SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

School attendance 2024 – What causes absence & how to tackle it

Photo of lonely figure sat on park bench, representing school absence

As rates of persistent absence continue to climb, what can schools and policymakers do about it?

by Teachwire
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! STI lesson – Help young people make better relationship choices
SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Join us as explore the multifaceted issue of school attendance. We cover strategies for addressing persistent absences among students (and staff) and share evidence-based methods to enhance attendance rates across the board…

Why school attendance can’t be tackled alone

Illustration of two school chairs, one which is empty, representing school absence

As rates of persistent absence continue to climb, there’s been a stark lack of effective response on the part of policymakers, says Melissa Benn

As we enter this election year, the government – backed by some influential media voices – is routinely asserting that its education reforms have been the stand-out success of the last 14 years.

Few on the ground appear to agree, however, with many pointing to a system in decline and disarray. Crumbling buildings, serious teacher shortages, an ongoing crisis in SEND, Ofsted under near-constant siege – and to that list we can now add worryingly high levels of school absence.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, recently highlighted this issue during a big policy speech. She described current levels of school absence as a ‘disaster’, and the numbers involved as, “Frankly, terrifying.

According to figures from late 2022, one in five children are persistently absent. In some schools, more than half of the children are missing a day every fortnight. So what’s going on?

What is causing school absence?

Many have identified the pandemic as a principal cause – a period in which the established contract between families and schools broke down. Many more people now work from home. Some parents may still be allowing their children to stay at home, for a whole host of reasons, just as they did during COVID.

Financial pressures surely also play a part in some cases of school absence. Some families are unable to afford uniforms or even food, leaving children ashamed to go into school. Undiagnosed and unsupported SEND is another major factor to have emerged.

But could there be yet another, perhaps even deeper reason for the rocketing rates of pupil desertion from formal education? Maybe the changes brought in from 2010 onwards, which gave rise to a crammed, yet arid curriculum, constant testing and a catastrophic decline in arts subjects? Have we checked whether instead of educating an increasingly high percentage of young people, we’ve actually been alienating them?

Long before the pandemic, the organisation Square Peg was calling attention to the problem of school refusal, citing a widespread chronic lack of special needs support and a school curriculum unsuitable for many children.

Already anxious school refusers are often made even more anxious by threats from schools and LAs. Instead of being supported to manage the home-school transition, children are often told that they could be held responsible for their parents being fined or prosecuted. Rather than face legal action, some parents then feel compelled to give up work in order to home school their children, with devastating financial consequences.

Changing the language

Whatever the reasons behind school refusal, parental punishment isn’t the answer. Instead, we need greater sensitivity from the government to the many-layered impact of poverty.

We also need to see a shift in how politicians discuss education. Nearly all will seek refuge in stale rhetoric around ‘driving up standards’, not to mention those other old favourites: ‘ambition’ and ‘aspiration.’

These terms are fine, as far as they go – but when did you last hear a Minister or MP talk about the central importance of ‘engagement’ or even ‘enjoyment’ in education, or the changes that may be needed to restore those qualities to the classroom experience?

After nearly 15 years in power, the Conservatives aren’t likely to now shift their vocabulary, nor honestly acknowledge their role in the many problems schools are now facing. The pandemic has become an easy alibi for everything, from the widening of the attainment gap to those growing levels of pupil absence.

Ears to the ground

Opposition parties are obliged to similarly employ that conventional, media-friendly vocabulary around standards and ambition, but they have their ears closer to the ground and a more accurate sense of what’s going wrong and why.

For all its famed caution, the Labour Party is now calling out the government on a range of issues in education, and pupil absenteeism in particular. It’s also starting to edge towards a broader vocabulary concerning the purpose and practice of contemporary schooling, with Bridget Phillipson lambasting the ‘joylessness’ of our current system as one significant cause for pupils’ absence.

Complex as the absenteeism crisis clearly is, this is at least a welcome start.

Melissa Benn (@Melissa_Benn) is the author of Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service, and is a Visiting Professor at York St John university.

How to address persistent poor school attendance

Hannah Day looks at how schools can address the persistent absence that’s shaping up to be one of the pandemic’s most lasting impacts…

School absence is up, to the point where it’s now become a major focus of government attention.

