Written evidence submitted by Lee Elliot Major and Andy Eyles



Rising school absences: education’s post pandemic divide












Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter where he is based at the School of Education and Centre for Social Mobility. He is an Associate of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.


Andy Eyles is a PhD candidate at University College London.


This work is part of our current research project Covid-19 and social mobility: life prospects in a post-pandemic world, supported by the Nuffield Foundation. The authors gratefully acknowledge this funding.


Rising school absences


The Covid pandemic laid bare the power of schools to equalise opportunity.

International reviews confirm that pupils lost around a third of their normal learning during school closures, with poorer pupils falling further behind their more privileged peers (Betthäuser et al, 2023). In the unlevel playing field outside schools, disadvantaged pupils were less likely to access study space, computers, and educational materials (Elliot Major, Eyles, and Machin, 2021).


Yet schooling can only equalise opportunities if children are present in the classroom. This is why official data we have analysed on persistent school absences in England in the aftermath of the pandemic are cause for concern. We have broken these figures down by whether children qualified for Free School Meals (FSM) or not. Pupils are identified as a persistent absentee if they miss 10% or more of their possible school sessions where a session is defined as half a day. This amounts to at least 7 days of schooling in the autumn term from which data are drawn. The results are presented in the two graphs below for primary and secondary schools during the autumn term for the last three academic years.


The data show that, in the wake of the pandemic, persistent school absences among students from poorer backgrounds have increased. In primary schools, over 28% of pupils who qualify for Free School Meals were absent from the classroom for at least 7 days during the 2021/22 autumn term - a nearly threefold increase compared to the pre-pandemic years.


The statistics are even more alarming for secondary schools, with 40% of FSM pupils persistently absent in the Autumn term of 2021/22 - a rise from the pre-pandemic levels of around 15%. The post-pandemic period has seen large rises in absence with persistent absence amongst the least advantaged reaching alarming levels.


Persistent absence in the autumn term (primary school)



Persistent absence in the autumn term (secondary school)


Note –  Underlying data are available from Absences include all authorised and unauthorised absences and those isolating due to a positive Covid test. Absence does not include those pupils who were isolating but did not have a positive Covid test. Absence refers to missed sessions where a session is equal of half a day of schooling.




These equate to big numbers of pupils. The data shows that 538,427 students receiving free school meals were persistently absent in the autumn term of 2021/22. In total, 1,595, 582 pupils in England’s primary and secondary schools had missed a significant number of school days. This is 1 in 7 of all 7 million pupils in England's primary and secondary schools. This number only accounts for those receiving free school meals, not the 'hidden' poor who are also more likely to be persistently absent.


We are currently updating this data, considering regional breakdowns.





Costs of absence


Studies demonstrate the link between attendance and attainment at national and international levels. Using OECD PISA test data for example Lavy (2015) suggests that an extra hour of instruction, per-week, over the course of a school year increases educational attainment by 0.06 standard deviations. A recent randomized trial finds a much larger increase of 0.15 standard deviations (Andersen et al, 2016).


These estimates allow for a back of the envelope calculation of the effect of persistent absence on attainment. The most conservative assumption is that persistent absentees miss 10% of their sessions. This amounts to students missing 39 half day sessions over the course of the year. The average pupil, pre-Covid, missed between 4% and 5.5% of all sessions depending upon their stage of schooling. The difference in absenteeism between the persistently absent and a pupil who missed 5% of all sessions would then be expected to lower attainment by between 0.09 and 0.23 standard deviations. Using a standard approach to translate these figures into months of learning (Higgins, 2018) this equates to two to three months of learning lost among persistently absent pupils.


These calculations suggest that increased absence rates observed since the pandemic have the potential to significantly reduce attainment for absent pupils. There are many reasons why so many children have not returned to school following the disruption of the pandemic. Some have experienced crippling anxiety and a loss of social and academic confidence. Others have been struggling to pay for bus travel. Perhaps most troubling of all, some families appear to have lost their belief that attending school regularly is necessary for their children, with some openly questioning whether a return to schooling is needed.



Improving attendance



In our Nuffield research we are investigating the effectiveness of investments aimed at improving cognitive and ‘character’ skills (including attributes such as conscientiousness or perseverance) at different ages of children from the pre-school years onwards. Unfortunately, the evidence on how to reduce persistent absenteeism is extremely weak.


Current recommendations include improving school data systems and monitoring, offering mentors for pupils, and even fines for non-attendance. A national army of education welfare and attendance officers, and family liaison practitioners have been recruited by schools, chasing missing pupils with phone calls and home visits. It is likely that there will be huge variation in the effectiveness of these efforts.


Evidence informed school parental engagement strategies


In the longer term we would recommend a dedicated research programme aimed at developing evidence-informed approaches for schools to engage with parents from all backgrounds. These might help improve relationships with parents currently disengaged from school, and help parents change habits in the home environment to support learning, for example reading with their children. One desirable outcome would be improved school attendance. We desperately need more research in this area.


Evidence suggests that there are many potential benefits from developing more effective partnerships between schools and parents yielding additional gains of between three to six months in academic outcomes (Higgins, 2018).

A recurring lesson is that teachers need to form genuine non-hierarchical, mutually respective relationships with parents which requires time to develop. It’s important to find opportunities for positive feedback to parents and their children.


Texting parents is a potential low-cost approach for improved school attendance. Several trials across a range of age groups and countries have shown some promise in improving reading in the home and encouraging more parental engagement with schools (Barone et al., 2018; Mayer et al., 2019; Stokes et al., 2022; Asher et al. (2022). More personalised messages are the most effective, pointing to a more general point that texts can work as a useful tool once deeper relationships have been developed between schools and families. But given their relative low cost and promising results, this is an area that warrants a programme of replication studies.


The aim would be to produce guidance for schools so they can engage with parents more effectively. All schools could then be incentivised to develop effective parent engagement plans. Schools remain the trusted anchor organisations in local communities. Plans would encourage schools to better understand their parents and children, for example through deep listening exercises. This would be a win-win strategy for teachers, as children would be better prepared to learn in classrooms.


These challenges need to be set against a context of possible declining social mobility in absolute terms for current generations (Eyles et al, 2022). This research review pointed to an increasing family divide in the early 21st century. Children with non-graduate parents are far less likely to grow up in two parent homes and family-owned homes than children with graduate parents. Children of the richest households meanwhile are twice as likely to benefit from private tutoring than children from the poorest households. These stark divides do not bode well for future social mobility. It makes it even more important to ensure all backgrounds attend school and benefit from classroom teaching. That’s important not just for social mobility but also for the future productivity of the economy.


Key references


Andersen S, M Humlum, and A Nandrup (2016) Increasing instruction time increases learning, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Betthäuser, B.A., Bach-Mortensen, A.M. & Engzell, P. (2023) A systematic review and meta-analysis of the evidence on learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat Hum Behav.


Lavy, V (2015) Do Differences in School’s Instruction Time Explain International Achievement Gaps? Evidence from Developed and Developing Countries, Economic Journal, 125, 397-424.


Elliot Major, L, A Eyles, and S Machin (2021) Unequal learning and labour market losses in the crisis: consequences for social mobility, CEP Discussion Papers dp1748, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.


Elliot Major, L., Parsons, S. (2022) The forgotten fifth: examining the early education trajectories of teenagers who fall below the expected standards in GCSE English language and maths examinations at age 16. CLS Working Paper 2022/6. London: UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies.


Eyles A, L Elliot Major, and S Machin (2022) Social mobility – past, present and future, the Sutton Trust.


Higgins, S. (2018), Improving Learning: Meta-analysis of intervention research in education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



February 2023