First investigation of its kind spoke to parents across the country about causes of attendance crisis
There has been a profound breakdown in parental attitudes to the idea of full-time school attendance in the years since the Coronavirus pandemic, a landmark study has found.
Researchers on the project – the first of its kind – undertook focus group conversations with parents across the country, from all types of background to find out what was driving the sudden drop in attendance. Overall absence is up by more than 50 per cent since 2019 and persistent absence (pupils missing 10 per cent or more of lessons) has more than doubled.
The conclusions of this work should worry anyone who believes in the importance of education. Parents no longer believe it is their responsibility to ensure their children are in school every day: the idea that every day in school matters has been abandoned by mums and dads.
Parents in the focus groups were clear that school closures during the pandemic had shifted this attitude in an unprecedented way.
Other factors driving the drop in attendance were found to include:
- The increased willingness among parents to take children on holiday during termtime.
- The rise in mental health problems among young people.
- The cost of living crisis.
Parents were extraordinarily candid:
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.
- Female, Manchester, children aged 5 and 10.
Holidays are 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.
- Female, Bristol, social group B, child aged 15.
The report has 10 key findings:
- Covid has caused a seismic shift in parental attitudes to school attendance that is going to take a monumental, multi-service effort to change.
- It is no longer the case that every day matters – at least from the perspective of parents.
- There has been a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between schools and parents across the socioeconomic spectrum.
- Attendance currently has an Other People’s Children (OPC) challenge.
- The mental health crisis in young people is a huge, compounding issue around attendance.
- Term-time holidays are now entirely socially acceptable across all socioeconomic groups.
- The cost-of-living crisis is driving more families into poverty, and this is an underlying driver of poor attendance in families from lower and no-income groups.
- Despite popular political and media perception, the increase in parents working from home is not driving the attendance crisis.
- School level attendance systems feel increasingly draconian to families, and yet they are not sufficiently robust or accurate. This undermines the relationship between school and families.
- Sanctions are seen as both irrelevant and antagonistic across all parent group
The report also includes 8 key recommendations:
- There needs to be a review of how schools and the wider education system communicate with parents and the messaging.
- Fines are deeply unpopular with parents across the social spectrum. The efficacy and implementation of fines should be reviewed and potentially abolished.
- Schools should be supported to provide intensive, nuanced support to families for whom attendance is a significant issue.
- There should be better joined up working and signposting to para-educational agencies including those in mental health would ensure that those best placed to offer support were doing so.
- There is an urgent need to improve the accuracy of school-level attendance monitoring systems so that information shared with parents is accurate.
- The government must highlight the importance of coding attendance to schools – it is impossible to design strategies without this.
- This problem cannot be understood without considering funding. Other strains on education system are manifesting in the attendance crisis – better-funded schools will have better attendance.
- SEND and children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are significant factors in the attendance crisis, investing in these two areas will significantly improve attendance.
Ayesha Baloch, policy advisor from youth education charity, Impetus said:
Impetus has spent 21 years helping charities tackle the attainment gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better off peers. We know that regular attendance at school is vital for success, and that young people who receive Free School Meals are persistently absent at around double the rate of those not eligible. But until we understand what’s behind this rise in absence, we can’t adequately tackle it.
"The powerful insight that this research gives us makes it clear that although there is no single solution to this complex problem, unless urgent action is taken we risk pushing those who already have worse outcomes even further behind. This would be a disaster for young people now, and also risks storing up huge problems for the future.
Jaine Stannard, CEO of School-Home Support, said:
Parents are crucial partners in improving attendance, without them nothing is possible. These findings are a snap- shot, but they give a flavour of frustration and despondency with a system which is underfunded and lacks nuance. Schools are at the sharp end, and it's unfair that they are taking the hit for the ills of the system. Schools can’t tackle the school attendance crisis alone. We need more family support around schools to tackle underlying causes of high absence. If we don’t act now, to bridge the gap between home and school some children will be lost from education for good.
Jodie Wickers CEO of Khulisa said:
We are facing a profound shift in parental attitudes towards school attendance, and the implications for our young people's education and wellbeing are deeply concerning.
“This research highlights that investing in the emotional and mental health support of young people, and providing early intervention and tailored support for families, is not just good practice – it's imperative. Prioritising this is key to ensuring children receive the support they need to thrive in school and beyond. The findings of this study make an undeniable case for this critical change in our approach to education and family support.
Ed Dorrell, partner at Public First, said:
This has been a deeply fascinating and a deeply important project to work on. The voices of parents were what was missing from this debate – and surfacing them has given us invaluable insight.
“Our project’s 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.