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One in five pupils in England were persistently absent in past school year | Schools

One in five pupils in England were reported as persistently absent during the last school year, with Covid and other illnesses the biggest contributors to soaring classroom absence rates compared with pre-pandemic years.

The figures from the Department for Education (DfE) showed the aftermath of the pandemic continued to significantly affect state school attendance into the summer of 2022. The national absence rate of 7.6% was well above the rates of 4%-5% before Covid.

Illness accounted for nearly 60% of the absences, including pupils who had tested positive for Covid, with the proportion of children absent through illness close to twice the rate seen before the pandemic. The DfE also reported an increase in unauthorised absences, from 1.3% in 2020-21 to 2.1% in 2021-22.

The figures showed that 22% of state school pupils were missing for more than 10% of sessions, about 19 days or more during the school year, leading to them being classed as “persistently absent” under the DfE’s definitions.

While children eligible for free school meals were absent for 37% of sessions, the fastest increase came among children not eligible, whose absence rate more than doubled to 17.5% compared with the previous two school years.

Unauthorised holidays played no role in the increases, despite speculation that parents have become more willing to take their children away during term time. The figures showed unauthorised holidays amounted to just 0.4% of sessions last year, the same rate recorded between 2016 and 2020.


A DfE spokesperson said the “vast majority” of children were in school and learning.

“We work closely with schools, trusts, governing bodies and local authorities to identify pupils who are at risk of becoming or who are persistently absent and [are] working together to support those children to return to regular and consistent education,” the department said.

After concerns were raised at the high and persistent levels of absence since the pandemic and school-related closures, the DfE has started a number of initiatives, including hiring dedicated attendance advisers, creating “attendance hubs” to share best practice, and pilot programmes such as one in Middlesbrough, aiming to tackle underlying causes including bullying or mental health issues by giving support to persistently and severely absent pupils.

However, more recent data from the current academic year suggested illness and unauthorised absences remained a problem for many schools. Headteachers have said a “cultural shift” meant parents were more likely to allow children to stay at home.

Data compiled by independent research found a third of 15-year-olds have been persistently absent from classrooms in the autumn term of the current school year.

Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, recently claimed schools were “seeing a huge amount of Friday absence that wasn’t there before” because of parents working from home.

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