Skip to content.

Podcast: Absenteeism in schools

Last updated: 29 Apr 2024 Topics: Podcast

Learn more about why children miss school and the potential safeguarding implications

Education is a vital part of ensuring children get the best possible start in life, and there can be safeguarding implications for children who are absent from school. If children miss school, the ability that schools have to offer them the support they need is compromised. And missing school may be an indicator of broader child protection concerns.

The number of children who are persistently absent from school has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. In this podcast episode, experts from the NSPCC and Childline discuss the potential causes for this, and what schools can do to address the problem. You’ll also hear two secondary school students share their thoughts on how the stresses and strains of school life can affect attendance.

The discussion covered:

  • what school absenteeism is and how it is defined
  • what the safeguarding implications could be for children who miss school
  • the impact of the pandemic on absenteeism trends
  • what schools can do to prevent absenteeism and support persistently absent children
  • what Childline is hearing about why children miss school.

Listen on YouTube


About the speakers

Janet Hinton is the NSPCC's Strategic Service Manager for Schools, working on the delivery of a range of NSPCC programmes for schools, including Speak out, Stay safe.

Kelly Burnett joined the NSPCC in May 2021, as a Supervisor at the Childline Liverpool Base. Kelly is responsible for the management of staff and volunteers, training staff, and making safeguarding decisions on shifts.

John Anderton joined the NSPCC in 2008 as a Childline Supervisor, after serving two years as a volunteer. John is currently practice champion at Childline's Birmingham base, supporting and guiding Childline counsellors on shifts.

The NSPCC Young People's Board for Change is a cohort of young people who steer, advice and influence the NSPCC on issues that affect children and young people in the UK, ensuring that children and young people’s opinions and ideas are considered within the strategic direction of the organisation.


NSPCC Learning Podcast

Our podcast explores a variety of different child protection issues and invites contributors from the NSPCC and external organisations to talk about what they are doing to keep children and young people safe. Use our episode directory to browse through all our episodes to date.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast through Audioboom, Apple PodcastsSpotify and YouTube or sign up to our newsletter to hear about new episodes.

Related resources

> Learn more about Childline

> Find out more about our Building Connections service

> Take our Safeguarding training for schools, academies and colleges

> View our other safeguarding resources for schools

> Learn more about protecting children from county lines



Welcome to the NSPCC Learning Podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.

Welcome to the NSPCC Learning Podcast. This episode, recorded at the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024, is all about absenteeism in schools.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, pupil absence rates in schools have increased across the UK, with hundreds of thousands of children persistently absent from school. Education is a vital part of ensuring children get the best possible start in life, and there can also be safeguarding implications for children who are absent from school.

This podcast episode will look at what those implications may be and what schools can do to support children who are persistently absent. You'll also hear two secondary school students share their thoughts on how the stresses and strains of school life can affect attendance.

But first, I asked Janet Hinton, the NSPCC's Strategic Service Manager for schools, to explain what we mean by absenteeism.

Janet Hinton:
So, school absenteeism would be when a child or young person who is of a compulsory school age is absent from school. You will also hear terms that children are missing from education, and that refers to children who are not registered at school, but they're not receiving suitable home education either. And that's quite a different group to children who are persistently absent from school.

And what does that term 'persistently absent' mean?

Yeah. So, across England, Wales and Scotland, the term 'persistent absence' is used to describe children who miss 10% or more of possible school sessions. And in Northern Ireland the term 'chronic absence' is used.

So although the terms across regions and nations are different, the consistent trends since the COVID-19 pandemic are the numbers of students who are persistently absent has really risen. So in 2022-2023, 21% of pupils were persistent absentees in England, 18% of pupils in Wales and roughly a third in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We know it's complex and complicated and that certain groups of children are much more likely to be absent than others. So that does include young people with special educational needs and disabilities, young people with mental health problems, young carers.

