As schools prepare to go back after half term latest official figures show absence is still a major problem in Wales. As many as one in seven children of statutory school age did not attend school in the week before the break – more than 24,000 in total.

Just over 8,000 school sessions were missed for agreed family holidays the week before half term, the Welsh Government data also shows. Headteachers’ leaders described the continued high absence levels as “extremely worrying” – pre Covid attendance stood at around 94% for secondaries and 95% for primaries on average.

And in in total tens of thousands of children have missed a month or more of face to face school this academic year. School leaders have warned that persistent absence has now reached levels where it risks affecting children’s futures – pre Covid attendance stood at around 94% for secondaries and 95% for primaries on average but it is now “creaking” at 85.6%.

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After some lobbied Welsh Government Education Minister Jeremy Miles re-introduced penalties for parents and carers not sending their children in earlier this term, but only as a “last resort”

The least advantaged children and those taking exams are the most likely to be off now. But both exam study leave and remote learning are counted as an absence and therefore being absent from school does not necessarily mean being absent from learning, the Welsh Government said.

Learning or not, between 23 to 27 May the attendance gap between those eligible for free school meals and their better off peers stood at an average 5.1 percentage points. On some days it is more. On May 27 alone 78.4% of children eligible for free school meals were in school compared with 85.8% of peers not eligible.

Children eligible for free school meals are less likely to attend school across Wales. The attendance gap between those eligible for free school meals and their better off peers is now 5.1 percentage points

With GCSEs, AS and A levels underway for the first time in three years those in exam years may be away because they are revising for those exams – only 67.4% of GCSE year 11s, 58.4% of year 12s and 56.2% of year 13s were in classrooms in the week before half term.

But away from exams, more than one in 10 pupils were still off in many school years in primary and secondary. In total attendance was down to 86.5% across Wales in the week before half term with 11,826 (12%) of primary children and 12,421 (22.4%) of secondary pupils not in school that week.

Eithne Hughes, Director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru said absence was a continued and key worry for schools as they return after half term. She said: “This is urgent and needs everybody to pull together to get learners back to school confidently and willingly. Schools cannot do it alone, they need support from local authorities and families.”

She said reasons for stubborn absence were complex and varied but included young people feeling isolated, losing the habit or confidence to go to school and mental health and wellbeing issues after Covid and lockdowns. She added: “Absence has been a considerable worry for a long time now. These statistics make for depressing reading. If learners do not get the qualifications and skills they need to be economically active they will be even further behind. We cannot afford for their life chances to be lost. Everyone needs to work together to get them back in school.”

The most common reason for children being away from lessons was given in the data as illness other than Covid while Covid-related absences have plummeted. Just 0.4% of pupils were reported as off for a known Covid-related reason over the week of 23 to 27 May – 257 children in primaries and 179 in secondaries.

As schools try to return to some normality after Covid disruption and the fall-out from the pandemic tens of thousands of children have missed large swathes of face to face learning this academic year.

More than one in every four children in Wales have missed a week or more of face to face learning for a known Covid-related reason since September 2021 while 82.8% of pupils (397,551 pupils) have missed more than a week for any reason.

The amount of school missed by children this year

Official Welsh Government data reveals tens of thousands of children have missed a month or more of face to face school since September 2021. This data from the Welsh Government lists how many children have missed between 20.5 and 40.5 or more days of school since the start of this academic year:

20.5-25 days : 41,983

25.5 to 30 days: 27,399

30.5 to 35 days: 18,613

35.5-40 days: 12,586

40.5 days or more: 41,050

And this is how many children have missed between 20.5 and more than 40.5 days of school this academic year for known Covid-related reasons:

20.5 to 25 days: 1,460

25.5 to 30 days: 518

30.5 to 35 days: 218

35.5 to 40 days: 95

40.5 days or more: 298

The children in each year group off school before half term

Welsh Government data shows attendance by year group from May 23-27

Reception 89.2%

Year 1 90.2%

Year 2 90.9%

Year 3 91.3%

Year 4 91.1%

Year 5 91%

Year 6 90.4%

Year 7 88.6%

Year 8 87.1%

Year 9 85.9%

Year 10 86.4%

Year 11 67.4%

Year 12 58.4%

Year 13 56.2%

Responding to the latest school absence data and fears over the effect on education a Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We know the best place for pupils is in school. We are working with schools and local authorities on what further steps can be taken to ensure education continues for all children.

“We have announced an extra £24m of extra support for learners in exam years. Local authorities retain the legal powers to consider fixed penalty notices as a last resort, where all other attempts to engage have been exhausted.”

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