Parents don't think it's important now for children to be in school every day, study finds

Findings come amid mounting concerns about increased number of children missing school in England

Parents have been questioning the importance of classroom learning since the pandemic. PA
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The pandemic has led parents to believe that their children do not need to attend school every day, a report suggests.

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

Parents are now taking their children on holiday during term time and these breaks are regarded as “socially acceptable”, the report says.

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

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

“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 different factors that are contributing to higher pupil absences, including the rise in mental health problems among young people and the high cost of living.

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

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.

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

“Parents agreed that every school day could not possibly be that important, given that so much time had been lost to lockdowns and strikes," the report said.

"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 Manchester mother of two primary school pupils 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 going to lie to you, my take on attendance and absence now is like I don’t really care any more. Life’s too short.”

A Bristol mother of a 15-year-old 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 per cent) of pupils in England were “persistently absent” – meaning they missed at least 10 per cent of their school sessions – in the 2022-2023 academic year, government figures show.

This is significantly higher than the pre-pandemic rate of 10.9 per cent in 2018-2019.

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 “undermine” the relationships between schools and parents.

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

This month health leaders, including England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty, said being in school can help to ease issues linked to mild or moderate anxiety among young people.

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

“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, a 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, 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.”

Updated: September 20, 2023, 11:01 PM