How Academy21 is getting absent students back into schools

Absent students reintegrating into their school environment.
Statistics this year have shown that absence from education remains worryingly high.

The rate of pupils in England that have been persistently absent from school (missing at least 10% of their classes) is almost twice as high as it was before the covid pandemic. According to the UK Parliament’s School Attendance in England research briefing, released in early 2023,  the proportion of persistently absent pupils increased from 10.5% before the pandemic (2018/2019) to 22.3% in 2021/22 .

That’s one in five pupils in England missing a significant amount of learning time. Why are so many children and young people missing school and what is the immediate and long-term impact?

In this post, we’ll analyse the data and look at the primary causes of school absence. We’ll also outline how Academy21 supports learners to get back into education.

Which students have the highest rates of absence?

Disadvantaged Pupils

Data shows that disadvantaged pupils are more likely to miss school. Using statistics on pupils who are eligible for free school meals, we can see that 33.6% of those pupils were absent in autumn 2021, compared to 20% of those not eligible.

Pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEND)

30.6% of pupils identified with SEND were persistently absent in autumn 2021, compared to 21.5% of pupils who are not identified with SEND.

Older students

Typically absence rates increase as age increases. The highest absence rates were in year 11 at 10.6% and year 10 at 10.1%, compared to 7.6% for all pupils. This is a similar pattern to previous years.

Persistent absence ranged from 16.6% in year 3, to 32.2% in year 11 in 2021/22.

Ethnic groups

Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy/Roma pupils had the highest overall absence rates at 22.1% and 17.8% in  2021/22.  Chinese and Black African pupils had the lowest rates at 3.6% and 4.4%. This follows similar trends to previous years. Similar patterns are shown in persistent absence rates.


The overall absence rate was slightly higher for girls at 7.6% compared to 7.5% for boys, while persistent absence was 22.8% for girls and 22.2% for boys. This is a reversal from previous years.

Causes of pupil absence

There are several suggested causes for pupil absence currently being so high. Quantitative evidence, such as attendance codes, and qualitative research involving educators, pupils and families, supports many of these suggested reasons.

Absence due to illness

According to the figures from the Department for Education (DfE), illness (including pupils who had tested positive for covid) accounted for nearly 60% of absences in 2021-22. Illness includes physical and mental ill health.

Some have suggested that families may be more cautious now about sending their children into school with minor ailments, where before the pandemic they might have been more likely to send children in if they didn’t seem too ill.

Mental health concerns

Absences recorded by schools as ‘illness’ may include learners experiencing mental health issues that prevent them from attending school.

In November 2022, the NHS published its findings from a survey of children and young people, asking them about their mental health.

The NHS report states that in 2022, 18.0% of children aged 7 to 16 years and 22.0% of young people aged 17 to 24 years had a probable mental disorder.

Furthermore, the survey revealed that:

  • 47.6% agreed that “I can be myself at school”, compared with 86.0% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder.
  • 61.2% agreed that “I feel safe when I am at school”, compared with 89.2% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder.
  • 51.5% agreed that “I enjoy learning at school”, compared with 73.1% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder.
  • 77.8% agreed that “I have at least 1 friend I can turn to for support” compared with 97.0% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder.

These insights shed light on why many learners may feel reluctant to attend their education setting. Having spent time learning at home during the lockdown period, students may have lost confidence in their academic ability. They may have heightened anxieties about getting ill. They may also have lost connections with peers and feel less confident socially.

In April, The Guardian discussed submissions from local authorities about attendance. They reported that Essex council said:

“Anxiety and mental health concerns are one of the most significant drivers behind our recent increase in persistent/severe absence from school.

“We have noted a significant growth in the cohort of children and families who struggle to leave their home. Some of these families were experiencing anxiety prior to the pandemic but many of the current mental health and anxiety presentations appear to have developed during the pandemic/lockdown periods.”

Essex council reported that mental health support services were unable to cope with the growing number of cases. They said that this was having an impact on attendance, as children either fail to attend school while awaiting a mental health assessment, or they have persistent absence patterns during that waiting time.

Academy21’s research into pupils’ mental health

Our own research, carried out by OnePoll, involved surveying 500 teachers about the issues they and their students are facing post-pandemic. The results revealed the concerns held by educators about supporting learners with their mental health.

  • 77% of the teachers polled have also had to respond to a serious issue with a student, these issues have included body confidence issues (43%), self-harm (35%) and substance abuse (30%).
  • 75% of respondents stated they’ve taught a child who has had an emotional breakdown in school.
  • 67 % of teachers surveyed said they agonise about giving the wrong advice to children.
  • 61% of respondents said they have seen an increase in the number of students staying away from school for prolonged periods due to emotional and physical distress since the pandemic.
  • 33% of teachers surveyed said they don’t have the time to focus on the emotional needs of the whole class, due to the increased demands placed on them.

