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On the map - Persistent absentees - Absences leave holes in learning

Most school systems are based on the assumption that learning is sequential and successful outcomes are the result of regular attendance. This is why there is so much discussion about the effect of the long summer holidays on learning and the need for children to recover knowledge and skills at the start of each school year.

Missing crucial parts of the learning sequence during the year may not matter as much in, say, geography, when not knowing about rainforests or monsoons may not hamper the acquisition of knowledge about volcanoes. But in subjects where learning is not arranged in such discrete blocks, such as mathematics, sciences and languages, missing a vital lesson can hamper a child's learning development for a much longer period.

The map reveals that across the country the percentage of special educational needs (SEN) pupils who are classified as persistent absentees is always higher than the average for all pupils. Persistent absentees are those pupils who miss 63 or more sessions of schooling: that is at least 16.5 per cent of the total possible sessions during a whole school year.

Generally, more pupils are persistent absentees in the north of England than in the south, with Newcastle having more than 17 per cent of its SEN pupils as persistent absentees. At the other end of the scale, just 5.1 per cent of SEN pupils in Westminster, 5.2 per cent in Cornwall and 5.3 per cent in York were classified as persistent absentees in 200809. Even so, only 2.4 per cent of all pupils in Cornwall are persistent absentees, less than half the figure for SEN pupils.

Of course, pupils are "statemented" for SEN for many reasons, but for those who want to come to school and cannot do so, often for reasons of illness, we need to find a way of ensuring technology can help. After all, if the many school closures of this winter have taught us anything, it is that there are far more pupils than just the persistent absentees who will not have had access to learning this year. Solving the problem for all pupils will undoubtedly benefit SEN pupils even more.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.

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