There's lots of different reasons that children could be absent from schools, and lots of different things going on in their lives that might affect how likely they are to be absent from school for either a fixed period of time, or for a long period of time throughout their school career or their time at school. So children with a history of exclusion or absence, or young people in care, and those who have a social worker, might be more at risk of persistent absenteeism than some other groups of young people.

So we know that some children are more at risk. And we also know that although there are lots of good reasons why children might miss school — they might be ill, they might have medical appointments, etc. — there are obviously safeguarding implications for children who are persistently missing school. Please can you describe what those are and what they may look like?

Yeah. You're absolutely right to say that the reasons that young people might be persistently absent from school are really wide-ranging, and it's really important to be non-judgmental about for what those reasons might be and recognise that there is safeguarding implications when a child or young person is persistently absent.

We know that schools are protective spaces. School staff are in a really excellent position to know young people, to see them every day, to identify safeguarding concerns early and to really provide support to children where they need, to stop concerns from escalating. So if children are absent from that space, the ability that schools have to carry out that protective function is really impaired.

And although, as we said, there are wide-ranging reasons that young people are absent, there may be underlying safeguarding reasons why a child is missing from school. So in some instances, poor attendance could be a sign of abuse or neglect. And there's definitely a risk of serious harm when this isn't picked up. And in that sense, school acts as one really important place where safeguarding concerns can be identified, but also that they can be acted on and that young people can be kept safe.

And finally, what can schools do to prevent absenteeism and to support children who are persistently absent?

Schools take their responsibility to monitor students absence really seriously. When a child does fail to attend school without explanation, their absence should be investigated as part of the school's safeguarding responsibility. So the school does have, for example, responsibility to inform the local authority of any students who fail to attend school regularly, or miss ten school days or more without permission.

In terms of trying to keep young people in school as much as possible and to be able to use schools as a safe place, schools also work really hard to make sure that they support children who might be reluctant to attend school and to work with young people and their families as well. For example, the amount of pastoral support and the ways that young people can be brought back into school at their own pace — including things like reasonable adjustments, phased returns, providing students and families with regular check-ins — there's lots of things that school can do to make attendance at school easier for young people and families, and to really work with children and families where they are without feeling judged.

And I think that, you know, children who have been absent for a long time sometimes need really gradual, really tailored support plans to bring them back into school in a way that's really supportive and beneficial to them. And in a way that not only keeps them safer, but bolsters their confidence as well.

One place that children can turn to for support if they're struggling with anything, including school, is Childline. John Anderton and Kelly Burnett are Childline supervisors who respond to calls from children and listen to their concerns. I sat down with them both to discuss what they've learnt about why children are missing school.

John Anderton:
I would say predominantly the reasons we hear about most commonly are issues sort of outside the more obvious medical, health-related reasons, really. Other related problems — which we are probably more inclined to hear about — include things that are going on at school, perhaps maybe bullying; or some sort of anxiety or depression; mental health issues that might be impacting school and the performance at school; family problems; it could be that the young person has developed, for whatever reason, a generally quite negative attitude towards school; all sorts of reasons, really. We do know that school attendance, certainly since the pandemic, has been an issue.

Kelly Burnett:
I think also it's worth bearing in mind parental concerns. You know, the parent opinion on things. That it's potentially more to do with the parents than it is to do with young people. Quite often we can hear from young people who talk about wanting to go to school, but their parents are scared that, you know, history is going to repeat itself and that's preventing that as well. So yeah, I suppose it's about considering those options as well.

But I think John's absolutely right in terms of the impact since the pandemic. You know, certainly seems to have escalated and again, in line with all of the mental health concerns as well.

And I think sometimes we kind of forget just how long the disruption from the pandemic actually lasted in terms of school. And I think that for some of the children who have started to miss school since the pandemic, it can be a question of it's kind of broken that momentum, if you like, of going to school. It's almost as if children had to get back into the habit almost of going to school.

