Schools fight post-pandemic attendance challenges and wait to see impact on exam results

17th June 2022

This year saw the first ‘normal’ GCSE exam period since 2019. Schools are concerned about post-pandemic school attendance. In particular, as tests are marked and pupils eagerly await results, the region is waiting to see how Year 11 attendance may impact exam results.

In 2022, Year 11’s taking exams have had to experience secondary school education with covid barriers such as lockdowns since they were in Year 8.

Missing students

FFT Education Lab recently released data on the attendance of Year 11 pupils during the crucial preparation time between Easter and exams. In general, FFT found that the proportion of pupils missing school ‘is much higher than pre-pandemic, when around 15% of Year 11s had absence rates of at least 10%’.

Additionally, the proportion of students missing school in the lead up to exams was higher for disadvantaged pupils. ‘Around one in eight disadvantaged pupils have missed more school than they’ve attended compared with around 1 in 20 of their peers’.

For the North East, the pandemic did not simply create new challenges but magnified pre-existing ones. The region has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic as existing high levels of deprivation have been exacerbated.

As summarised in School North East’s ‘Bitesize Briefing’ this week, the Children’s Commissioner’s Attendance Audit ‘Voices of England’s Missing Children’ looked into the regions attendance issues with an overarching goal that every child should be in school every day, supported and ready to learn. The report found that for the North East, persistent absences have doubled during the pandemic. In Autumn 2021, 1 in 4 children were persistently absent compared to 1 in 9 in 2018/19.

The North East has seen notable Covid related disruption throughout the pandemic, with Covid-related absences in the 20/21 summer term in our region higher than elsewhere in England.

Across the whole 20/21 academic year, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students with EHCPs, and students who receive SEN support, have missed more school sessions than their peers. In the Autumn term 21/22, the North East had the joint highest overall absence rates (alongside the South West), and the second highest percentage of persistent absentees (behind the South West).

In the foreword to this report, Dame Rachel de Souza called for ‘all of England’s children to have everything they need to thrive, to be happy and healthy’, mirroring the terminology used in the DfE’s ‘Every Child Matters’ Green Paper back in 2003 when Tony Blair was still Prime minister.

Chris Zarraga, Director of Schools North East stated:

‘There seems to be a lack of an organisational memory in education. ‘Every Child Matters’ was huge in around the early 2000s and now we are seeing the same problems highlighted post-pandemic. Policy must first understand the local context and take into account that there is not a one size fits all approach. The region is proud of the students who have taken their exams despite the challenges of covid. The issues with attendance does not reflect the commitment and effort of the school staff of the North East where schools have been the fourth emergency service throughout the pandemic’.

Teachers on the frontline

In the School’s Bill School Attendance fact sheet released in May 2022, the DfE said:

‘We recognise the impact the pandemic is continuing to have on children’s education, and although recent trends in attendance levels have been largely driven by COVID-19, the government is determined to address the wider and longer-term underlying causes of children not being in school because it is the best place for their development and wellbeing. To that end, it is more important than ever that agencies work together to secure the regular attendance of pupils and minimise unnecessary absence as much as possible.’

This measure placed a duty on local authorities in England to establish and maintain Children Not In School (CNIS) registers, and to provide support to home educators. The objective of this policy is to reduce pupil absence rates by improving the consistency of attendance support and management provided by schools, trusts and governing bodies, and local authorities to families.

Earlier this month the BBC ran a story about the efforts of Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough. Previously the school had the worst attendance record in the North East, however the staff worked incredibly hard to bring the attendance level back to the national average. Staff at the school implemented methods such as providing a uniform bank for students missing school due to financial difficulties, working alongside parents, turning up at the homes of absent pupils and when these methods failed, parents received fines.

At the Schools NOrth East monthly Multi Academy Trust CEO Roundtable in May 2022, Schools reported a change in culture and a more relaxed attitude towards attendance among some families.

While schools felt that they had seen improvements in attendance and lower levels of disruption, there were still difficulties in delivering ‘catchup’, especially as students were preparing for exams and assessments. Schools were particularly concerned for those groups of students who missed the most education during the pandemic, with risks of expanding the disadvantage gap.

The region continues to work towards ensuring every child is given a fair chance to receive a full education despite local challenges and the lingering repercussions of the pandemic. While concerns for the upcoming results are still on our minds, the North East should focus upon the accomplishments of the Year 11s who took the exams. Since Year 8, their education has been disrupted and sitting exams. in itself, is a big achievement for these students.

To read the FFT Education Lab reports click here:
and here:

To read the Children’s Commissioner’s Attendance Audit click here:

To keep up to date with Schools North East please follow us @SchoolsNE