The Covid pandemic has caused a “seismic shift in parental attitudes to school attendance” that will take a “monumental, multi-service effort to change”, according to new research.
Public First held focus groups across England to investigate the rise in pupil absences since 2019, and found a “fundamental breakdown in the relationship between schools and parents across the socioeconomic spectrum”.
Government data shows one in five pupils were persistently absent from school last year, with an attendance gap between poorer children and their better off peers widening. Home education has also soared in the wake of the pandemic.
Today’s research, supported by charities Impetus, Khulisa and School-Home Support, found an “increased willingness among parents to take children on holiday during termtime”, a rise in mental health problems and the cost of living crisis were among the “factors” driving lower attendance.
Ed Dorrell, partner at Public First, said the findings “signpost a deeply troubling issue that will take many years, a lot of hard work and substantive investment to resolve”.
“Anyone who thinks this will be the kind of problem that can be resolved by pulling one or two policy levers is sadly mistaken.”
The report recommended…
- A review of how schools and the wider education system communicate with parents and the messaging
- A review and potential abolition of absence fines, which are ‘deeply unpopular’
- Support for schools to provide intensive, nuanced support to families for whom attendance is a significant issue
- Better joined up working and signposting to para-educational agencies including those in mental health
- Improvements to the accuracy of school-level attendance monitoring systems so that information shared with parents is accurate
- That the government highlight the importance of coding attendance to schools – it is impossible to design strategies without this
- Fund schools better, because other strains on education system are manifesting in the attendance crisis
- Invest in SEND and CAMHS to significantly improve attendance
‘Life’s too short’
The report warned a “range of push and pull factors mean that the impetus to attend every day has been lost as parents wrangle with the cost-of-living crisis, their children’s fragile mental health, unmet special educational needs and post-Covid ‘new normal’ society”.
One mother of children aged five and 10 from Manchester said: “Pre-Covid, I was very much about getting the kids into school, you know, attendance was a big thing. Education was a major thing.
“After Covid, I’m not gonna lie to you, my take on attendance and absence now is like I don’t really care anymore. Life’s too short.”
Parents reported that having a child at home had “got easier” since Covid.
But “despite popular political and media opinion, the increase in parents working from home is not driving the attendance crisis”.
Some parents, particularly those from wealthier social groups, said they did work from home more post-Covid, but “all agreed that this would not make them more likely to have their children off school”.
‘Two weeks a year won’t make a massive difference’
The report also pointed to a “radical shift in the way term time holidays are viewed, and the scale at which they are being taken”.
Parents across all social groups “talked openly about taking their children on holiday during termtime, and those that did not were very sympathetic to it”.
One mother from Bristol with a 15-year-old said holidays were “so expensive going during school holidays, for some people it’s the difference between having or not having a holiday…and for me I’ll definitely be taking them out”.
“We always took them skiing in February half term to try and comply. Now I look back and I think why on earth did I do that? Why didn’t I just take them out for a cheap week in January? I would almost say skiing is an educational holiday.”
One mother from Newcastle with an eight and 10-year-old said they had “ages off school” during Covid “so two weeks out in a year is not going to make a massive difference to the fact that the damage has been done”.
‘A fundamental mistrust of schools’
Meanwhile, parents from poorer families “expressed a fundamental mistrust of schools”, the report found.
They “do not think that schools and teachers have the best interests of their children at heart”.
Many of them identified their children as having “varying challenges which would impact on their schooling, such as SEN, being bullied, or being long-term sick”.
“They did not feel supported by schools in tackling or improving these issues.”
More affluent parents “also expressed a disenchantment with school, although they felt more disengaged than angry”.
One of the mothers from Bristol said: “They do come up with the statistics, don’t they, you know, if you miss one week of school, it’s the equivalent of dropping a grade at a GCSE or something like that.
“And I just think, because we’ve all been lied to so much, that we are becoming a bit more militant. And I just think they are our children at the end of the day and it’s our life, and we can do what we want. I think, you know, good for us.”
A father from Newcastle said: “You can’t live your life around what the school wants, and what the local authority wants, because their expectations are a bit unrealistic. Let the parents parent.”
Mental health and SEND concerns
Parents also talked “at length about their concerns about their children’s mental health and how this impacted upon their attendance”. They “often blamed schools for not doing enough to support their children”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said schools “absolutely have a role to play in encouraging good attendance, but the reality is they cannot address the issue alone”.
“The government has said tackling pupil absence is a major priority, but we haven’t seen the level of resources required to turn the current situation around.”
A mum from Manchester said her 11-year-old daughter was previously “well into her sport, confident, outgoing, and then we were put on lockdown”.
“Now she gets herself worked up about situations. And then obviously, because she gets herself worked up, then she’s getting headaches, stomach aches, she feels sick. So she misses school due to it now.”
The intersection of SEND and mental health challenges “came up frequently”.
“Across the social spectrum, parents felt like any child who needed additional support for whatever reason were not having their needs met, and that this was significantly impacting upon their attendance.”