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Post-Pandemic Pupil Absence Levels Remain High

Pupil absence levels remain significant in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, with The Telegraph suggesting that pupil absence was as much as 60% higher than pre-COVID-19 levels. The Standard found something similar. The pandemic had a significant impact on everybody’s lives, but one of the most impacted sectors was education.   

The effects of the pandemic have been long-lasting and range from impaired social development to mental health problems and from faltering academic performance to the negative impact on pupils’ behaviour. Absenteeism is another area that’s been badly impacted by the pandemic, and in this blog, we will look at the stats, the reasons and what can be done to tackle the problem.

What are the Statistics?

Before anything else, it’s worth looking at just what the statistics are saying about absence rates at schools across England. Below, we’ve compiled a table of some of the key pupil absence statistics:   

Period (Autumn Term)  Overall Absence Rate (%)  Persistent Absentees (%) 
2018/19  4.3  10.9 
2019/20  4.9  13.1 
2020/21  4.7  13.0 
2021/22  6.9  23.5 
2022/23  7.5  24.2 


As you can see, there’s virtually been a consistent year-on-year increase in the overall absence rate across schools, with a 3.2% rate increase between the Autumn terms of 2018/2019 and 2022/2023. The percentage of persistent absentees – those that miss 10% or more sessions, has increased even more dramatically, with a 13.3% increase in the same period.

What about the reasons for absences?

Reason for Absence  2018/2019  2022/2023 
Illness Rate  2.6%  4.1% 
Medical Appointments Rate  0.3%  0.3% 
Religious Observance Rate  0.0%  0.0% 
Study Leave Rate  0.0%  0.0% 
Traveller Rate  0.0%  0.0% 
Authorised Holiday Rate  0.1%  0.0% 
Excluded Rate  0.1%  0.1% 
Authorised Other Rate  0.3%  0.5% 
Unauthorised Holiday Rate  0.3%  0.4% 
Late Rate  0.1%  0.1% 
No Reason Yet Rate  0.0%  0.1% 
Unauthorised Other Rate  0.8%  1.6% 


The most noteworthy findings here are that the principal increases have been in illness and unauthorised other (reasons which don’t fall into the above categories but which weren’t authorised).

Why are Absence Levels Higher?

So, why are pupil absence rates so high? Is it purely a function of the pandemic, or are there other factors at play? Let’s dig in!


Did you find that after the various COVID lockdowns, your immune system seemed weaker than usual? Were you knocked for six by the humble, common cold? And did that non-COVID sore throat have you feeling like you’d never be able to talk normally again?   

Well, one of the ways in which our immune systems develop and strengthen is through exposure to germs. If you don’t have as much exposure, you’re more prone to illness. And the country’s children certainly haven’t had the same level of exposure that earlier generations have.  

Schools are famous breeding grounds for germs and other nasties that can only be viewed under a microscope. So, it’s no wonder that illness ranks highest for absenteeism. Think about it: if you’ve got a generation of children with potentially weaker immune systems and you’re putting them into the proverbial microbial coliseum, then is it any surprise that more children are staying off from school, ill?

Poor Mental Health

Illness doesn’t have to be physical, of course, and one of the things the pandemic taught us is the importance of looking after our mental health just as much as looking after our physical health.  

It was hard enough to live through a global health crisis as an adult. Now imagine going through that period during an age that’s commonly touted as being “the most formative of your life”. All the experiences lost, the development delayed, and the ever-present anxiety of not knowing what would happen next. 

An Increase in Both Mental Illness and Mental Health Awareness

It’s no wonder that the current generation of children and teenagers are anxious and experiencing poor mental well-being. The number of 17–19-year-olds with a probable mental disorder increased from 1 in 6 in 2021, for example, to 1 in 4 in 2022, according to NHS Digital 

Increasing awareness around mental health is most likely playing into things, too. It’s fantastic that mental health is being destigmatised and that people feel less shame in talking openly about their feelings and experiences.  

It also means they’re more likely to divulge when they’re not feeling well, mentally speaking, and when they need a sick day for mental health reasons.  

This, we’d hazard a guess, wouldn’t have happened with children and teenagers a few years ago. But it’s something we welcome; the school experience can be daunting, overwhelming, anxiety-inducing – you name it.  

Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and if that means taking a sick day for mental health reasons now and then, then there shouldn’t be any problem with that.

Cost of Living/Poverty

You don’t need us to tell you we’re living through a cost-of-living crisis. Many people are struggling to make ends meet and, sadly, can’t afford their children’s uniforms, textbooks, stationery or bus to school, for instance.  

Many parents are having to make difficult choices and are prioritising staples like feeding their children over sending them to school. It’s a heartbreaking state of affairs, and one that we hope is addressed as quickly as possible in whatever way possible.  

What Can Be Done About it?

Of course, it’s one thing to understand what’s causing these absence rates, but what can actually be done about it?  

Well, some believe the answer lies in taking a broader approach beyond simply being the education sector’s responsibility to deal with. It should be a case of addressing the root causes of absenteeism rather than automatically going to fine families 

That means getting the NHS, the care sector and the government more directly involved to address the issue. This multi-sector approach will require a concerted, coordinated effort and won’t happen overnight. But it’s necessary. Absenteeism will only keep creeping up if it’s left unchecked. 

Carry on reading