What do the figures on persistent absence from school show?

1 September 2023
What was claimed

Almost a third of secondary school pupils in England missed about 10% of school last year.

Our verdict

This is broadly correct. Around 28% secondary school pupils were persistently absent—that is, missed at least 10% of their school sessions—in the 2022/23 academic year.

What was claimed

Persistent absence has come down slightly “since the pandemic”.

Our verdict

It’s true that looking at all pupils in England, the persistent absence rate in 2022/23 fell by 0.2 percentage points compared to 2021/22. But in secondary schools the rate rose by 0.5 percentage points over that period, and overall rates of persistent absence are much higher than before the pandemic.

What was claimed

Children who miss one day of the first week of school are around 40% more likely to become persistently absent later on in the school year.

Our verdict

Figures sent to Full Fact by the Department for Education show that pupils who missed at least one day during the first week of term are much more likely to have been persistently absent. But they don’t directly support the claim that they were 40% more likely to become persistently absent, and we’ve asked the DfE for further clarification.

“Throughout the last school year almost a third of secondary pupils in England were missing a big chunk of school… about 10%”.

“About 22% of young people [were] persistently absent last year… it’s come down slightly since the pandemic, but it’s not good enough.”

“We know that children who miss a day, even one day of that first week, are something like 40% more likely to become persistently absent later on in the school year.”

An interview with education minister Nick Gibb on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week featured a number of claims relating to pupil absence in England, including that “almost a third” of secondary school pupils missed “a big chunk” of school, that persistent absence had decreased slightly “since the pandemic”, and that pupils who missed at least one day during the first week of the school year were “something like 40% more likely” to become persistently absent.

Persistent absence is defined by the government as pupils missing “10% or more of their possible sessions”. This includes absence due to illness, although persistent absence figures for 2020/21 and 2021/22 exclude absence due to a positive Covid-19 test.

The percentage of pupils identified as being persistently absent from school has increased substantially compared to pre-pandemic academic years.

Education is a devolved matter, and the figures quoted in this article only refer to state-run schools in England, where the UK government is responsible for education policy.

We’ve written about pupil absence figures a number of times over the past few years, particularly in relation to claims about “ghost children” made by politicians and in the media. When referring to data, politicians and others in public life should ensure their claims accurately reflect what it shows, and include all necessary context and caveats.

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Persistent absence rates

During the interview, the Today programme’s presenter said that during the most recent school year “almost a third” of secondary school pupils in England were “missing a big chunk” of their schooling—appearing to refer to persistent absence rates.

Recently published figures show that during the 2022/23 academic year some 28.3% of secondary school pupils were identified as being persistently absent—a higher rate than the persistent absence rate for all pupils (22.3%).

In response, Mr Gibb claimed that persistent absence rates had “come down slightly since the pandemic”.

It is true that persistent absence among all pupils did fall slightly in the 2022/23 academic year compared to 2021/22, from 22.5% to 22.3%.

However, this slight decline was not reflected in all types of school. In secondary schools, persistent absence rates actually increased slightly from 27.7% to 28.3%, while the rate for primary school pupils decreased from 17.7% to 17.2%.

It’s also important to note that the overall rate of persistent absence remains substantially higher than the rate both during the first year of the pandemic (12.1% in 2020/21) and before the pandemic (10.9% in 2018/19). 

First week absence

Later in the interview Mr Gibb claimed that pupils were “something like 40% more likely to become persistently absent later on in the school year” if they missed at least one day during the first week of the school year.

When we asked the Department for Education (DfE) about this claim, it directed us to government figures which showed that, of the cohort who were persistently absent in 2022/23, 32.9% had at least one day of absence in the first week of term.

Additionally, 55.5% of pupils who had at least one day of absence in the first week of term went on to be persistently absent.

Given that overall 22.3% of pupils were persistently absent, this does suggest that pupils absent for at least one day in the first week of term were substantially more likely to be persistently absent. But we’ve not been able to see any evidence in the figures supporting Mr Gibb’s claim that such pupils were 40% more likely to become persistently absent.

We’ve asked the DfE if it has any other data to support Mr Gibb’s figure, or whether he may have misspoken during the interview, and will update this fact check if we hear back.

Image courtesy of Richard Townshend

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