Plus, I think it's exacerbated some of the problems that might already have existed at home as well. I think some of those may have come to the fore during the pandemic. And, I mean, we know, don't we, unfortunately, that lockdowns and the things that happened during the pandemic did have an impact on anxiety levels, on depression levels — not just for children, of course, but for everybody, adults as well. So it could be what we're actually seeing is symptomatic of that.

Absolutely. I think it's impossible to ignore the impact of COVID on school attendance. We've touched on this a bit already in the podcast, but why is school attendance so important for children?

I mean, the obvious one is obviously the impact on their education, the impact on their future. But I think we quite often take for granted the fact that schools actually a safe place for them sometimes as well. It can be an escape from their home environment. And if, you know, if the home environment is the reason why they're being prevented from coming into school, you've got that knock-on effect.

It's also a bit of stability for them as well, and a bit of routine. I think, you know, as we mentioned before, in terms of the impact on the pandemic and coming in and how, I think, children and young people were out of school for that period of time: they lost that sense of stability. So school can be that element of stability for them.

Many of the children who we talked to, who are not attending school or not attending school regularly, often describe themselves as being socially isolated. School does provide an opportunity to take part in extracurricular activities and social activities as well. And I think children, particularly through those formative years, will miss out on that opportunity to develop what are really kind of quite basic social skills that we almost take for granted but actually are formed during those really important years at school.

Definitely. And I think on that point, I should tell listeners about the NSPCC's new Building Connections service, which helps children who are experiencing loneliness.

My next question is: when does missing school become a safeguarding concern?

Again, I think, when school is the safe place, at home they're at risk of being exposed to things that potentially might be going on in the family home. Also, I think, it can — and I remember this from my teaching days — it's potential neglect, particularly if the parents are involved there as well, in not being able to provide, you know, that basic need that they have to attend school.

And obviously with the extremes of that, you've then got the impact of potentially abusive behaviours, from people within the family, from people that they know. So in that respect, yes. This is where schools come in, in terms of picking up on those things. Picking up on those behaviours, those changing behaviours. But that's also difficult if the child's not attending school.

We know that children who are not attending school can become targets for abuse and exploitation. And also, schools are such a great... You know, they're a source of support, of course, school itself. But schools are also a gateway to other areas of support as well.

I've actually just been speaking to a school, making a referral to a school about a young person. Well, on behalf of a young person, I should say. And that was an example where this young person did really need help. We had some very significant safeguarding concerns about this young person. The only people that this young person would agree to us making contact with was school. Had we needed to, we would have had to have worked against this young person's wishes and contacted maybe police or the ambulance services or children's services. But what this young person did do, because they've got that relationship with school, they were much more comfortable with us talking to school on their behalf.

So, when we're talking to children who are not attending schools, they haven't got that healthy sort of constructive relationship with schools. It can be so much harder to find appropriate help and support for that young person as well, which then, you know, sort of amplifies and increases any safeguarding concerns that already exist.

You're right to highlight the vital role that schools play in keeping children safe. And it's really important as well to recognise the safeguarding pressures that schools are under.

What advice would you give to education professionals on how to support children who are frequently missing school?

I mean, I think again, from experience — more so sort of now rather than when I was teaching — there are now, there seems to be more designated teams involved. So the pastoral teams are more prominent, the safeguarding teams are more prominent. And I am aware, obviously, that some have got absence workers within schools and that kind of thing.

I suppose, as well, you know, it's potentially looking for those patterns. Is there a reason why these young people are off. Are there reasons why they're off at certain points of the day. I suppose it's that multi-agency work as well, isn't it, making sure that they're communicating with social care, if there's any involvement with them, and anything else they might know.

So just making sure that, I suppose, that communication is there so that we can make sure we're there for those young people.

I would agree with that. And I find personally that when we work with other agencies, a lot of the most helpful and constructive work that we do is actually done with schools.

And again, it's really just about schools being alert to those signs and certainly being willing to just sort of, you know... We talk to people, about acting on your hunches, you know; that if you sense that something's not right, then the likelihood is that something is not right, that there is a problem there.

