Alarm over Scotland's school absence crisis as nearly 80,000 pupils are missing every week
Almost a third of Scottish pupils are absent from school at least one day every fortnight as “shocking” new evidence shows attendance rates are still failing to recover from the disruption caused during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
The Scottish Government was urged to address the “alarming trend” in the nation’s schools after the scale of the crisis was laid bare in a new report by the Commission on School Reform, which was set up by the Reform Scotland think tank.
It showed that more than 200,000 pupils had an attendance rate below 90 per cent in 2022/23 – which works out as being absent an average of one day per fortnight.
This is 32 per cent of the total, which is a slight improvement on the 34 per cent for 2021/22, but significantly higher than the rate of 21 per cent reported for 2018/19, and 22 per cent in 2017/18, before the coronavirus pandemic.
The problem gets worse among older year groups, with around 40 per cent of those in S4, S5 and S6 missing at least a day a fortnight over the past two years, compared to just more than 30 per cent before Covid.
The report, named “Absent Minds”, was compiled using freedom of information (FOI) requests and shows significant local variations.
Half of high schools pupils were said to be missing a day every fortnight in Dundee, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.
This compared to a quarter or less in East Dunbartonshire, Highland, South Lanarkshire and Stirling.
Meanwhile, in both 2022/23 and 2021/22, a total of 12 per cent of all pupils – or about 80,000 youngsters in total – were found to have had an attendance rate of under 80 per cent – meaning they were missing at least one day per week on average.
This compared to about 7 per cent before the pandemic.
Keir Bloomer, chair of the Commission on School Reform and former local authority education director, said: “School absence is a matter of national importance and should be treated as such.
"Children who miss a large proportion of school time are less likely to attain and less likely to form good relationships, as well as being disruptive to the family environment at home and the learning environment in class.
“School education is the most important driver of individual and national success, and it is time we recognised these links.
“In a particularly alarming trend, the absence problem gets worse as children get older, with two-in-five children of exam age missing an average of a day’s school every fortnight.
“It is impossible for a child to reach their full potential with this level of absence, and we must collectively grasp this problem before more damage is done.”
The closure of schools in 2020 and 2021 to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has been linked to a range of issues among younger generations, including rising classroom disorder and attacks on staff.
Fears have been raised that a "cultural shift" in attitudes has taken place across the UK and overseas, with parents far more willing to let their children stay at home since school closures at the height of the pandemic.
Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth has spoken about how she is “very worried” about the cohorts who were most severely impacted by the lockdowns, including those who were transitioning into P1 and S1 at the time.
The Scotsman reported local data in April showing 14 per cent of Edinburgh primary school pupils were now being described as having persistently poor attendance, compared to 7 per cent in 2018/19.
The data for secondary pupils in the Scottish capital showed the proportion has increased from 14 per cent to 20 per cent in the wake of the pandemic.
Tes Scotland recently calculated that the average attendance rate across primary, secondary and special state schools in 2022/23 was 90.9 per cent, with primary schools at 93 per cent and secondary schools on 88.2 per cent.
This compared to official statistics for 2018/19, where the overall attendance rate was 93 per cent.
Lindsay Paterson, a commission member and emeritus professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, said: "Among the many damaging educational after-effects of Covid has been a rise in persistent absence of pupils from school.
“This has been found in many countries, but the official data from the Scottish Government fails to provide transparent evidence on what is happening here.
"The new research from Reform Scotland exposes the extent of the problem in Scotland for the first time. The results are shocking.
"The problems of school absence are well-documented in England, where a recent survey reported that one of the main reasons for the rise in absence is students' poor mental health and rising levels of anxiety.
"There is an urgent need for policy makers to address these concerns in Scotland as well as in the rest of the UK."
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Recent data suggests that overall absence rates are now similar to average levels seen in previous years - but that there are variations at local level and between year groups. That is why the Education Secretary has asked Education Scotland to undertake work to better understand the current challenges which influence school attendance. The Cabinet Secretary will explore these findings with COSLA when she receives them later this month.
“We know that attendance has been impacted for many young people by Covid-19, particularly for those people with caring responsibilities and those cohorts who experienced transition during the pandemic.
“We are clear that everyone involved with the education system must redouble efforts to ensure children are fully engaged in their learning. Attendance is vital – and ministers are willing to explore all options to make progress."
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