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Rising school absences: the post pandemic education divide

daftandbarmy

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From the Spectator, UK. I wonder to what extent we're seeing the same thing play out here?

Rising school absences: the post pandemic education divide

Over 28% of primary pupils and 40% of FSM secondary pupils who qualified for free school meals were persistently absent during the 2021/22 autumn term. Lee Elliot Major and Andy Eyles write that while some of the contributing factors are known, the evidence on how to reduce persistent absenteeism is weak.

The COVID pandemic has highlighted the equalising power of schooling. We now know that COVID-induced school closures hindered learning for millions of pupils across the world (Betthäuser et al, 2022). In the unlevel playing field outside the school gates, disadvantaged pupils were less likely to access study space, computers, and educational materials (Elliot Major, Eyles, and Machin, 2021); as a result they fell further behind their more privileged peers.

Yet schooling can only equalise opportunities if children are present in the classroom. This is why official data we have analysed on persistent school absences in England during the immediate aftermath of the pandemic are so worrying. We have broken these figures down by whether children qualified for Free School Meals (FSM) or not. Pupils are identified as a persistent absentee if they miss 10% or more of their possible school sessions where a session is defined as half a day. This amounts to at least 7 days of schooling in the Autumn term from which data are drawn. The results are presented in the two graphs below for primary and secondary schools during the autumn term for the last three academic years.

The statistics are startling. Just over 28% of FSM primary pupils and 40% of FSM secondary pupils were persistently absent during the 2021/22 autumn term. To put these figures into perspective, typically around 10% of primary pupils and 15% of secondary pupils were registered as persistently missing from the classroom during the pre-pandemic years. The attendance gap between FSM pupils and their peers is stark.

Note: Underlying data are available here. Absences include all authorised and unauthorised absences and those isolating due to a positive COVID test. Absence does not include those pupils who were isolating but did not have a positive COVID test. Absence refers to missed sessions where a session is equal of half a day of schooling.

Behind these proportional gaps are scarily big numbers. A total of 538,427 FSM pupils were persistently absent in the autumn term of 2021/22. In total, 1,595, 582 pupils in England’s primary and secondary schools had missed a significant number of school days. This is out of total of just under 7 million pupils. As teachers will tell you, many of the extra million absentees who are not on free school meals are nonetheless facing real hardship outside the school gates. In the current cost of living crisis many more pupils have come to be known as the ‘hidden’ poor.

Estimating the costs of absence

Teachers know only too well the link between attendance and attainment in their own classrooms. Robust studies demonstrate this relationship at national and international levels. Using OECD PISA test data, for example, Lavy (2015) suggests that an extra hour of instruction per-week over the course of a school year increases educational attainment by 0.06 standard deviations. A recent randomised trial finds a much larger increase of 0.15 standard deviations (Andersen et al, 2016).

These estimates allow for a back of the envelope calculation of the effect of persistent absence on attainment. The most conservative assumption is that persistent absentees miss 10% of their sessions. This amounts to students missing 39 half day sessions over the course of the year. The average pupil, pre-COVID, missed between 4% and 5.5% of all sessions depending upon their stage of schooling. The difference in absenteeism between the persistently absent and a pupil who missed 5% of all sessions would then be expected to lower attainment by between 0.09 and 0.23 standard deviations. Using a standard approach to translate these figures into months of learning (Higgins, 2018) this equates to two to three months of learning lost among persistently absent pupils.

These calculations suggest that increased absence rates have the potential to significantly reduce attainment for absent pupils. Statistics for the first weeks of the 2022/23 academic year reveal higher attendance rates than last year although still lower than pre-pandemic levels. Individual trusts however are reporting that half of their poorer pupils are still persistently absent. We won’t be able to confirm these rates nationally until later this year.

There are many reasons why so many children have not returned to school following the disruption of the pandemic. Some have experienced crippling anxiety and a loss of social and academic confidence. Others have been struggling to pay for bus travel. Perhaps most troubling of all, some families appear to have lost their belief that attending school regularly is necessary for their children. Some parents are openly questioning whether the return to schooling is needed, given that results were so good last year, when many pupils were absent due to COVID.

Unfortunately, the evidence on how to reduce persistent absenteeism is extremely weak. The Education Endowment Foundation has suggested sending personalised letters and text messages to parents. Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza has urged teachers to intervene quickly during the first week to spot children at risk of falling persistently absent. A national army of education welfare officers are chasing missing pupils with phone calls and home visits. The most successful schools are putting huge resources into home visits. Mentors are also being trained to support pupils. Financial penalties for parents meanwhile are being levied at different rates across the country.

The stakes for the pandemic generation could not be higher. Statistics released last week revealed widening socio-economic gaps in assessments among 7 year olds. Our analysis of recently released statistics for end of primary school tests taken in the summer confirm that attainment has fallen across the board at age 11. There is also evidence of a growing socioeconomic divide. Below we show the trends for achieving national benchmarks in maths. These are broken down by girls and boys and whether children have at any time been eligible for free school meals. These figures are worrying as we know that falling behind in earlier years is strongly predictive of failing GCSEs at age 16 (Elliot Major and Parsons, 2022). Our Nuffield Foundation project will analyse how widening inequalities in education caused by the pandemic are likely to impact the life prospects of under 18s. All this suggests that getting children back to school should be a national education priority.

Rising school absences: the post pandemic education divide
 

FSTO

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Maybe the school model of making good factory workers has to finally change.

I don't know what the correct model is but the current one sucks! (IMHO)
 

Colin Parkinson

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What amazes me is how much time at school is wasted by the administration and by professional days. The education system producing useful students is now a purely secondary effect.
 