So, we would say to schools, as we'd say to anybody, particularly anybody who has regular contact with children and young people, is to act on your gut instincts, really. And to just sort of check. Don't hesitate just to check. Even if it turns out that you're wrong — and hopefully you are wrong and there aren't any really concerning issues going on — just act on your hunches, you know, just take notice of those gut feelings.

John, Kelly, thank you so much for sharing your experiences of supporting children through Childline.

To get a full picture of the problem of absenteeism in schools, it's important to hear from young people themselves. To conclude this podcast episode, I spoke to two members of the NSPCC's Young People's Board for Change (YPBC), who are both currently in secondary education.

The young people began by sharing their opinions on why children might want to miss school.

YPBC Member 1:
I think as everyone is very different, there is loads of reasons why a young person would quit school. For me, the reasons that I missed school were illness and stress and undiagnosed needs. And I think that definitely goes for a lot of young people — how you can so easily get stressed and overwhelmed by all of the pressures that school can put on you. And also peer pressure and exams and homework, and it can all get on top of you. It can be very stressful, and that can cause illness in itself.

And, I guess, one of the big main things that I think schools don't really understand is that actually mainstream school might not actually be the best place for that individual, and school might not be the best place for a child. There are other ways of receiving an education that might work better for that child.

YPBC Member 2:
I think it could just be sometimes as simple as they just don't feel like it's a nice environment to be in. It could be because the teachers, they don't feel like the teachers are kind to them, or they don't feel like the teachers are helping them or understanding them.

Or it could be because of the kids and the other people in the school. That could be because they've been bullied, or it could just be because the kids are mean and just say comments sometimes. And it's just... I know for me some of the kids in the school just aren't very nice and they'll just say random things. And I think that can stick with you for the whole day. Just one bad experience can make the whole day just unenjoyable and not a nice place to be.

And if that happens repeatedly, you just start to hate school and not want to be there. And if you get any... If you wake up one day with a slight headache, you might just take that and say, "sorry, I can't come in", because what's the point in being in school if you're just not enjoying it?

Absolutely, I think that sort of snowball effect will be really recognisable for lots of people.

You both mentioned the stresses that young people might face. Please, can you talk a little bit more about those stresses that might lead to young people missing school?

YPBC Member 1:
I think, for me, I wasn't in secondary school very long because the stress of starting was too much for me. So some of the stresses for me were, because I had a diagnosed autism, I found being in a really busy school environment, carrying loads of books, it's so noisy in stairwells and in dinner halls. It's insanely loud and it all gets on top of you. People brush past you, it's very pushy and shovey in all the corridors, and it's just generally a really overwhelming experience.

YPBC Member 2:
I also think in class, when you're in class, there's so much information being thrown at you and you've got to sit and just listen to the teacher talk for such a long period of time. If you're someone who struggles with sitting still and just paying attention for long periods of time, you could get in trouble for those things. And then that makes school even more of a bad experience for you, because the teacher doesn't understand the fact that you're finding it hard to concentrate, and you might be trying your hardest but you're getting punished for those things, when you're trying to the highest of your capacity to listen to the teacher talk for that long. But it can just get really stressful.

And if that's happening six times or five times in a day because you've got that many lessons, it can just become really stressful and get on top of you. And then if you think you're behind in work, because you've not heard what's happening in lesson, then it just gets even worse. And then you don't know what to do on homework and you worry for tests because you don't understand what's happening in class. It just gets very stressful and overwhelming for you.

YPBC Member 1:
All of these stresses just build up over time and it's so degrading. You go through it day after day after day. And what then starts to happen is you just start to burnout. I think it's like one of the highest things in students at the moment is burnout.

Over lockdown and through COVID, after that, so many children got diagnosed with things that hadn't been picked up in schools because going back to school after COVID was so stressful. It feels almost cruel sometimes, the amount of stress that young people get put under from schools, and it's meant to be a safe place, and it's meant to be a place where you're meant to learn and thrive. And yet, sometimes, it can be one of the most traumatic places to be because you're just put under stress day in and day out.

