistent absence have been blamed on a range of factors.
They include more relaxed attitudes among parents since lockdowns, worsening mental health among children and the cost-of-living crisis, with some families unable to pay for lunches and daily bus fares.
The DfE is currently setting up new “sector-led” school attendance hubs to offer free support on absence.
It follows a pilot hub launched last year which it said saw “some participating schools achieve significant reductions in their absence and persistent absence rates”.