Pandemic school attendance: fact checked

29 June 2021
What was claimed

A hundred-thousand pupils have failed to return to school full time despite classrooms reopening in March 2021.

Our verdict

The Centre for Social Justice, found 93,514 pupils missed more than 50% of school sessions between September to December 2020 so this is unrelated to the reopening of schools in March. Before the pandemic the figure was about 60,000.

An article published by The Sun on 27 June claims that 100,000 pupils have failed to return to school full-time despite classrooms reopening. 

This claim is based on a report produced by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which states that during September to December 2020, 93,514 pupils in England were severely absent, which means they missed school more often than they attended. This does not include pupils who missed lessons directly due to Covid-19, for example, school bubble closures.

The Sun fails to point out in the headline and the first five paragraphs of the article that this figure applies to attendance in September to December 2020, and is not reflective of current school attendance rates. 

In fact, the second paragraph of the article misleadingly states the absences are “despite classrooms reopening in March” which is irrelevant as the figures used in the report relate to the 2020 autumn term. 

It’s also important to note that even before Covid-19, in the autumn term of 2019, 60,244 pupils were classed as severely absent. 

This indicates that the factors contributing to the absence of a large number of these children may not be related to, or at least dependent on, Covid-19. 

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The recent picture

The Department for Education (DfE) has published more recent data, indicating what’s happening in schools, but has not estimated the proportion of pupils who are “severely absent”, which is a measure the CSJ calculated itself. 

As a baseline, the overall absence rate in state-funded primary, secondary and special schools in England in the 2018/19 academic year was 4.7% (meaning a 95.3% attendance rate) though the DfE does warn about making direct comparisons between this figure and more recent attendance figures.  

Towards the end of April attendance attendance was at its highest level at any point of the pandemic (94%), with the DfE saying that the attendance rate in state-funded primary schools (96%) was broadly in line with attendance in a typical academic year.

At the time of writing, this rate has dropped to 87.4% for all state-funded schools, largely due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant. 

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