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Children in receipt of free school meals twice as likely to be absent during pandemic

The absence rates of children in receipt of free school meals was more than double that of children who were not eligible in 2020-2021, Department for Education statistics have revealed.

Sad girl looking out of a rainy window

The overall absence rate for pupils eligible for free school meals was 7.8% across the full year, more than double the rate for pupils who were not eligible for free school meals at 3.7%.

During the national lockdown period, schools prioritised face to face education for pupils deemed to be vulnerable such as children with a social worker, an education, health and care plan, and those deemed vulnerable by the school or local authority. The DfE strongly encouraged vulnerable pupils to continue attending school for their education and wellbeing during this period.

However, while attendance for these children was strongly encouraged, it was not mandatory. If parents of a vulnerable pupil wanted their child to be absent, schools were advised to grant a leave of absence for the pupil given the exceptional circumstances. All legal penalties associated with absence over this period were disapplied to guarantee that parents were not penalised.

“Traveller of Irish heritage pupils and Gypsy / Roma pupils had the highest overall absence rates at 19.1% and 15.0% respectively, and the highest rates of persistent absentees at 58.8% and 52.1%,” said the report.

“Chinese and Indian ethnic group pupils had the lowest rates of absence at 2.1% and 3.2%,” the report added.

Pupils in years 10 and 11 had the highest absence rates, at 6.4% and 6.8%, which is in line with pre pandemic trends and shows a small increase from 6.3% for year 10 and 6.4% for year 11 in 2018/19.

Persistent absence generally increased across year groups, with the highest rates in years 10, at 17.4%, and year 11 at 18.5%, up from 16.3% for year 10 and 16.2% for year 11 in 2018/19.

Pupils in year 10 in 2020/21 had 25.2% of sessions recorded as not attending in circumstances relating to coronavirus, and pupils in year 11 had 28.1% of sessions recorded as this reason.

The absence rate for pupils with an education, health and care plan was 13.1% over 2020/21. This reflects the fact that during the national lockdown vulnerable pupils were prioritised to continue attending school but, where a parent wanted their child to be absent, schools were advised to grant a leave of absence. For those with SEN support, the overall rate for 2020/21 was 6.5% compared to 3.9% over the full year for pupils with no SEN.

The overall absence rate was 4.6% in 2020-21, down from 4.7% in 2018/19. The percentage of persistent absentees (10% or more missed) was 12.1% - up from 10.8% in 2018/19.

Of the total possible sessions, 21.3% in the 2020/21 academic year were recorded as not attending in circumstances related to coronavirus. This includes pupils self-isolating and shielding, including when a class or bubble has been required to stay at home, and includes the period of national restrictions in Spring term 2021 when 57.5% of sessions were recorded as not attending.

Pupil absence in schools in England 2020-2021

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