Half of Australia’s kids are ‘chronically absent’ from school – experts explore why


Student attendance rates in schools throughout Australia have been on a downward trend since COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns hit in 2020.

Government estimates show that, of the 4 million Australians who are of schooling age, as many as half of all students fall into the ‘chronically absent’ category – meaning they are missing 10 per cent or more school days per year.

Estimates show that chronic absenteeism levels in schools reached 49.9 per cent in 2022, with between one and five per cent of all students classed as severely absent.

Student disconnection cited as key factor

The prevalence of students who refuse to attend school is higher amongst those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

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Bullying and student disconnection from the learning curriculum may also be contributing to increased absences.

Students across Australia are becoming increasingly absent from classrooms, prompting concerns from experts on students’ education levels.

According to government estimates, of the 4 million Australians who are of schooling age, as many as half of all students fall into the ‘chronically absent’ category – meaning they are missing 10 per cent or more school days per year.

Of this, up to 200,000 students – or five per cent of the school-age cohort, may be ‘severely absent’, with a further 50,000 ‘detached students’ not enrolled in a formal education program of any type.

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Western Sydney University researcher and AARE Member, Professor Susanne Gannon, believes that behaviours introduced during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns may be carrying over to present-day learning.

“School attrition and school refusal have been impacted by years of pandemic-induced disruption,” she says.

“School absenteeism may have been normalised through the pandemic. Some parents became used to their children not being at school, and expectations increased for learning materials to be available online.”

Children need to feel safe at school

According to recent data from the OECD, ‘boredom’ was cited as the third most common reason behind students’ refusal to attend school, whilst Australia continues to lag behind the OECD average for students who feel ‘safe’ at school.

Whilst the percentage of students who skip individual classes is down, there has been an increase in truancy amongst students, with more Australians skipping entire days of school.

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“After the isolation of school lockdowns in 2020, many young people were bored at home and desperate to return to their friends and the stability and stimulation of everyday life and learning at school,” Professor Gannon says.

“Yet continuing disruptions from rolling lockdowns and teacher shortages meant that their school was far from normal.”

Though disruptions from pandemic lockdowns have not been ideal for student attendance, government figures show that this downward trend has continued since schools returned to their regular schedule in 2021.

Overall attendance rates for students in Years one-10 fell by 4.4 per cent between 2021 and 2022, with the proportion of these students whose attendance rate was equal to or greater than 90 per cent falling by a staggering 21.3 per cent.

Student and teacher well-being must be supported

Professor Gannon says reversing this trend involves placing a greater emphasis on student and teacher well-being.

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“Our research with students, teachers, and parents on pandemic education impacts suggests that educating for well-being and resilience must be prioritised alongside academic outcomes.”

“Learning is a collaborative, relational process that relies on trust, a sense of safety, and the nurturing environment of school communities that focus on creating conditions within which every young person can flourish.”

Despite pandemic-induced lockdowns being a contributing factor to increased absenteeism, Dr Pamela Patrick from Monash University suspects there are other indicators that are causing students to stray from school.

She argues that, with the changing nature of how education is delivered and the introduction of demands such as AI, it might be time to rethink how Australian schools operate.

“Emerging data from a parent-teen dyad study of teens with school non-attendance concerns has revealed that bullying and a disconnect between reality and curriculum taught in classrooms are two major reasons for the rise in school non-attendance rates,” she says.

“Add to this, the fact that many found a new way of schooling that suited them fine during the pandemic, bringing into question: ‘Why the need to change?’,” Professor Gannon says.

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Teaching more complex than ever

“Simultaneously, educators are faced with new and evolving demands – school refusal, vaping in schools, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to name a few have made teaching a more complex profession than previously known. These added pressures, with little to no relief, have resulted in an increasing number of educators preferring to leave the profession altogether. Students report feeling disconnected from teachers and teachers’ burnout rates are at an all-time high.”

Professor Gannon believes strategic action must be taken to help turn this trend around and nurture more positive outcomes for all school-aged children.

“At a time when the appeal of school is fast dwindling, it is time we started reimagining our schools.”

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