Sunday thoughts: Do we need more political partisanship to tackle school absence?

Jonathan Simons
5 min readApr 30, 2023
Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

On Friday, I tweeted a stat I’d heard – that there was a huge spike in absence rates in schools that day. Parents had worked out that between the strike day on Thu, one unauthorised absence on Friday, a 3 day weekend, and then another strike day on Tue, that they could have 6 days off. One class had 8 kids out of 32 in that day.

The tweet got quite a lot of pick up – hardly Ellen DeGeneres or Leo DiCaprio at the Oscars, but enough to get a good discussion going underneath and to get some wider quoting in mainstream media.

Normally, when a tweet is visible enough to get some attention, one of two things happen. Either it’s a “right wing” tweet, at which point a handful of other accounts amplify it, and I get 200 replies telling me I’m the cause of all this country’s problems. Or it’s a “left wing” tweet, at which point you’re garlanded with clicks and….well that’s it really. Tweeting metropolitan liberal elite takes is playing the game on easy mode.

But the replies to this tweet were fascinating. I hadn’t put any opinion or editorialising on it at all (though for what it’s worth, I think deliberately taking your kids out of school even when there’s lots of empty days around it is pretty dumb). But the takes on what this showed ranged across the political spectrum from left to right. It was either the fault of lazy striking teachers, or it was the fault of capitalism and high priced holidays, or it was the outdated 19th century curriculum, or it proved we never should have closed schools during Covid, or a hundred other things.

It’s undeniable that pupil absence is now one of the biggest issues in education policy. Indeed, if we weren’t in the midst of the (linked) funding and recruitment and retention crises, it would probably be the biggest issue. The House of Commons library summarises what’s going on:

The estimated absence rate for the 2022/23 academic year to date (which covers the 2022/23 Autumn term) was 7.8%. This is higher than in the years prior to the pandemic. The Autumn term absence rate ranged between a low of 4.1% in 2015/16 and a high of 4.8% in 2019/20.

At the time of writing, the most recent persistent absence rate (proportion of pupils missing 10% or more of school sessions) and severely absent rate (proportion of pupils missing 50% or more of school sessions) is for Autumn and Spring term 2021/22 combined. The proportion of persistently absent pupils increased from 10.5% before the pandemic in 2018/19 to 22.3% in 2021/22. The proportion of severely absent pupils increased from 0.8% in 2018/19 to 1.5% in 2021/22.

Some groups of pupils are more likely to be persistently absent than others. In Autumn and Spring term 2021/22 combined, 35.4% of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals were persistently absent compared with 17.9% of non-eligible pupils.

And I wonder if the replies to my tweet show one of the problems in trying to solve it.

On most issues in social policy, you can broadly discern two partisan sets of responses to an issue. That’s true in education but also other areas. On whether or not we should raise taxes to fund education, or how to improve teacher retention, or what a curriculum should look like, people will – broadly – form relatively firm positions, and those – broadly – align with wider politics.

Normally, this is criticised. Why do we have to politicise issues? Why can’t we just follow the evidence, like they do in healthcare?Why can’t the right people all just get round a table and come to the best decision in a bipartisan way?

But as well as having argued for a long time that this can never work (these issues are not technocratic! There is no such thing as a neutral expert on these things, because if there was, we wouldn’t have had both SAGE and Independent SAGE and still be arguing about this four years later!) I also think that some form of partisanship is actively helpful.

Consider political parties. Why do they exist? In the case of the Conservatives, it seems to be for men to find wives, and for Labour, to find other people for whom compositing and arcane rule making is also a fun activity. But for the wider population, political parties, and political slates, are a helpful heuristic. They allow people to come to a sense of what they are likely to think about things based on what other people think; and they allow people who do think the same to come together to consider other issues. This isn’t a flaw in the system – it’s a feature. Like all heuristics, it exists because it provides a mental map and cognitive shortcut for people that is helpful.

And so when an issue exists that has a partisan take, it becomes easier to think about a conceptual frame in which to address it. Now, this has downsides. It’s often simplistic, and misses important context. And it may be wrong! But even the presence of two (or more) competing partisan views, that are internally consistent, I would argue helps illuminate an issue and in turn drives us towards a solution.

Back to the discussion about absence. There was no partisan approach here. Not only were the explanations and responses wide ranging, they didn’t coalesce around wider views. People were supportive of parents after cheap holidays and also thought we need to take a stronger approach on core knowledge. People felt it was teachers’ fault but also wanted teachers to be paid more. People thought children’s mental health was bad, but for some that was Wicked Tories and for some it was Woke Snowflakes. People thought the social contract had broken, and that we shouldn’t have closed schools during Covid, but some of them thought we should now fine parents and some thought parents were fine.

The truth is that it’s probably some or all of these causes, and more. I’m not claiming that absence is unique as an issue in education in that “it’s all a little more complex than that, Minister”. But my argument is that if we can’t even construct mental models for what cause and effect might be, and we can’t coalesce around testable hypotheses for solutions, then the issue remains more intractable than others.

We may or may not want to pay teachers more and take on the economic effects of that; but it’s a clear solution, with some evidence behind it, and a constituency that supports it, and we can probably see after a while whether it works or not, and there may be political consequences that follow for good or for ill.

I don’t see any of that in the absence debate. And that’s why I remain more pessimistic that it can be solved than most other issues.

God Save The King.

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