The cost of living crisis

Absence rates have historically been higher among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Beth Prescott, from the think tank Centre for Social Justice, states that poorer pupils miss school days because they lack uniforms or bus money. With the current financial squeeze many families are facing, this issue is likely heightened.

A shift in attitude

Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, claimed in March that schools were “seeing a huge amount of Friday absence that wasn’t there before”. Some headteachers surveyed have reported a “cultural shift” in parents since the pandemic, meaning they are now more likely to allow children to stay at home.

Unauthorised absences

The DfE also reported increased unauthorised absences for the academic year 2021-22. They rose from 1.3% in 2020-21 to 2.1% in 2021-22. Could this also be a reflection of a cultural shift, implying parents are not placing as much importance nowadays on letting schools know when their child is absent from school?

Addressing school absences

The Government’s response

In January 2023, MPs launched a new inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. The committee intends to:

  • question experts and education sector leaders on the Government’s proposals to improve schools’ data collection on attendance;
  • examine links between pupil absence and factors such as economic disadvantage, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), ethnic background, and whether a child or family member is clinically vulnerable to covid-19;
  • seek better ways to support pupils and their families, both inside and beyond the school system to improve attendance.

The DfE has also begun certain initiatives to address attendance concerns

  • They are hiring dedicated attendance advisers.
  • They are creating “attendance hubs” to share best practice.
  • They are running pilot programmes aiming to tackle underlying causes of absence, such as bullying or mental health issues.

How schools are addressing student absences

  • Working with families: Many schools are acknowledging the wrap-around support needed when addressing the issue of poor attendance. This extends beyond support for the pupil. Family liaison officers and staff in similar roles can support parents and carers, too.
  • Offering mental health support in school: A whole school approach to wellbeing contributes to an environment where learners feel safe and supported. Some schools offer tailored mental health support, which is provided by staff who have received adequate training.
  • Providing tutoring to support learning: Under the Government-funded tutoring scheme, many schools have provided/are providing tutoring to bridge learning gaps. This can help students with study-related anxiety, building their confidence in, and enjoyment of, subjects they may have fallen behind in.
  • Partnering with Academy21: By partnering with Academy21, schools can do all of the above: provide tailored academic tutoring, support learners with their emotional and mental wellbeing, and work in partnership with families.
Academy21’s support for absent students

Here at Academy21, we’ve been acutely aware of the increased demand for our services. For pupils with persistent absences, our service can be the lifeline they need to access education. For vulnerable pupils who are at risk of falling into those persistent absence statistics, Academy21 can be used as an early intervention solution.

Our direct intention, where possible, is to support young people to return to their school or college to complete their studies.

We do that by fully appreciating the range of issues that lead to and result in school absences, and by recognising the importance of tailoring learning to the individual’s academic and emotional needs.

Working with schools and LAs

We work in partnership with schools and Local Authorities to provide high-quality teaching and wellbeing support for all students accessing our service.

As discussed in our post, 8 Top Tips for Getting the Most Out of Academy21 Online Provision, we advise schools on how to get the most from our service, in terms of:

  • Implementation and setting up the learning environment
  • Using Academy21 as an early intervention or as a form of respite
  • Assigning a learning mentor and outlining their role
  • Establishing clear expectations from the outset
  • Making the most of the reporting and regular review sessions

The lesson-by-lesson feedback and weekly reports we provide schools with, mean staff have accurate, up-to-date information about students’ engagement levels and attainment.

Supporting anxious learners

With anxiety proving to be among the most common reasons for school absence, we’ve made it a priority to

We are experienced in knowing how to create a supportive online environment that can help anxious students to stay connected to their education, build up their confidence, and for many gradually return to mainstream schooling.

Our teachers build a strong rapport with learners and tune into their interests and strengths, ensuring students feel at ease during the online lessons.

Exam preparation, study skills and other support offerings

As the data shows, older students have higher rates of absence. That’s why our support offerings include Study Skills Courses, Wellbeing Workshops and Activity Clubs for students aged between 12 and 16 years that integrate with our core Academy21 offer.

Our courses for Key Stages 3 and 4 help students to catch up with lost learning and even prepare them for GCSE and A-Level exams. Learners receive support with time management, strategies to improve focus and revision methods.

Tailored support for Pupil Referral Units (PRUs)

With our PRU-specific programme, PRUs can positively act to prevent vulnerable learners from slipping behind or out of the education system altogether.

Our service is suitable for both interim provision while students await assessment and placement, or for longer-term placements. It can also be utilised at peak periods of capacity or to extend capacity for longer periods.

Academy21’s alternative provision online effectively provides students with the flexibility, pastoral care and educational quality they need to back on track with progress, re-engage with their education, improve their attendance levels and even return to mainstream education in the future.