Iain Duncan Smith’s figures on school absence are out of date

21 December 2021
What was claimed

The Centre for Social Justice recently produced figures which show that pupil absence grew by 55% during the previous lockdown, with more than 90,000 pupils now absent from school.

Our verdict

These are not recent figures. The CSJ published them in June 2021, and they describe pupil attendance more than a year ago. Therefore, they do not accurately tell us anything about the current picture of persistent pupil absence.

The Centre for Social Justice, which I chair, produced figures the other day which were shocking, which is about the nature of the effect on pupils—particularly pupils from poorer backgrounds, where literally absence has grown by 55% during the previous lockdown. There are over 90,000 now absent from school.

During an appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme on 21 December, former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP said pupil absence had grown by 55% “during the previous lockdown”, adding that more than 90,000 pupils are now absent from school. 

As he said during the interview the source of these figures is the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think tank which is chaired by Sir Iain. The CSJ also later tweeted a clip of Sir Iain quoting these statistics, which he described as being “produced… the other day”, alongside a link to the report where they were first published. 

However, these are not recent figures.They were not produced “the other day”, and do not show pupil absence “during the previous lockdown”—in fact they describe pupil absence in Autumn 2020 There is no date on the CSJ page containing the figures on pupil absence, but Wayback Machine shows that a version of the page with the same statistics existed as far back as 28 June, 2021.

Crucially, these figures are more than a year out of date and subsequently can’t reliably tell us anything about current pupil absences. The CSJ report states: “In total, during the first term back after the pandemic [Autumn 2020], 93,514 pupils (more than 1 in 80 pupils) were severely absent, meaning they missed school more often than they attended. This compares with 60,244 pupils who were severely absent in the same term in 2019. 

“This is a 54.7% increase in the cohort of pupils who are severely absent and equates to an additional 33,270 pupils.” 

The CSJ figures cited by Sir Iain do not relate to the most recent lockdown school closures, which ended in early March 2021. It is therefore misleading to say that there are now 90,000 pupils absent from school. 

The same figures have been misreported in the past, and Full Fact wrote about them in both June and July of this year. 

We have contacted the Centre for Social Justice and Sir Iain for comment, and will update this article if we receive a response. 

How many pupils are absent from school right now? 

When Sir Iain and the CSJ talk about pupil absence they are not talking about day-to-day school absences. They are describing pupils who are “severely absent”, which means they missed more than 50% of potential school sessions in a given period. This figure is based on CSJ analysis of pupil data of the Autumn term 2020, the data for which was published in May 2021. 

More recent figures were published in October 2021, but these only cover the Spring 2021 term and so also cannot reliably tell us anything about the full extent of pupil absences for the most recent term (Autumn 2021)—especially as schools were closed to most pupils for more than two months during this period. 

The CSJ do not appear to have replicated their analysis with these more recent figures, so there’s no direct comparison available. 

As we have written before, day-to-day pupil attendance has fluctuated throughout the pandemic with it, at points, approaching levels of absence usually observed in years before the pandemic. 

At the time of writing, the most recent figures show that attendance in all state-funded schools was 88.9% on 9 December. 

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the CSJ and the BBC to request a correction regarding this claim.

The BBC told us our concerns have been shared with senior editorial staff.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith and the CSJ did not respond.

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