A Third of Disadvantaged Pupils Regularly Skipping School, IFS Finds

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More than a third of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are now regularly missing school, according to a recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

The study found that 37% of pupils on free school meals miss at least one day of education every fortnight, a significant increase from 23% before the pandemic.

The IFS highlighted that pupils from poorer families are more likely to be “persistently absent,” exacerbating the educational achievement gap between rich and poor students. Although headline figures place English schoolchildren ahead of many other wealthy countries in reading and maths skills, the disparity between the richest and poorest students is as wide as the gap between England and Colombia’s educational outcomes.

Imran Tahir, an IFS research economist and author of the report, stated, “If the next government wants to tackle these entrenched inequalities, its challenge will be made even more difficult by the legacy of the pandemic.”

The IFS also reported that the number of children missing more than half of their schooling has doubled since 2019, with poorer families being disproportionately affected. Although truancy on this scale remains relatively rare, the increase in absenteeism since Covid has alarmed educators and politicians, concerned about long-term impacts on a generation of young people.

Department for Education figures show that absences have risen by nearly two-thirds among all pupils since 2019, with students now missing an average of 14 days of school a year, up from nine days previously.

While regular absence is most pronounced among disadvantaged pupils, the IFS noted that truancy rates among wealthier students have also doubled since the pandemic, with one in six now persistently absent.

Labour has proposed improving school attendance through initiatives such as free breakfast clubs for primary schools, enhanced mental health support, and Ofsted reviews of attendance data. Earlier this year, the Government announced a £15m investment over three years to address truancy, promising targeted support for 10,000 severely absent pupils and their families and establishing 18 new “attendance hubs” in England, bringing the total to 32.

Despite these efforts, the IFS warned that “pious promises” to tackle educational inequalities have “consistently come to nought.” The attainment gap between 16-year-olds receiving free school meals and their peers has remained largely unchanged over the past 20 years, with only 43% achieving at least a grade 4 in English and maths last year, compared to 72% of students from better-off families.

Among wealthy countries, only Ireland, Canada, Estonia, and Japan outperform England in terms of average school attainment and lower inequality.

Mr. Tahir pointed out that narrowing the achievement gap is further complicated by rising rates of mental health problems and increasingly complex needs among children. He noted, “Rates of special educational needs and mental health challenges are rising sharply. And twice as many young people now say they strongly dislike school as before the pandemic.”

These challenges place significant strain on schools and teachers, making it crucial for any incoming government to address these issues. Josh Hillman of the Nuffield Foundation, a social mobility charity, emphasized the need for innovative and well-resourced policies to address educational inequalities. He added, “Other government departments will also need to play a part to support the broader well-being of disadvantaged children and young people, essential for their educational development.”

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