What is persistent absence measuring (and does it need to change)? – Education Datalab blog

A new inquiry by the Education Select Committee promises to investigate the causes of, and possible solutions to, the current levels of absence in schools.

These remain far higher than pre-pandemic.

Covid-19 is still with us, of course. Add to that other season illnesses and it was no surprise to see absence levels increase as last term came to an end.

In this blogpost, we’re going to return to the question of persistent absence. Some more detailed indicators of persistent absence may help shape appropriate policy responses.

Comparing persistent absence rates from year to year

The Education Select Committee references data for the Autumn term 2021 when 23.5% of pupils were classified as persistent absentees, defined as missing 10% or more of sessions.

This was at a time when schools would mark pupils who were isolating as code X on attendance registers. These codes are not counted in official absence statistics. If they were included, the percentage of persistent absence would have been even higher- 28.5% in Autumn 2021.

According to DfE attendance guidance, schools no longer need to record pupils who do not attend schools due to reasons related to Covid-19 using code X.

This will therefore affect comparability from year to year.

But that notwithstanding, we’re going to look at persistent absence in Autumn 2022.

Aspire Attendance Tracker

Schools can track, analyse and compare their attendance data against 1,000s of other FFT schools using Aspire Attendance Tracker.

Log in to Aspire to access Attendance Tracker – log in here.

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The data we’ll use comes from FFT Attendance Tracker. 2,800 secondary schools and 7,800 primary schools currently make use of the system.

We calculate rates of persistent absence for the whole term using three thresholds:

  • Those absent for 50% or more of sessions (severe absentees)
  • Those absent for 20% but less than 50% of sessions
  • Those absent for 10% but less than 20% of sessions

We also calculate the number of spells of absence for each pupil. These are continuous periods of time during which a pupil was absent from school. You can read more about this here.

Persistent absence in the Autumn Term, 2022

First of all, let’s look at the percentage of pupils in each year group who were persistently absent in the Autumn term.

In total, the rates of pupils absent for 10% or more of sessions range from 20.1% (Year 4) to 33.3% (Year 10). Grossing up to the full population of pupils this would mean that 25.6% of pupils were persistent absentees last term[1].

We can also see that almost 5% of pupils in Years 10 and 11 were severe absentees. Across all year groups in the population these figures would equate to around 170 thousand pupils.

Disadvantaged pupils[2] were far more likely to classified as persistent absentees than other pupils. Rates were up to double those of non-disadvantaged pupils last term.

Spells of absence

In the chart below, we show the number of spells of absence for pupils classified as persistent absentees in Autumn 2022.

The chart shows the cumulative distribution of absence spells for each of the three groups of persistent absentees.

Taking the “absent for 50% or more” group as an example, it shows that 55% of them had just one spell of absence and that 61% had up to 2 spells, 64% had up to 3 spells and so on. Note that we have omitted pupils with 15 or more spells from the chart but the percentage of pupils affected can be inferred from the chart.

Over half of these “severe absentees” were absent for a single spell. This would indicate a long-term absence. By contrast, 15% of them missed 15 or more spells. In other words, these are pupils who are either attend some of the time or who are possibly recorded as not being required to attend some of the time (this would include dual-rolled pupils).

Among the group of pupils with an absence rate of 10% to 20%, 55% were absent for 4 or more spells. Or put another way, 45% were absent for 5 or more spells.

Why spells of absence matter

Pupils who are repeatedly absent, that is to say have lots of spells of absence, are more likely to remain persistently absent.

We show this using data for the 2021/22 academic year.

Firstly, we identify pupils who were absent for 10% or more of sessions in the Autumn term.

Secondly, we calculate the number of spells of absence they had in that term.

Thirdly, we calculate how many were absent for 10% or more of sessions for the remainder of the academic year (i.e. January to July, 2022).

Overall, 54% of pupils who were persistently absent in Autumn 2021 were persistently absent for the rest of the academic year. The chart below shows how this figure varies by year group. The majority of secondary age pupils who were persistently absent in Autumn remained persistently absent for the rest of the year.

However, the propensity to be persistently absent between January and July 2022 was related to the number of spells of absence pupils had in the Autumn term.

Only around 20% of those who had 1 or 2 spells of absence in the Autumn continued to be persistent absentees. This compares to 90% (or more) of those with 10 or more spells.

We should say that the level of absence in the Autumn term also plays a part. Almost 90% of severe absentees from the Autumn with 1 or 2 spells continued to be persistently absent.

Notwithstanding the efforts of schools to improve attendance, this would suggest that for many pupils, persistent absence is a temporary state.

Summing up

The group of pupils who were persistently absent in Autumn 2022 won’t all necessarily remain persistent absentees during the remainder of the school year. Almost half of those who were persistently absent in Autumn 2021 missed fewer than 10% of sessions for the remainder of 2021/22.

The propensity to remain persistently absent is related to the number of spells of absence pupils had in the Autumn term. Relatively few of those who had one or two spells continued to be persistently absent.

Consequently, schools could focus any resources they have to improve attendance on those with who are more likely to remain persistently absent. Many may well be doing this already.

The Department for Education could help by redefining the persistent absence measures so that pupils with an absence rate between 10% and 20% but who were absent for only at most two (or three) spells are not classified as persistent absentees. If we were to do this (based on no more than 2 spells) it would have reduced the percentage of persistent absentees for Autumn 2022 from 25.6% to 21.9% and therefore offset (to some extent) the higher level of illness that is currently being experienced in schools.

A final option may be to develop an index similar to the Bradford Factor, widely used by many employers (including mine) which is based on number of absences and days absent. This would be developed such that the score was correlated with the propensity to continue to be persistently absent, i.e. as the index increased so did the probability of the latter. Initial testing suggests that the Bradford Factor itself does not have this property so something appropriate for school settings would have to be developed.


  1. This includes Reception age pupils who have hitherto not been included in persistent absence figures
  2. Pupils eligible for free school meals in the previous 6 years

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