Primary school attendance problems in the context of Covid-19

By Brontë McDonald

School attendance problems during covid-19 in West Sussex, East Sussex, and Brighton and Hove. Research poster by Bronte McDonald.
Brontë’s poster won the first award at the Festival of Doctoral Research in July 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the educational lives of children across the world. In the UK, the government attempted to curb the spread of the virus by closing schools for extended periods to most pupils apart from children of key workers and children identified as vulnerable. When schools have been fully re-opened (amidst periods of lockdowns), average absences rates in school have been more than double previous years with Autumn’s 2020 overall absence rate being at 11.7% (compared to 4.9% in the previous year). Many of these absences (7%) were related to, hopefully temporary, Covid-19 reasons such as self-isolations and closure of ‘school bubbles’. However, other absences could likely be due to longer-term impacts of Covid-19 such as the heightening of school anxiety (Lee, 2020). Further research is still needed to understand the reasoning behind the attendance rates.

My PhD research project, which has been funded by the National Institute Health Research Applied Research Collaboration (NIHR ARC), aims to understand school attendance problems (SAP) in the context of Covid-19 and to develop a new community-based intervention to support families with primary school-aged children in Sussex who are experiencing school attendance problems. We are particularly interested in the primary school period because SAP typically begins to emerge during this time, with children experiencing distress the night before or on the way to school (Heyne, 2019). Although many of these children may still be attending school, without intervention, they are increasingly likely to experience long-term chronic absenteeism in the future (Cook et al., 2011). To mitigate future negative outcomes absenteeism can have on a child’s academic, social and mental health outcomes (Kearney and Graczyk, 2014), it is important to intervene at this point of emerging SAP (Heyne, 2019). However, to date, there has been very little focus on support for primary school-aged children in the U.K., which is when the onset of SAP is most likely to occur (Cook et al., 2017).

An important first step in my research is to explore the contributory factors to SAP and to understand families’ awareness and experiences of existing support. Research has already highlighted that SAPs are associated with interacting and complex family, child and school factors (Melvin et al., 2019). However, this research is yet to explore these risk and protective factors during a pandemic. So, using qualitative surveys and interviews, we have begun collating lived experiences of SAP from children’s parents and educational professionals working with these children, to build a picture and understanding of SAP within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, we aimed to understand the ongoing support that has been provided for these families and to identify what additional support would be beneficial.

We collected 48 online qualitative survey responses. Twenty-nine of these responses were from parents of primary school children experiencing SAP, and nineteen responses were from educational professionals (Headteachers, Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator, Class Teachers, Educational Psychologists and Educational Mental Health Practitioners) who work with primary school children experiencing SAP. We limited our sample to the Sussex area, with a particular focus on sampling from schools and areas with high rates of unauthorized school absences because this is where any future intervention or support that we develop will be piloted initially.

Preliminary findings from these surveys highlighted that emotionally based school avoidance was common. For many of the families who participated, child worry, and anxiety was described as a significant contributor to their child’s SAP. This was particularly the case for children who had previously been vulnerable to experiencing school-related anxiety prior to the pandemic. Parents also frequently mentioned children having heightened anxiety about being separated from them following the periods of school closures and worries about reconnecting with friends and catching up on learning.

Schools were deemed safe to reopen by the UK government in March 2021. However, parents often reported that their child felt uncertain about the safety of schools. This was not reported by the EPs, but they did report that parent’s own anxieties about the safety of returning to school had impacted on children’s anxiety. Furthermore, for schools to reopen safely, they had to adapt their rules and routines, for example, introducing bubble systems, changes to the structure of the school day, enhanced handwashing routines, and restrictions on sharing of classroom resources. Both parents and EPs reported that many children found these changes overwhelming and were anxious about getting them wrong. Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) were disproportionately impacted, with their parents more likely to report that they found it difficult and anxiety-provoking having to adapt to changing school routines and structures.

Furthermore, the surveys highlighted that for children with SEND, the transition back to school following the school closures had been particularly problematic. Parents and EPs explained that many children with SEND preferred learning at home during the period of school closures because the school environment prior to the pandemic had often been stressful and challenging for these children and social situations exhausting. Some parents reported that difficulties in attending school once they reopened were exacerbated because schools were unable to support their child’s SEND and, helpful accommodations that were in place prior to the pandemic were now prohibited or difficult under Covid-19 restrictions.

Parents and EPs shared different strategies that have been helpful in supporting children’s SAP. Generally, this included flexibility and accommodations from schools such as reduced timetables, schools and home collaborating together to support the child’s attendance and children’s wellbeing being a priority, particularly during the transition back to school following school closures. However, the majority of parents reported having little or no support for their child’s SAP and also being unsure where they could access support. As well as more support for their child’s SAP, parents reported that training and understanding of children’s SEND would be helpful and both parents and EPs felt that support for parents themselves in managing their own and their child’s anxieties would also be helpful.

To build on these findings, we have started interviewing parents and EPs with the aim to gain further insights on these themes and also form a more in-depth understanding of how support could be appropriately provided for families in Sussex. This will all contribute to the development of an intervention that will be co-produced with parents and EPs.

If you are interested in being part of this study as a parent of a primary school child who is experiencing school attendance problems or as an educational professional (this could include teachers, headteachers, SENCOs, mental health workers, educational psychologists etc.) who has experience working with children with school attendance problems, please follow the links below or email

Brontë McDonald is a PhD student under the supervision of Dr Daniel Michelson and Dr Kathryn J. Lester. Her research on school attendance problems during covid-19 won the first prize at the University of Sussex Festival of Doctoral Research in July 2021.

Find out more about our Developmental and Clinical Psychology research.

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