Upset child

Increase in school absence caused by “pupil mental health and relaxed parental attitudes”

Research commissioned by Bromcom indicates mental health issues, term-time holidays and a lack of impactful Government guidance have caused a rise in school absences

Towards the end of April 2024, Bromcom carried out research, in conjunction with Schoolzone, on the topic of school attendance. 446 primary and secondary schools, and 52 all-through and independent schools participated in interviews where they were asked about the challenges they face, and the ways in which they believe they need to be supported to help tackle this crucial issue.

Mental health related absences on the rise

84% of respondents cited an increase in absence due to mental health issues such as anxiety and 59% agreed that more access to mental health support for students would have a positive impact on attendance.

Lorraine Yates, Trust Assistant Principal, at Astrea Academy Trust, a mature MAT with schools across South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, says that years 9 and 10 are seeing the biggest challenges “as they are the cohort of young people that was most disrupted by Covid and that were impacted by Sure Start Centres and Children’s Centres being closed.”

She adds: “Throughout their childhood up to the end of their statutory school age, they’ve missed out on quite a bit. From what we’re seeing in our academies, it has had an impact.”

Lack of impact from DfE guidance

Since the relaxation of restrictions on schools imposed during the height of the pandemic, there have been concerns around an increase in the proportion of pupils with high levels of absence.

Overall, 50% of schools surveyed disagreed that DfE advice is helping the issue, and 65% felt that allowing Ofsted to review attendance as part of annual school checks would have very little or no positive impact.

The survey also found that 68% of schools have seen an increase in absence due to holidays taken in term time. Whilst a new national framework is to be introduced by the DfE in August 2024, the fine for school absences across the country will increase for five or more days unauthorised absence. Of the schools surveyed, 80% said the increase will make no difference and families will continue to book holidays during term time.

Duncan Baldwin, a consultant for the Confederation of School Trusts, comments: “There’s general agreement that the damage done by the pandemic to children’s mental health and well-being, the relationships between schools and parents and the overall culture of school attendance will take years to fix. There’s also agreement that there is no single silver bullet for the problem. Increasing fines, by £20 for example, as the government has announced recently, is probably unlikely to make much difference.”

Deteriorating partnerships between schools and parents

Lorraine Yates from Astrea Academy Trust has witnessed several trends in absences in the past two years, including the increase in student absence on Fridays.

She says: “Attendance has been known to drop to around 76% in some schools on Fridays – we are seeing an increase in extended holidays, where some families will choose to have a long weekend, and parents might say ‘well our children are tired and need a break from school’.”

Janice Bowling, Head of Systems and Integration at Greenshaw Learning Trust, a large MAT with 30 primary and secondary schools across the South of England, says that the perception among some parents that children no longer need to go into school every day, is a new factor impacting school attendance.  

“Following Covid, the strong partnership between home and school has deteriorated significantly. Parents have now seen that you can do school virtually and that has damaged their belief that children should attend school on a regular basis. This not only puts a huge pressure on attendance but also on other areas of school life.”

With some parents becoming accustomed to regularly keeping children off school, they are much savvier about avoiding the repercussions of it, too.

“They’ll quite happily add four days on to a bank holiday and know that they’re not going to get fined.” says Janice. “The attitude to holidays in term time has changed completely. Parents are honest now and many will openly admit they are willing to take the fight or put up with fines.”

A seismic shift in attitudes towards absence

Jo Wilkinson, Attendance Improvement Officer at Stratford Upon Avon School, a secondary school in Warwickshire, says that possibly the most impactful driver of the absence problem − is the “seismic shift” in many parents’ attitudes to schools.

“Parental disengagement can be a challenge. However, in the current climate and more than ever before, as a school, we do need to tailor our approach and be very mindful when dealing with parents or carers, as families may be facing financial hardship, deprivation, emotional concerns, in need of guidance, be vulnerable themselves.

“We must demonstrate a genuine desire to understand our families concerns, to try and appreciate a day in their shoes, often with increased sensitivity and care; however, we must also act with professional curiosity with challenge/conviction to remove barriers to learning and reduce absence.”

Ali Guryel, Managing Director of Bromcom Computers, says: “Feedback from the schools surveyed found that parent engagement is vital to improving attendance and fostering positive attitudes towards school policy is likely to result in consistent student attendance. Schools are going to need to rebuild a supportive culture to strengthen relationships, but they are also going to need accurate data to keep them on the right track.”

The survey results revealed that technology is playing a crucial role in helping schools to tackle the persistent attendance problem. The research found that 74% of schools agree or significantly agree that their MIS provides the reporting tools and data to help track and manage student attendance.

Ali adds: “Parent portals within a modern cloud-based MIS can provide real-time data on a child’s attendance via a web browser or app and can make a huge difference in the quality of communications and parent satisfaction. This transparency helps parents stay informed and encourages them to take an active role in ensuring their child attends school regularly. It can help to address the parental disengagement we are seeing and allows for improved academic outcomes, and increased satisfaction among students, parents, and staff alike.”

The introduction of new guidance on school absenteeism by the DfE will be made statutory across the country from August this year. The reforms are the next phase in the government’s plan to improve attendance following the pandemic, and include expanding the attendance hubs programme, alongside a national awareness campaign aimed at helping parents to improve attendance.

The full findings can be found in the Bromcom’s whitepaper entitled ‘Solving the post-pandemic school attendance crisis’ which has been authored by Duncan Baldwin, former header teacher, and consultant for the Confederation of School Trusts.

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