Many students can remain stubbornly difficult to get into school, which the pandemic and its aftermath has only made worse. The MIS provider ESS SIMS recently carried out a survey that found a worrying decline in post-COVID school attendance, with around 80% of heads stating that absenteeism was presenting a problem for their schools (and those in urban environments rating the problem higher than their rural counterparts).

Only 53% of independent schools pointed to absenteeism as being an issue for them, suggesting that the links we’ve seen between economic inequality and absenteeism still remain. Judging by the survey’s responses overall, it seems that urban schools with a high proportion of students on free school meals were those contending with the most difficult absenteeism challenges.

In January 2022, the DfE launched a consultation on four proposals for supporting schools, trusts and LA with attendance issues – including the introduction of statutory guidance for managing and improving school attendance; setting standards for LA attendance services; issuing fixed penalty notices for incidents of school absence; and bringing academy rules around granting leave of absence in line with those of maintained schools.

In a response issued last May, the government indicated that it intends to proceed with all four.

Start with the person

Whatever form those new government measures take, now is the ideal time to review how your school currently approaches the issue of absence. Much of what we do is more about working with people, rather than the content of our subject. We can only teach meaningfully if we have engaged students present who are in a position to learn.

“Much of what we do is more about working with people, rather than the content of our subject”

With many persistently absent students, the causes of their low school attendance will be broadly known. Whether you have a grasp of those causes or not, though, make time for a review. I myself only recently discovered that one of my students, who had been struggling to attend classes and concentrate when present, had lost her father and told nobody. Needless to say, supporting a grieving teenager calls for a very different approach to supporting a lazy one.

The details in that case came to light during a careers meeting. Providing students with opportunities to consider their later lives in personal, non-threatening spaces can give you the chance to learn more about their unique situations.

If prior behaviour management strategies or school counselling have been unsuccessful, then support with a more practical focus can really help, since the active focus will be on real-world considerations, rather than emotional ones.

School clubs

When addressing persistent school absence among younger students, we’ve seen some success by getting them involved in after school groups, such as sports and drama clubs. These have allowed them to mix and make friends across year groups, and see themselves and others in a different light outside of the classroom.

What the careers meeting and after-school club successes demonstrate is the important of connecting with students and what’s important to them. By making school attendance the sole focus of our interactions with students, we risk giving them a predominantly negative experience of conversing with staff, which could compound the situation even further.

At the same time, we must also consider practical issues – particularly given the increased costs of paying for food, travel and uniform compared to just a year ago. As the aforementioned research makes clear, the more disadvantaged a student’s background is, the more likely it is that they’ll be serially absent.

Lazy stereotypes

What we mustn’t do, however, is fall back on lazy stereotypes of unengaged parents and disaffected young people. Such factors may well be involved in some cases – but what if they’re not? What if there’s a simple solution to be had by providing some form of practical support?

“What if there’s a simple solution to be had by providing some form of practical support?”

The Glasspool charity trust operates an essential living fund, which is open to any legal resident anywhere in the UK. There are also a number of community and religious groups who can offer support locally. Contact any such groups near you and see if they can be enlisted to help ensure that your pupils are having their basic needs meet. After all, if a young person isn’t already warm, regularly fed and clothed at home, how readily will they apply themselves to the task of learning?

Another consideration in some urban areas is the targeting of vulnerable young people by organised gangs. If there’s a risk of gang influence affecting students at your school, you may be able to seek help from the award-winning, anti-youth violence charity Power the Fight.

Engaging families about school absence

Don’t forget that families can provide insights you won’t get directly from students themselves. When approaching families, always do so with a warm, positive attitude. Let them know that you’re interested in the whole person and how the school can help. It’s vital to remove any sense of shame or judgement.

Many parents I’ve spoken to feel that schools have something of an ‘us and them’ approach when meeting them. Without open dialogue, it won’t be possible to build a meaningful relationship. So however ‘bad’ you perceive someone’s parenting to be, suspend judgement now.

“Many parents I’ve spoken to feel that schools have something of an ‘us and them’ approach when meeting them”

Find out how a parent or carer sees their child. What do they love about them? What do they find frustrating? When did the current issues start? Was there a slow build-up, or some catalyst that suddenly made things worse?

