Why are so many pupils regularly missing school? The Parliamentary Education Committee noted recently that nearly 25 percent of state school students were “persistently” absent last autumn.
That means they missed at least 10 percent of all school days. That’s a big rise from pre-pandemic 2019 when persistent absence was just 13 percent.
Of course the right wing has its own answers. Children have gone “soft” because of Covid lockdowns and “woke teaching”, they said. More pressure and fines for parents are their answer.
Melanie is a part time teacher in a mainstream school in Barking, east London, who also works in an alternative provision school for pupils struggling to cope. She disagrees. Many young people see school as a “hostile environment”, she told Socialist Worker.
The reasons for rises in absences are complex, but there are common factors—a combination of cuts, a remorseless focus on tests and a bullying discipline culture that flows from the top of the system.
And it is poorer pupils and those with special educational needs that are hit the hardest. They are more likely to miss school, with those defined as having special educational needs and disability (Send) having a 40 percent rate of absence in 2021.
Melanie added, “Classrooms today are overcrowded, intensely noisy, and schools are governed by strict rules that some pupils find hard to understand and comply with,” she said.
“I work with many young people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some of them find it impossible to cope in a class of 32 pupils but do well when they are in my class of six or seven.
“But the waiting list to get into a special unit that can teach this way is massive.” Harsh school disciplinary regimes make matters worse for all pupils, Melanie adds.
“I know of a head of year in an academy that recently instructed staff to instil a ‘healthy fear’ into eleven-year-olds as they started in his school,” she said.
“That kind of attitude to young children is coupled with a deliberate narrowing of the curriculum. In academies visual art subjects, music, and drama are being shut down.
And Melanie says there’s also endless pressure to achieve higher test and exam scores. Under the current system a grade 7 is equivalent to an old GCSE grade A, but higher than an old A are grades 8 and now 9.
“Schools are now pushing their brightest pupils to get straight 9s. It puts young people under tremendous pressure, and some find they can’t cope.”
School regimes built on league tables, narrow curriculums and relentless testing not only alienate those least able to comply with them— they damage everyone in education.
Is it really that hard to understand why some pupils want to escape?
The cost of living crisis also has a hand in school absences.
Many families can’t afford to regularly clean uniforms for their children, nor pay for their lunches and bus fares every day—and those can be reasons to miss school.
But Melanie says the impact of poverty on attendance in schools is a mixed picture. “For some kids, school offers a chance to eat.
There are pre-school breakfast clubs where they can get cereal. And if they are on free lunches, they can eat here,” she says.
“Plus, there is some supportive structure for them, including teachers and friends. That can mean in some poor areas, like mine, for example, school attendance is really high.”
But, she says, poverty can also have the opposite effect.
“If your parent or parents have to get up at 5am to go to a cleaning job in town, there’s no way they can ensure you get to school at 8.30am.
“And, if you are on very low wages, you can’t just take the morning off every now and then to get them up—no matter how much the school insists you do.”
“That’s the problem with looking at school absences in isolation. What we’re dealing with here is one broken system—schools—crashing into another broken system— work.”
The Labour and Tory policy of fining parents for children who repeatedly miss school has utterly failed. A new Commons education committee report has found that fines have been less of a deterrent since the Covid pandemic for parents and hit poorer families the hardest.
Wayne Harris, deputy head at Washwood Heath school, told Schools Week newspaper that fines were a “stick (schools) have been told to beat parents with.” Harris recalls visiting the home of two asthmatic children whose parents did not pay their £60 per child fine after taking a “crap” term-time holiday in Cornwall.
That fine then rose through non-payment.
“Their house—riddled with mould—is falling to pieces, and now they’ve got to find nearly £800. It’s heartbreaking,”
Names have been changed
Nine-year old Sam, from west London, told Socialist Worker that the way schools use discipline “drives kids away”.
“When teachers have a go at you, it really affects you,” he said. “It makes you feel really bad about yourself.
“I think that’s a reason why a lot of people in my class didn’t come to school when I was in year 3. We had a super-strict teacher then.”
Now, he said, harsh new rules at his school are making life hard again. “We’ve just been told we can’t talk at all when we’re having lunch,” he said.
“So, we have to go from a class—where we’re not allowed to talk—to a lunch hall where we’re not allowed to talk. So for half the day, we’re not allowed to talk.”
Right wing thinktank The Centre for Social Justice moans that parents have become more likely to keep their children home for minor illnesses than before the pandemic.
And Department of Education figures seem to agree. But that is often the right thing to do.
What many people assume is an “autumn cold” can instead be Covid because the symptoms for many young people can be similar.
Covid can spread quickly through a school and put lives in danger—especially those of vulnerable and older people.
That’s a reason why no one should go to school or work when they are unwell.
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