SECONDARY school pupils are still struggling to return to school following the Covid pandemic, with absence rates as high as 21 per cent for some. 

Figures show the attendance rate for pupils in Monmouthshire entitled to free school meals was just 79 per cent at the end of the 2023 autumn term, compared to an overall attendance rate of 88.4 per cent. The county council has a target that attendance for those pupils from the poorest households entitled to free school dinners should be within two per cent of the overall figure – but the difference is nearly 10 per cent. 

During the academic year from September 2022 to July 2023, attendance at Monmouthshire secondary schools was 88.1 per cent but just 78.7 per cent for those entitled to free school meals.  

That compared to an overall attendance rate of 95.1 per cent and 90.8 per cent figure for those on free school dinners in 2018/19, the last year before the Covid pandemic struck in March 2020. 

Conservative councillor for Devauden, Rachel Buckler, told a scrutiny meeting presented with the figures: “Children need to have the resilience to be able to cope with the working environment. We have to find a way to support them so they are able to be resilient.” 

She had asked why pupils had been “so disengaged” and said: “Over 20 per cent absence – that is a big percentage.” 

Will McClean, the council’s chief officer for children and young people, said its education welfare service is facing a problem on an unprecedented scale. 

He said: “It’s very difficult to underestimate the very profound effect the pandemic had on a cohort of learners. We are seeing levels of anxiety and levels of aversion to structure which I don’t think we ever anticipated or experienced before.”

Mr McLean added pupils who had been supported during the pandemic with a “routine and structure and access to education at home” have found the return to formal education easier. 

Head of service Sharon Randall-Smith said some pupils have also found they preferred to work from home, while the education welfare service is also supporting parents with anxieties about their children returning to school as well as children with anxieties and mental health difficulties. 

Returning pupils to school, she said, is also complicated by what can be “long waits” when further support from children’s mental health teams are required. 

She also cautioned councillors percentage figures are influenced by small numbers entitled to free school meals which in some secondary year groups can be as few as 14 and the “impact of one pupil can be very significant”. 

She said attendance rates also fluctuate from half term to half term due to factors such as illness, including chicken pox in the autumn, and term time holidays. 

On overall attendance she said Monmouthshire always ranks as one of the three best authorities in Wales and at the end of the autumn term had the second best attendance rate. 

Boosting attendance is a Welsh Government priority but when independent Cllr Meirion Howells asked if funding from Cardiff for the council’s education welfare officers will be in place beyond March, he was told it is still waiting for confirmation. 

It has used its own funds to employ an additional officer and will also recruit family liaison officers. 

Attendance of all pupils during the autumn term returned to pre-pandemic levels in a third of the county’s 30 primary schools with attendance at, or over, 90 per cent among those on free school meals in 21 primary schools and more than 85 per cent in seven schools.