By Local Democracy Reporter Simon Finlay
The number of school children in Kent classed as “persistently absent” from lessons has rocketed since the pandemic, government figures have revealed.
The level of pupils missing 10% or more of their classes has doubled since 2018/19, data released by the Department for Education shows.
One education expert says the pandemic caused parents to fall out of the habit of sending their children to school while another said authorities must lure absentees back.
The latest available figures for persistent absenteeism (10% and above of lessons missed) shows a massive increase from 11.8% (2018/19) to 25.4% (2022/23).
The number of authorised and unauthorised absences in Kent also soared. In 2018/19, the figure sat at 4.9% but rose to 7.1% in 2022/23, slightly lower than the national average of 7.5% for the same period.
Former Kent County Council principal primary adviser and now Conservative county councillor, Simon Webb, said: “The habit of taking children to school in the morning and picking them up again in the afternoon has been lost to an extent.
“Mental health issues among young people is also an issue and the chance of quick referral are very, very low.
“Threatening parents with sanctions would only have a detrimental effect, so the schools have to make their offering more attractive for the children to want to come back each day.
“Schools should be developing a nurturing curriculum by giving the child things that might interest them away from the classroom, such as gardening or sports.
“It’s an encouragement for the children to get back into the habit of learning.”
Cllr Webb said there was a “clear onus” by Ofsted to get children into school by giving them the support they might need.
There was also a shortage of surplus school places for pupils to transfer to if they are unhappy with their present school, he said.
Kent education expert Peter Read said: “I am absolutely certain that this is traceable back to the Covid pandemic and people working from home.
“People got out of the habit of taking their children to school and the parents carried on working from home after the pandemic passed. When the schools went back, some regarded school as optional.
“How do you fix the problem? Well, that’s a tough one but I do not believe that tough love is the answer and schools which have tried that approach have failed fairly miserably.
“What we appear to have lost in many parts of society is that school attendance is obligatory – and that’s worrying.”
KCC cabinet member for education, Cllr Rory Love, was contacted for a comment.
The DfE said: “We recently announced an expansion to our attendance hubs and mentors programme and we are also working closely with schools, trusts, governing bodies and local authorities to identify pupils in need of additional support.”
In 2020/21, DfE figures show Kent had 210,000 pupils (aged five to 15) in 585 schools. Persistent absentees missed 50,390 learning sessions.
Commenting on school absences, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Mental health issues among children have been growing for a number of years and have clearly been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Local support services are often overwhelmed, with pupils facing long waits to receive the help they need.
“There must be more focus across government on ensuring that child and adolescent mental health services provision has sufficient capacity to meet the needs of all children.”