Severe absence among school pupils in England increased by 26% last year, not 134%

15 January 2024
What was claimed

Last year, 140,000 children were classed as ‘severely absent’ from the classroom, a rise of 134% on the year before.

Our verdict

This isn’t quite right. While in England almost 140,000 pupils were classed as severely absent during the autumn/spring terms in 2022/23, this is only a 26% increase on the same period in 2021/22.

What was claimed

Just over two million pupils—one in four children—are ‘persistently absent’.

Our verdict

These figures are too high. During the autumn/spring terms in 2022/23 approximately 1.6 million pupils in England were defined as persistently absent—a rate of 21.2%—closer to one in five pupils.

An article published by The Spectator titled “Parents should share blame for plummeting school attendance” containing a number of inaccurate figures relating to pupil absence has been corrected.

The article overstated the increase in severely absent pupils (pupils who miss 50% or more of their school sessions) in England in the 2022/23 academic year compared to in 2021/21, and also overstated the number of pupils who were persistently absent (meaning they missed at least 10% of their school sessions) last year.

Over recent years we’ve published a number of fact checks about claims relating to pupil absence in schools, in particular relating to severe absence.

Education is a devolved matter, so the figures discussed in this article relate to state schools in England only, for which the UK government has responsibility.

When referring to data, journalists and the media should ensure claims accurately reflect what it shows, and include all necessary context and caveats.

The Spectator did not respond to Full Fact’s request for comment, but has since corrected the article.

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Severe absence did not increase by 134% last year

The article claimed “Last year, 140,000 children were classed as ‘severely absent’ from the classroom, a rise of 134 per cent on the year before.”

The latest available data showing severe absence rates covers the 2022/23 autumn and spring terms—figures for the full 2022/23 academic year are set to be published in the coming months.

Department for Education (DfE) data shows that during the 2022/23 autumn and spring terms 138,905, or 1.9% of pupils were classed as severely absent.

Over the same period in 2021/22, 110,470 pupils were severely absent—approximately 1.5%.

The increase compared to the previous year is therefore around 26%—so considerably lower than the 134% increase originally claimed in the article.

It appears the author may have intended to compare severe absence in the 2021/22 summer term to the rate before the pandemic, which was substantially lower.

There were 140,843 severely absent pupils during the 2021/22 summer term, which is approximately 134% higher than in the 2019/20 autumn term (the last full term before the pandemic.)

Number of persistently absent pupils lower than two million

The article also claimed that “Just over two million pupils—one in four children—are ‘persistently absent’”.

This is also an overstatement. During the autumn/spring 2022/23 terms 1,556,355 pupils were defined as persistently absent, with a persistent absence rate of 21.2%—so closer to one in five pupils.

Experimental official statistics for the entire 2022/23 academic year suggest that the persistent absence rate for the whole school year was 22.3%. However these figures don’t show the number of pupils classed as persistently absent, with full data for the 2022/23 academic year set to be published in March 2024.

The number of pupils who were persistently absent in the 2021/22 academic year was 1.6 million—around 22.5%.

The Spectator has since corrected its article to read: “Some 1.5 million pupils—one in five children—are ‘persistently absent’”.

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