Parents in England no longer subscribe to the view that their children need to be in school full-time, according to new research which says there has been “a seismic shift” in attitudes to attendance since the pandemic.
For decades, attendance at school by all pupils every day throughout term time has been part of a social contract between schools and families, but the report says this is no longer the case.
The disruption first caused by Covid, then compounded by a cost-of-living crisis and an epidemic of mental ill health among young people, has led to what researchers describe as a profound breakdown in the relationship between schools and parents from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
As a consequence, some parents no longer believe it is their responsibility to ensure that their child is in school every day, triggering “a full-blown national crisis” in school attendance that will require “a monumental, multi-service effort” if it is to be reversed, the report states.
Overall absence in schools in England has risen more than 50% since 2019, while persistent absence – when pupils miss 10% or more of sessions – has more than doubled, prompting widespread concern and a range of interventions by ministers.
The report, compiled by the public policy research agency Public First, draws on focus group conversations with parents from different backgrounds across the country, which shed some light on why children are not always in lessons.
“Pre-Covid, I was very much about getting the kids into school: attendance was a big thing,” said one parent in Manchester, with two children aged five and 10. “Education was a major thing. After Covid, I’m not gonna lie to you, my take on attendance and absence now is like I don’t really care any more. Life’s too short.”
Some of the ways in which schools delivered learning during lockdowns also changed perceptions of the importance of attendance. “Over Covid, they sent home an hour and a half of learning every day. So that’s clearly what they’re being taught every day. One and a half hours. It’s not going to kill anybody,” said a Bristol parent with children aged 11 and four.
Term-time holidays, meanwhile, have become socially acceptable across all socioeconomic groups, the report says, while recent strike days by teachers have helped further undermine the “every day matters” narrative on attendance.
A parent from Long Eaton, Derbyshire, with two children aged 13 and 17, said: “I think particularly this year, with all the teacher strikes, parents have been more lax and think: ‘Well, the teachers aren’t in, so if I want to take my kid out for a couple of days, I’ll do it because they’ve done it.’”
The report suggests fines for non-attendance should be reviewed and potentially abolished as they are deeply unpopular and only serve to further alienate parents. It also highlights that the pressures on special educational needs and mental health services play a part in the attendance crisis and suggests investing in these two areas will improve attendance.
Ayesha Baloch, a policy adviser from the youth education charity Impetus, said: “We know that regular attendance at school is vital for success, and that young people who receive free school meals are persistently absent [about] double the rate of those not eligible. But until we understand what’s behind this rise in absence, we can’t adequately tackle it.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, added: “The government really does need to redouble its efforts and commit the necessary resources to tackle this issue. In particular, there needs to be greater investment in specialist teams which work directly with pupils who frequently miss school and their families.”
The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said: “This is stark, alarming evidence that under the Conservatives the relationship between schools and families has catastrophically broken down. Labour knows that education is central to breaking down barriers to opportunity and smashing the class ceiling.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said ministers had increased the number of attendance hubs and attendance mentors. “We have also brought together an attendance action alliance of leaders from across education, social care and health to discuss the importance of the issue and its many factors.”