Blackadder1916

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I am curious why we still pretend we live in an agrarian society that has to close schools all summer so kids can work on their family farm.

It may not be an agrarian society but that does not necessarily correlate with requirements (or desires) for summer employment while still attending secondary school.

  • In 1978, 72% of teenagers were working summer jobs, while in 2017, an estimated 35% of teens were employed in the summer.

It's a choice few students make: About 65 per cent of high-school students who can work part-time do. And with those jobs, school, homework and extracurricular activities, Canadian teens are busier than ever, according to The Busy Lives of Teens, a 2007 Statistics Canada study. The study shows Canadian kids work more during the school week than teens in nine other European and North American countries.


And a bunch of statistics to make it seem like someone knows what they are talking about. These StatsCan products are dated but were what popped up quickest on google.

 
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Colin Parkinson

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It's hard to get part time work for kids as a lot of businesses don't want just part time. Some companies like the local groceries stores are generally good at hiring students and working with their schedules, a lot are not. My daughter tried to get part time work, but with her limited hours and diabetes, that did not pan out this year.
 

stoker dave

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Mr Blackadder,

I appreciate that your view on summer break is an employment opportunity. My view is that the extended summer break has a significant adverse impact on learning. Here is the result of a random Google search result:

The authors concluded that: (1) on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning, (2) declines were sharper for math than for reading, and (3) the extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels.


I think we are talking about two sides of the same coin.
 

Halifax Tar

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So we've been seasonal at a campground for 7 years. Great little spot, very secluded and I have permission to hunt the extended 8 acres behind the campground.

Anyways.

I wish I could go back to be being a teen. Campgrounds are always looking for student workers for the season. And the campgrounds can use government youth employment programs to offset the costs.

So to sum up, if you have a teen looking for good work, outside and some fun send them looking at your local campgrounds.
 

Navy_Pete

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Maybe the UK is a good canary in the coal mine for the growing inequality in western countries; they are becoming a failing state for large swathes of the population, and have a two tiered education system (which confusingly calls fancy private schools public schools). Local services have been gutted by a decade or more of austerity, so the drop off in attendance by poor students (who qualify for free meals) isn't generally surprising when a lot of people are losing hope. They are getting the crap kicked out of them by massive inflation, increasing import costs, and the GBP value dropping due to toffs in charge.
 

Colin Parkinson

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My wife teaches at a private High School, she loves it. When a student is being stupid with her, the Admin backs her and the student only gets so many black marks before they are turfed. In the public schools, the teachers are on their own.
 

Halifax Tar

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My wife teaches at a private High School, she loves it. When a student is being stupid with her, the Admin backs her and the student only gets so many black marks before they are turfed. In the public schools, the teachers are on their own.

A definite advantage of the private system.

"Your kid is an asshole, don't come back. And thanks for your tuition."

If we could afford it my kid would be in private school.
 

daftandbarmy

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My wife teaches at a private High School, she loves it. When a student is being stupid with her, the Admin backs her and the student only gets so many black marks before they are turfed. In the public schools, the teachers are on their own.

Can confirm... a kid at my kid's school got into a fight and out he was turfed for a week on suspension.

No prisoners taken, and it works too ;)
 

Halifax Tar

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Can confirm... a kid at my kid's school got into a fight and out he was turfed for a week on suspension.

No prisoners taken, and it works too ;)

Mommy and Daddy might be more supportive of the educators if little Johnny gets turfed and they wasted thousands of $$$ for it.

I couldn't be a teacher. Miserable job. You have deal with our endemic of shitty parenting every day.
 

OldSolduer

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FWIW I think part of the issue is "pie in the sky" educators who think everyone needs to be prepared to go to university.

There should be a bit more effort put into the trades element of society - mechanics, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians (I won't touch electric problems other than changing a light bulb). These are the people you really need - them and doctors, dentists, veterinarians, nurses etc.
 

lenaitch

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FWIW I think part of the issue is "pie in the sky" educators who think everyone needs to be prepared to go to university.

There should be a bit more effort put into the trades element of society - mechanics, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians (I won't touch electric problems other than changing a light bulb). These are the people you really need - them and doctors, dentists, veterinarians, nurses etc.
This. When I was a kid (back when the earth was still cooling) we were streamed going into high school; those aiming for university, those aiming for the trades and those aiming to stay in school only so long as the law said so (or as a condition of their probation). Our high school had a shop for probably every trade imaginable. That was in the days when community colleges were just emerging so the folks who did well in the shops had a leg up on getting into an apprenticeship.

Working with your hands wasn't considered lowly. These days, everybody wants a degree in some damned thing that will do them absolutely no good in the world. I will state that there is a cultural aspect to this with many immigrant communities who feel that it is and drive their kids away for anything that is considered 'blue collar'.

The first probably really rich guy I knew was an electrician. My father-in-law was a doctor, chief of medicine for many years, and always said that he couldn't do his job if the plumbers, electricians, HVAC, cleaners, etc. didn't do theirs. If nothing else, having a decent working knowledge of some of this stuff can save you money as a homeowner.

Professional educators are highly educated - the trouble is that is all most of them know of the world.
 

Brad Sallows

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The school absence problem is in the public school system; post-secondary students have always been free to blow off classes.

If you wonder whether incomplete schooling has an effect, look to "inner city" schools in the US - maybe a few in Canada - and some reserve-based schools in Canada.

Every year people (parents and local politicians stand accused) fail to ensure kids essentially remain in school and complete a basic education guarantees another cohort that exits (not graduates) with disadvantages for life that cost a lot more to fix (if they can be fixed) later than the up-front cost would have been.
 
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