That's obviously — and I'm sure teachers will agree — that that's not the aim of school. School should be a place where students feel safe and secure. What do you think education professionals can do to make the school environment less stressful? Because no one wants it to be as stressful as you describe.

YPBC Member 2:
I think just talking to the people who are not enjoying school or who are off school, talking to people and their families, and just having a discussion and asking them why they don't feel like they want to come to school. What is the problem? What's the issue for you? And then figuring out a way to fix that for them.

So, say they thought it was too crowded or just too loud and crazy and chaotic, maybe let them out of lessons five minutes early so they go out before the rush of people and find a place for them to go during break and lunch so they don't have to be in a big group of people. And then, just talk to them and understand their needs and what you can do to make them feel valued and understood.

YPBC Member 1:
When you're absent from school for a long period of time, there seems to be a big amount of blame. A big amount of blame that goes on parents and a big amount of blame that goes on a child. Because school's main objective seems to be getting the child back into school as soon as possible, rather than making sure that they're happy and healthy in school.

I do feel like it is worth listening to the child and the parents about what the reasons are and trying to solve them. If you listen, then you might find a solution, because the likelihood is if you just force them back into school without listening, they'll be absent in the future and they won't be happy and they won't enjoy learning. And that's just not the way it's going to work. So definitely listening and definitely being solution-focused, and working on how can you make the school more accessible for the child and how can you make it more a enjoyable experience for them?

And, again, realise that mainstream school might not be the best place and you have to accept that. It's nothing that's like a reflection on school, it's nothing like that. It's just being able to accept that actually every teacher wants a child to be able to learn and thrive, and being in mainstream school might not be the way that they reach their full potential. So I think realising that would definitely be an improvement.

YPBC Member 2:
I also think adding on to that point, just teaching kids where they need to go for help and who they need to talk to if they're having issues. And some people might want a mentor or somebody who they can speak to — or the mentor can speak to them to check up on how they're feeling and just check on how school is feeling for them.

Because then, if they have any issues, they can get sorted there and then, instead of it building up and building up for them just not wanting to come in school completely. They can get rid of the issues as they arise, and then it shouldn't become too big of a thing and an issue and a stress in school.

I think that idea of a mentor is a really great idea, having that peer support in place is lovely. And I agree that taking steps to prevent issues from escalating is really important too.

Before we end the podcast, are there any other points either of you want to make on this topic?

YPBC Member 2:
I just wanted to add that I think most of the time, the issue is just that the child's voice is lost in education and they just don't get a chance to express their needs and what they want to be done, or what their issue is so that school can figure out what needs to be done to keep them in school or to bring them back to school. And I think just listening to the child and letting them tell you what's wrong, instead of jumping to conclusions or trying to figure it out, would just solve a lot of things. Then you can work from there and think, "okay, what can we do to solve this issue to make them want to get back to school?".

YPBC Member 1:
What they say is incredibly valuable, especially if they've not been in school, because this is probably the first time that they will have spoken to anyone about difficulties. And making yourself available to talk to and approachable is probably one of the most valuable things you can give to the child. And I know that if I'd had a teacher that sat down and listened to me, if I was able to talk, then that probably would have saved an awful lot of trouble.

And I think that point on the importance of listening to young people is really key, and it's the perfect final message to end our discussion with. Thank you both so much for sharing so candidly and so honestly your thoughts on this topic. I really benefited from listening to what you've had to say, and I'm sure our audience of the podcast will as well, so thank you.

And thank you also to Janet Hinton, John Anderton and Kelly Burnett for their contributions. If you'd like to learn more about safeguarding children and young people in schools, you can find a range of resources on the NSPCC learning website, and we'll link to some of those in the podcast show notes. Thanks for listening.

Thanks for listening to this NSPCC Learning podcast. At the time of recording, this episode's content was up to date, but the world of safeguarding and child protection is ever-changing. So, if you're looking for the most current safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at