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UK primary school pupils still missing months of school

SecondBefore Liz Marsh’s daughter appears to be better able to cope with debilitating anxiety during the covid-19 pandemic. Diagnosed with autism when she was six, she seemed to have found a school that was right for her. Over the past two years, however, her problems have resurfaced. These days, the 10-year-old rarely wants to go to a school in Leeds. Sometimes she just lays in their driveway. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t want to go to school, her worried mother said: “She just couldn’t.”

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Although covid is no longer closing schools or requiring students to self-isolate, many children are still away from their desks. More than one in five pupils in England have been absent “always” so far this academic year, a label applied to young people who miss at least 10% of school. (The rest of the UK doesn’t track attendance in the same way.)

That’s almost double the normal rate before covid. Rob Williams of the National Association of Principals union said some teachers had hoped it would be a “flash in the pan” that would disappear as the pandemic receded. But it looks like high absenteeism is still in place (see chart).

This will be a problem even if the pandemic has not yet affected children’s learning.Students who miss 15% of classes are half as likely to get five passes in the exam GCSE They take the test at 16 years old. Young people with poor attendance are also more likely to get in trouble with the police; some 140,000 children are enrolled but actually spend less than half of their time in class.

Students miss classes for a variety of reasons. The simplistic assumption that kids after school are free from parental control is only part of the equation. Young people with special educational needs have been absent from school more than others for a long time; they make up just 16% of pupils in England, but a quarter of chronically absent pupils. Bullying and a chaotic home life reduce the likelihood that a child will go to school.

The same is true of poverty. Nearly 40 percent of the poorest children will be absent from school more than 10 percent of the time in the 2021-22 school year, roughly double the absentee rate of their wealthier peers. Beth Prescott of the Center for Social Justice, a think-tank, points out that even in good times poor students miss school because of lack of uniforms or bus fares, and now is a bad time.

The pandemic has exacerbated these problems (although UK schools are at least reopening to students sooner than US schools) and created new ones. Children who already feel unhappy at school may now feel that they have fewer chances of achieving grades because of the loss of learning. Many students’ favorite sports and extracurricular clubs are still sometimes squeezed by programs aimed at accelerating academic “catch-up.”

The mental health of both children and parents is deteriorating. A survey conducted by the National Health Service (National Health Insurance System) concluded last year that one in six children aged 7-16 had a “probable mental disorder”, up from one in nine in 2017. Steve Bladon, a former primary school principal whose daughter is unable to attend school due to anxiety, said it was unrealistic to think young people could simply “work as hard as they used to”. Going through the pandemic has “changed” many kids, he said.

Attitudes towards schooling have also changed. Before the pandemic, kids generally believed that going to school was inevitable, even if it caused considerable stress. Long-term distance learning at the behest of adults has shaken this assumption. Ms Marsh believes that some autistic children find they are better suited to learning at home rather than at school; for those students in particular, going back to the old ways has been a pain. Parents are more inclined than ever to keep their children home if they sneeze or have a runny nose. Timo Hannay of data provider SchoolDash points out that many parents are now spending time working from home. This reduces the inconvenience of children not attending class.

Improving information on the issue is a top priority for the government. Before the pandemic, national absenteeism rates were typically reported only once a semester, with a significant lag. Now Department of Education officials are pulling data in real time from many schools’ own databases; they’ve begun showing teachers how their absenteeism rates compare with other places. Booster hopes schools will also make it easier to spot patterns of absence that indicate children are struggling with odd mistakes.

Deciding what to do with this information can be tricky, in part because there are multiple reasons for persistent absences. Officials are encouraging schools with strong attendance records to share tips with poorer performing schools. The government has also started paying “attendance consultants”, some of whom are former headteachers, to spread best practice. This includes obvious but crucial things like setting high expectations for attendance and making school as engaging as possible.

Even more persuasive is a program to hire and train “attendance mentors” who work one-on-one with regularly absent students in hopes of addressing the problems keeping them absent. Ms Prescott believes the idea is sound, but current ambitions are weeds. The pilot scheme launched by the government in Middlesbrough this year will reach only about 1,600 children over three years. Ms Prescott’s group wants to see the government employ around 2,000 tutors across the country at a cost of £80m ($100m).

Really fixing the problem means fixing other overloaded systems.long National Health Insurance System Waiting lists prevent children from accessing mental health services. Getting authorities to recognize a child’s special educational needs — which frees up funding and other help — often requires multiple appeals. While these problems remain, old-fashioned methods, such as imposing fines on parents of absent children, are unlikely to work. The tragic impact of the pandemic on children is not over.

For more expert analysis of the UK’s biggest news, subscribe to Blighty, our weekly subscriber newsletter. All of our stories related to the pandemic can be found in our Coronavirus Hub.

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