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Parents no longer think children must be in school every day post-Covid – report

Regular attendance at school for their children is becoming less of a priority for parents, according to a report (PA)
Regular attendance at school for their children is becoming less of a priority for parents, according to a report (PA)

Parents no longer believe their children must attend school every day since the pandemic, a report suggests.

Covid-19 lockdowns have caused a “seismic shift” in parental attitudes to full-time school attendance that will take a “monumental” effort to change, according to a study by consultancy Public First.

A significant proportion of parents are taking their children on holiday during term time and these breaks are seen as “socially acceptable”, the report says.

The study – which highlights findings from focus groups with parents – comes amid mounting concerns about the rise in children missing school in England.

The report concludes: “Pre-Covid, ensuring your child’s daily attendance at school was seen as a fundamental element of good parenting.

“Post-Covid, parents no longer felt that to be the case, and instead view attending school as one of several – often competing – options or demands on their child on a daily basis, against a backdrop of a more holistic approach to daily life.”

The study highlights a number of different factors which are contributing to higher pupil absences – including the rise in mental health problems among young people and the cost-of-living crisis.

But it did not find any evidence to suggest that the rise in parents working from home since Covid-19 has encouraged more children to stay off school.

It comes after Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, previously suggested that pupils have been missing school on Fridays since the pandemic because their parents are at home.

Researchers conducted eight online focus groups with parents of school-aged children in eight different locations across England in June and July this year.

Immersive research with practitioners working for the charity School-Home Support, and a small number of pupil focus groups facilitated by the charity Khulisa, also fed into the study.

The report said: “Parents agreed that every school day could not possibly be that important, given that so much time had been lost to lockdowns and strikes. Moreover, there was a sense from parents that other elements of their lives were just as important as attending school, if not more so.”

A mother-of-two primary school children from Manchester said: “Pre-Covid, I was very much about getting the kids into school, you know, attendance was a big thing. Education was a major thing.

“After Covid, I’m not gonna lie to you, my take on attendance and absence now is like I don’t really care anymore. Life’s too short.”

A mother of a 15-year-old from Bristol said: “We always took them skiing in February half term to try and comply.

“Now I look back and I think why on earth did I do that? Why didn’t I just take them out for a cheap week in January?”

More than a fifth (22.3%) of pupils in England were “persistently absent” – meaning they missed at least 10% of their school sessions – in the 2022/23 academic year, Government figures show.

This is significantly higher than the pre-pandemic rate of 10.9% in 2018/19.

The report calls for fines for school absences to be reviewed and “potentially abolished” as it suggests they are failing to change parent behaviour and they “undermine” the relationships between schools and parents.

It adds that further investment in Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) “will significantly improve attendance”.

Earlier this month, health leaders – including England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty – said being in school can help alleviate issues linked to mild or moderate anxiety among young people.

Jaine Stannard, chief executive of School-Home Support, said: “These findings are a snapshot, but they give a flavour of frustration and despondency with a system which is underfunded and lacks nuance.

“Schools are at the sharp end, and it’s unfair that they are taking the hit for the ills of the system. Schools can’t tackle the school attendance crisis alone.”

Ed Dorrell, partner at Public First, said: “The voices of parents were what was missing from this debate – and surfacing them has given us invaluable insight.

“Our project’s findings signpost a deeply troubling issue that will take many years, a lot of hard work and substantive investment to resolve.

“Anyone who thinks this will be the kind of problem that can be resolved by pulling one or two policy levers is sadly mistaken.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Pupil absence is a big problem and it does seem that the attitudes of some parents have changed as a result of the pandemic and this is undoubtedly a factor.

“We’d stress that this is a minority of parents. Most people do get the importance of education and understand that it isn’t possible for a child to learn if they are not actually there in the classroom.

“We’re not talking here about an occasional day off because of a cold but about persistent patterns of absence.

“For some parents, the pandemic has eroded the sense that good attendance is essential and they don’t seem to see that absence will damage their child’s educational outcomes.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “Regular school attendance is vital for a child’s education, wellbeing and future life chances.

“There are many factors that influence school attendance and with the help of school leaders we have expanded our attendance hubs alongside wider support such as including providing a tool kit for schools on communicating with parents on this issue.

“We have also brought together an attendance action alliance of leaders from across education, social care and health to discuss the importance of the issue and its many factors.”