An “alarming” rise in school pupil absence rates since the Covid pandemic is seriously harming learning, an education think tank has said.
It is estimated that 40% of secondary pupils of exam age in Scotland are missing a day of school a fortnight.
The Commission on School Reform, an independent group of education experts, says the findings also suggest a fifth are missing one day a week.
Attendance has dropped across Scotland since disruption caused by Covid.
Antonia MacDonald from Glasgow withdrew from school and her friends during the lockdown period.
Her mental health suffered and by the time school returned, she felt unable to re-engage.
She told BBC Scotland News: “I just didn’t want to go back.
“Because of all the online learning, I didn’t really do it, I felt I couldn’t do it.
“Even trying to do the simplest task was hard for me. And I didn’t want to go back because I was scared what the teachers might say.
“I overthought everything, all the small things. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t talk to any of my friends and isolated myself away from them all. I cut myself off.”
Antonia missed prelims and a lot of school time, but after becoming involved in a local project called Focus, which helped her build the confidence to return, she went back to school and completed her final year.
She is now starting an apprenticeship in childcare and says she is glad she went back to school.
And she discovered that many of her peers felt the same way.
Young people’s anxiety at trying to return to some sort of normality has been cited as one reason for the significant drop-off.
The commission has warned that pupils who miss out on a full-time school education are less likely to get good exam results or form good relationships.
Government ministers said Education Scotland was due to undertake work “to better understand the current challenges which influence attendance”.
Keir Bloomer, who chairs the Commission on School Reform, said the issue was of “national importance”.
He told BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “We were concerned about the absence rates in schools before the Covid pandemic, but matters have got substantially worse.
“We’re now in the situation where about one young person in three is missing a half day every week, and about one in eight a full day every week.
“That’s a rate of absence which seriously impedes the learning process.”
Last year, a 12-month pilot programme was launched to support pupils missing from school for long periods.
The scheme, called Reach, is being run jointly by Glasgow City Council and the charity Quarriers.
Under the programme, psychologists and community workers visit homes to help pupils overcome anxiety, stress and mental health issues
Colin Simpson works for Quarriers. He believes the pandemic has compounded the issues that some children were feeling.
“We have a team of staff who go out into the community to work within their homes with children who are disengaged with school to try to build their confidence, wellbeing and their capacity for re-engaging. Not just with schools, but with learning opportunities, tutor support or interrupted learner support,” he said.
“We are trying to support children to come out the home, re-engage with the community and ultimately get back into school.”
Keir Bloomer said urgent action must be taken across the whole country “before more damage is done”.
He said: “Children who miss a large proportion of school time are less likely to attain and less likely to form good relationships, as well as being disruptive to the family environment at home and the learning environment in class.
“School education is the most important driver of individual and national success, and it is time we recognised these links.
“In a particularly alarming trend, the absence problem gets worse as children get older, with two in five children of exam-age missing an average of a day’s school every fortnight.
“It is impossible for a child to reach their full potential with this level of absence, and we must collectively grasp this problem before more damage is done.”
The Scottish government said recent data suggested that overall absence rates were similar to average levels seen in previous years – but that there were variations at local level and between year groups.
A spokesperson added: “That is why the education secretary has asked Education Scotland to undertake work to better understand the current challenges which influence school attendance. The cabinet secretary will explore these findings with Cosla when she receives them later this month.
“We know that attendance has been impacted for many young people by Covid-19, particularly for those people with caring responsibilities and those cohorts who experienced transition during the pandemic.
“We are clear that everyone involved with the education system must redouble efforts to ensure children are fully engaged in their learning. Attendance is vital – and ministers are willing to explore all options to make progress.”