Why is School Attendance, Here in Northern Ireland, the Worst on Record?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 9 November 2023
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: School Attendance

School attendance levels in Northern Ireland are getting much worse. Statistics provided by the Department of Education (DE) since 2021 show that 30% of pupils had absence rates which were classed as "chronic" or "severe chronic". This means that a pupil has been absent for over 10% of school days during a school year, which amounts to 19 days and at the higher end of the scale some pupils are missing more than 38 days.

The fact that we have no functioning local government has effectively meant that this problem, identified over a year ago, is not being addressed. Back in February 2022 the BBC’s Robbie Meredith reported that assembly members on the Stormont Public Accounts Committee said they had heard of "shocking" rates of attendance in some schools including one disadvantaged area where 35% of post-primary pupils had less than 85% school attendance. They felt that schools needed more support to encourage pupils to attend, especially in these disadvantaged areas.

Their report said research suggested that;

"Pupils with no absence from school were nearly three times more likely to achieve five A*-to-C GCSEs, including English and Maths, than pupils missing 15-20% of school across key stage four".

In England, parents can face a £60 fixed penalty fine if their children are persistently absent from school, this is not so in Northern Ireland. If a pupil's attendance drops below 85% of days this triggers follow-up action involving a visit from an education welfare officer, but there is usually a long process before parents are prosecuted. Despite the figures and the MLA recommendations, a number of schemes for schools to provide pupils with counselling or help those struggling after the pandemic have been cut.

MLAs call for action on number of pupil absences - BBC News

BBC Northern Ireland Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith has stayed with the story and written this month again highlighting a number of headline factors believed to be causing the worrying trend. He points to the effect of school closures during the Covid 19 pandemic lockdowns, families taking holidays during term time and rising levels of mental health issues in our pupils.

NI Education: School attendances hit worst level on record - BBC News

Pupils learning from home during the pandemic lockdowns was certainly a way of compensating for lost school days, but it seems it has come at a price in terms of subsequent school attendance. The fact that pupils were allowed not to be at school may have eroded the belief in some households that school must never be missed and like church attendance, that online access was a permanent acceptable alternative. Claire McCelland the Department of Education's director of raising aspiration, supporting learning and empowering improvement, has told the BBC that parents need to take school absence seriously stating that;

"Perhaps we've had quite a long period of time where we've had lockdown, we've had remote learning - and that importance of attending school, perhaps there's some complacency around that."

The BBC also reports that having investigated the issue, the children's commissioner in England Dame Rachel de Souza is concerned too that some pupils never fully returned to school after lockdowns. Persistent absence from school is at a rate in England almost twice as high as before the pandemic.

Previous reports from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) also said that the pandemic and restrictions had "a severe impact" on children and young people. It seems that as in many areas of our lives, the pandemic and its lockdowns have changed things permanently.

The Guardian reported in January 2023 on what some headteachers are calling “a cultural shift” regarding parents sending children to school.

Sheila Mouna, the headteacher at St Anne’s and Guardian Angels Catholic primary school in east London, said;

“I think there’s been a cultural shift with people working at home, and some people – not all – seem to think their kids did OK at home, so things like that have become ingrained in some parents’ mind.”

In the secondary sector in England alarm bells are also ringing. Stuart Lock, the chief executive of the Advantage Schools academy trust in Bedfordshire, said;

“pupil attendance was a matter of concern for all school leaders.

I thought it was a blip. I now think that this is an established crisis that is going to get worse and take years to solve.”

“I don’t know how we’ll fix this – it feels like there has been a shift, and it isn’t dissimilar to the early 2000s when it was very hard to get a significant number of pupils to attend school regularly.”

‘Cultural shift’ since pandemic causing attendance crisis in English schools | Schools | The Guardian

Parents taking term time family holidays is also a growing problem, Claire McCelland of DE reports. The cost of living crisis has accelerated the move by families to take cheaper holidays during term time in spite of warnings from headteachers about the possible harm to pupil’s attainment. DE statistics show that more than 200,000 school days in 2022/23 were missed by primary school pupils withdrawn from class for family holidays that were not agreed with the school. Ms McClelland said that was 27% more days missed for that reason since 2018.

Stephen Aravena, the attendance and welfare adviser at St Anne’s, is quoted in The Guardian article with a very good overall take on the situation:

“There were pupils who normally have “very good” attendance who were now spending days out of school, with the mental health and resilience of parents as well as children under strain.”

“The landscape has changed. Pressures like the cost of living, all these things are impacting on families, so that’s brought a whole range of new problems that we need to deal with. We need to find new ways of responding to that,”

This is certainly true for us too in Northern Ireland and it is compounded by the higher levels of disadvantage and political paralysis which makes affording and implementing any mediating schemes very difficult.

This article is correct at 09/11/2023

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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