More than a fifth of schoolchildren in England were persistently absent from lessons last year as the number of pupils off for at least 10% of the time almost doubled to more than 1.6 million, new data suggests.
Some 22.5% of pupils at special schools and state-funded primaries and secondaries were deemed “persistent absentees” in the 2021/22 school year, losing the equivalent of at least 19 days of teaching.
The Department for Education figures indicate an increase of 10.4 percentage points on 2020/21’s figures, when persistent absentees stood at 12.1% of all pupils.
Of those persistently absent, 120,000 missed 50% or more of their lessons, up from 60,000 before the pandemic in 2018/19.
The figures – which include authorised, unauthorised and positive Covid test absences – come a week after the Children’s Commissioner for England said she was “seriously worried” about the number of persistent absences, adding that it was “one of the issues of our age”.
Dame Rachel de Souza told the Commons Education Select Committee on March 7 that the number of schoolchildren missing on Fridays had increased by a “huge amount” since the pandemic because their parents were at home.
The figures show state-funded primary and secondary schools saw rises in persistent absenteeism of 101% and 87% respectively last year.
A total of 17.7% of primary pupils and 27.7% of secondary pupils were shown to have missed more than 10% of their lessons, up from 8.7% and 14.8% the year before.
Rates were highest in special schools at 40.4%, although this represented a decline from 48.9% in the previous year.
The data also suggested that persistent absences were more likely among pupils eligible for free school meals, from some minority ethnic backgrounds or with special educational needs (SEN).
Rates stood at 37.2% for children eligible for free school meals – compared to 17.5% for those who were not – while 36.9% of pupils with SEN support met the threshold, 14.4 percentage points higher than the overall rate.
At 71.7%, travellers of Irish descent were the ethnic group with the highest persistent absence rates, followed by Gypsy Roma at 64.9%, white and black Caribbean at 31.4% and Pakistani at 27.1%.
Pupils classified as Chinese (6.2%), black African (10.4%) and Indian (15.7%) had the lowest rates.
The overall proportion of school days lost to absences stood at 7.6% last year, up from 4.6% in 2020/21.
In her appearance before the select committee last week, Dame Rachel said the main reasons why children were off school included their special educational needs not being met, as well as anxiety and mental health issues.
But she added there was also a group of pupils who had “just not come back” since the pandemic.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “The vast majority of children are in school and learning.
“We work closely with schools, trusts, governing bodies and local authorities to identify pupils who are at risk of becoming, or who are persistently absent and working together to support those children to return to regular and consistent education.”
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