“Broader measures needed” to address inequalities in school absenteeism

A broader range of measurements for deprivation is needed to address absenteeism from Scotland’s schools, according to a study led at the University of Strathclyde.

The research found that all aspects of people’s socioeconomic status, such as class, housing, parental education and eligibility for free school meals, independently played a part in pupils being absent from schools.

Inequalities were linked to absences through illness, truancy and exclusion, although not family holidays.

Issues of inequality in Scotland are assessed in the context of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which identifies areas with relatively high levels of deprivation, but the research concludes that other measures focusing on individual circumstances could support policies for reducing absenteeism.

It also finds that, while it is too early to draw firm conclusions, links between socioeconomic status and absenteeism are likely to be stronger at reopened schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study has been produced at Strathclyde’s School of Education, in partnership with the General Teaching Council for Scotland and Poverty Alliance Scotland. It has been published in the Children and Youth Services Review.

Dr Markus Klein, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and co-author of the study, said: “SIMD is a weighted measure of poverty in a neighbourhood but it doesn’t necessarily have a focus on individuals. It could miss people who live in areas seen as less deprived but who are deprived themselves. We may not be grasping the full scale of inequality so that we can address absenteeism and so raise educational attainment.”

Dr Edward Sosu, Reader in the School of Education and co-author of the study, said: “There has been discussion about this issue for some time. The policy decisions are largely based on SIMD and we’re not suggesting that SIMD is not useful but it’s perhaps less effective in, for example, rural areas where there can be a geographical spread of people living in poverty.

“If there’s an SIMD-based link to truancy, it could be due to ‘neighbourhood’ factors, while parent’s education or living in social housing can provide different insights in about possible solutions.”

The results show that pupils from more deprived areas, living in socially rented housing, coming from households with lower levels of parental education and social class, and those registered for free school meals were more frequently absent from school than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds.

Pupils from socially rented households, and households with no qualifications are the most likely to be absent from school.

When looking at specific forms of absenteeism, the analysis revealed that there were socioeconomic inequalities related to truancy, sickness and temporary exclusion but not in relation to absences due to family holidays.

Living in socially rented housing, and parental education had the most pervasive effect on all forms of absenteeism.

In addition, the research showed that girls were more frequently absent than boys, and that those in urban areas had higher levels of overall absenteeism than those living in rural areas. The analysis did not find that socioeconomic differences in school absenteeism were more or less pronounced between girls and boys or people living in urban or rural areas.

The research was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Secondary Data Analysis Initiative Award.