More than half of secondary pupils 'persistently absent' from school in parts of Scotland

Close to a third of all pupils now missing at least 10 per cent of school year in Scotland

New figures show close to a third of pupils in Scotland are persistently absent from school, rising to more than 50 per cent in some areas.

The official statistics for 2022/23 reveal the true scale of the attendance crisis that has emerged since schools were closed during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Figures published on Tuesday also confirmed there were now more than 1,000 fewer teachers than when the SNP came to power in 2007, and 273 fewer schools, despite pupil numbers rising in the period.

Half-empty classroom.Half-empty classroom.
Half-empty classroom.

On attendance, a new measurement has been introduced showing “persistent absence” for pupils with an absence rate of 10 per cent or more across the whole school year.

The figures for last year show 32.5 per cent of pupils in Scotland fell into this category, including 25.6 per cent of primary school youngsters and 41 per cent in secondaries.

The rate was much higher than in England, where 22.3 per cent of pupils were estimated to be “persistently absent” in 2022/23.

In West Dunbartonshire’s secondaries, the proportion of pupils being persistently absent was 55.6 per cent, while more than half the high school pupils in North Lanarkshire and South Ayrshire were also in the same category.

Opposition politicians described the statistics as “highly concerning”, while Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth said they were “not acceptable”.

East Renfrewshire had the lowest rate for secondary pupils, at 28 per cent, while East Dunbartonshire had smallest proportion in primary, at 14.4 per cent.

Overall, the attendance rate in Scotland was 90.2 per cent last year, having previously remained at about 93 per cent or higher for more than a decade prior to the pandemic.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Both authorised and unauthorised absences increased compared to previous years, including unauthorised holidays, which was described as the “biggest contributor” to a rise in unauthorised absences since 2020/21. The proportion of pupils arriving late was also up.

A total of 162,839 pupils took unauthorised holidays of one week or less, 53,778 of between one and two weeks, 15,303 between two and three weeks, and 6,229 of more than three weeks.

In January, a major international study found not going to school was as bad for your health as smoking or drinking every day.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Liam Kerr said: “These highly concerning statistics expose how many pupils have been abandoned on the SNP’s watch.

“We know the best place for most children to learn is in the classroom so for one in three pupils to be missing so much time in that environment is deeply alarming. While the SNP insist education is their number one priority, their record is one of persistent failure.”

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Willie Rennie said: “The absence rates are a sign of young people who are disengaged, stressed and distracted.

"The shocking waits to get mental health support combined with the inadequate additional support for learning and also the high rates of unacceptable behaviour and violence are some of the reasons for so many young people just not turning up for school.”

A spokesperson for the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union said: “The number of pupils regularly absent from school has shown a worrying increase since the pandemic, for a wide range of reasons.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"A significant number of young people are still attempting to deal with the emotional impact of the lockdown experience, with many experiencing long-term mental or physical health issues and with rising numbers of young people experiencing acute anxiety and stress.

"Schools were promised additional support to help young people work through these issues but, sadly, the reality is that the under-funding of education and cuts to resourcing and staff have robbed many young people of the support that they need.

"This is compounded by wider societal issues, such as the long-term cost of living crisis and the devastating impact of poverty on many families, which create additional challenges for young people and which can lead to absence from school.

" Our education system needs greater investment and more staff and resources if we are truly to get it right for every child and provide all young people with the support that they deserve.”

Despite alarming attendance trends in Scotland and across the UK, some schools and local authorities have been praised for the way they have worked to bring pupils back through the gates, including Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School.

Ms Gilruth said: “The rates of persistent absence highlighted in these figures are not acceptable. I am absolutely clear that there must be a renewed drive across all levels of governments and agencies to address this as a priority.

“I have tasked Scotland’s Chief Inspector for Education to ensure that persistent absence is addressed at every school inspection and to identify successful approaches which can be shared more widely.

"This week I will convene the Scottish Advisory Group on Relationships and Behaviour, with council representatives, directors of education and Education Scotland, with a focus on persistent school absence. We know that absence is among the post-pandemic challenges facing schools internationally and Scotland is not immune from that.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Education Scotland has already offered support to schools to improve attendance and reduce absence, following publication of the Improving Attendance report, which I commissioned last year.”

Ms Gilruth added: “Our aim is to drive improvements in attendance to ensure every child and young person benefits to the fullest extent from their education. As a first priority, the Scottish Government is working with local authorities to return attendance to pre-Covid levels and to reduce persistent absence as far as possible."

Concerns were also raised about a drop in the number of specialist additional support needs (ASN) teachers, falling from 3,524 in 2010 to 2,898 in 2023, despite the number of ASN pupils now making up 36.7 per cent of the entire pupil roll.

A spokesman for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) said: “It is vital that those with ASN get the care and support they need.

"This is also key if we are to genuinely close the educational attainment gap as we know that those with ASN are disproportionately drawn from poorer neighbourhoods.

"With cuts in support, including in the number of specialist teachers, it is going to be extremely challenging to reduce the current inequalities faced by those with ASN.”



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.