Written evidence submitted by Dr Asma Benhenda (Senior Research Fellow at UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities)

This evidence is submitted on behalf of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO). We are submitting evidence to bring to the Committee’s attention some of the issues highlighted by our research and that of other academic researchers which are relevant to the Committee’s enquiry.


I/ What are the factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils?

1. Schooling can only equalise opportunities if children are present in the classroom. Preliminary empirical analysis from FFT Lab suggests that absent rates remain significantly higher than before the pandemic, especially in secondary school. Non-Covid related persistent absence rates were 12 % in primary schools and 21 % in secondary schools during the autumn 2021. By comparison, persistent absence rates were equal to 11 % in primary school and 16 % in secondary school during the autumn 2019.  Free school meals pupils are twice more likely to be persistently absent than other pupils.

2. This issue is not specific to the UK. A McKinsey study conducted in December 2021 shows that, in the United States, absenteeism rates have risen, with 2.7 times as many students on a path to be chronically absent from school this year compared with before the pandemic. While absenteeism rates for high-income students are levelling off, rates for low-income students have continued to worsen since the spring, despite the return to in-person school.

3. There is some pre-pandemic evidence on the determinants of persistent absences. Evidence from the US (EPI, 2018) shows that poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status, changes in adult household composition (e.g., adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g., children looking after siblings) – along with inadequate supports for student within the educational system (e.g., lack of adequate transportation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.) are all associated with a greater likelihood of being chronically absent.  Evidence from Scotland using the 2007 and 2008 waves of the Scottish Longitudinal Study shows that that parental education, parental class, housing tenure, free school meal registration, and neighbourhood deprivation all increased the risk of being absent from school. Neglecting some of these dimensions would underestimate the full extent of socioeconomic inequalities in school attendance (Klein and Sosu, 2020). 

4. Post-pandemic evidence on the determinants of persistent absences is still very scarce.  A multiple stakeholder qualitative study with parents and professionals conducted in the Spring and Summer 2021 suggests that compounding factors for persistent absences included COVID-related anxiety, difficulties adapting to new school routines, poor home-school communication and collaboration, and concerns about academic catch-up (McDonald et al, 2022).

5.  An on-going research project conducted by CEPEO focuses on the impact of the pandemic on pupils with special educational needs (SEND) absences. Preliminary evidence from this project suggests that:

- During the pandemic, the absence rate of SEND pupils is on average 4 percentage points higher than the absence rate of the average pupil. This gap does not vary significantly throughout the pandemic.

- At the end of the pandemic, absence rates have increased for all groups. The average overall absence rate at the end of the pandemic is 5.80 %.  Pupils with SEND are still among the most at risk of absence, with an absence rate of 10 %.  However, it does not seem that the pandemic has increased the gap in absence rates between pupils with SEND and the average pupil. Therefore, while the pandemic has increased the risk of absence for all pupils, this risk has not increased relatively more for pupils with SEND than for the average pupil.

6.  Factors causing persistent and severe absence among SEND pupils. Preliminary evidence from the CEPEO project on SEND pupils suggests that:

- There are significant disparities in the SEND - all pupils absence rate gap across regions. London has the smallest gap (around 2 percentage points) while the Southwest and the East Midlands have the highest gap (around 4 percentage points).

- There are significant disparities in this gap by type of school: larger gap in secondary schools (around 8 percentage points) than in primary schools (around 3 percentage points).

- There is a positive and statistically significant correlation between the gap in the risk of absence between pupils with SEND and all pupils and local Covid rates during the pandemic, suggesting that pupils with SEND are more impacted by local surges in Covid rates than the average pupil.

II/ How schools and families can be better supported to improve attendance?

1. Pre-pandemic evidence from the US shows that leveraging parents through low-cost technology can significantly reduce absence rates. In the US, a large-scale one-year experiment that pushed high-frequency information to parents about their child’s absences via automated text messages increased class attendance by 12%. The effect of this intervention is the largest for low achieving students.  The total cost of this experiment was $63.

2. A 2022 Evidence review by the Education Endowment Foundation also shows that sending parents of pupils who are persistently absent personalised letters or texts can help improve attendance.

February 2023