What does the student do in their free time? When they’re not at school, who are they? What do they love, and what are they good at? Conduct yourself as if you know nothing and want to know everything. You may be surprised at what you end up discovering.

When the time comes, discuss with home what might be considered ‘positive attendance’ as a starting point. A persistently late student could actually be achieving quite a lot just by getting to school at all. Acknowledge and verbalise this positively first; then seek to improve on it.

We can’t accept absences from school, but we can mix the support and discipline we respond with. If a student responds to a firm hand, then by all means use it. But in my experience at least, many more will respond better to more personal approaches.

School absence among teachers

Absenteeism among teachers can have a similarly huge impact on a school’s culture and continuity – here’s how to tackle it…

Make your school a great place to work
Be positive, welcoming and open. Publicly acknowledge staff achievements, encourage training, find out what progression aims staff have and find ways to help them. Make colleagues feel seen and valued.

Find out why staff are off
For this, you need a confidential, ‘tell all’ system. In person, make it clear that you want to know what, besides illness, will affect staff attendance. Inviting everyone to then later use anonymised forms to comment freely may well prove quite the eye opener…

Employ in-house cover
This is often cheaper than sourcing personnel from a supply agency. It will also allow your supply staff to build relationships with students. Ensure their contracts allow you to redeploy them for different duties at times when no staff cover is needed.

How many sick days can you afford to cover?
Compare your last three years of school absence data – though you may need to control for lockdown-era irregularities. Is it a comfortable margin? If not, get insurance.

Hannah Day is head of art, media and film at Ludlow College

Evidence-based strategies for improving school attendance

Cartoon illustration of teenage girl holding a large red 'x' to connote student absence

If we want to take action on persistent absence, we need to dig into the substance behind those alarming statistics, writes Freya Morrissey

Grace, in Y9, is absent from school again. As her attendance has declined, her tutor has called home multiple times. A letter has been sent, explaining the school’s absence policy and reminding her family that ‘every day matters’, but these approaches don’t seem to have worked.

Now, a third of the way through the school year, Grace’s attendance has dropped below 90%. Mr Baxter, Grace’s head of year, instead wants to try a different strategy to support her and other students on similarly worrying attendance trajectories.

He knows his school isn’t alone in this challenge. He’s spoken to colleagues at other schools that have adopted an array of different approaches to supporting attendance.

He’s seen tight systems of increasingly escalating letters and meetings with families; breakfasts laid on for some students at the start of the day; small ‘nurture’ tutor groups; and interventions aimed at building social and emotional skills.

These approaches are all designed to support students in attending school and lessons more frequently, and demonstrative of the effort school staff across the country will go to, to help their students. Yet Mr Baxter knows he can’t do everything – so what should his next steps be?

Strategies to try

Get below the surface

We need to see beyond the ‘symptoms’ of absence and examine the possible underlying causes, so that we can diagnose more precisely the issue(s) we’re trying to solve.

Through checking attendance data and talking with students and families, various individual and contextual issues can be uncovered, such as:

  • Illness (of the student or a relative)
  • Anxiety and other mental health challenges
  • Family expectations and beliefs
  • Commitments outside school
  • Undiagnosed or unsupported SEN, making it difficult to access lesson content
  • A lack of ‘connectedness’ with the school

Mr Baxter may thus be able to identify factors relevant to Grace and her peers, enabling him to consider approaches better matched to his students’ needs.

Mount a team effort

Thoughtful and diagnostic approaches depend on wider systems within a school working effectively. Teachers and school leaders must be able to reliably gather, report, access and analyse data, and collaborate on appropriate targeted actions. It may be helpful to consider whether:

  • The school has comprehensive attendance data, or must address any uncertainties or gaps (e.g. inconsistent records for pupils attending AP)
  • Robust processes are in place for staff to report on partial absences during the school day
  • Qualitative data is being collected to help diagnose and understand reasons for persistent absence

These points may call for action on the part of multiple staff – such as tutors routinely phoning home after specific absence thresholds have been reached.

Learn from others

Attendance: Beyond the Percentage
This informative blogpost from Blackpool Research School further explores the details behind headline attendance data.

FFT Edu Data Lab
A study examining the likelihood of pupils who live further away from their school being absent more often, which sheds some useful light on the logistical factors that can affect attendance.

Attendance Interventions rapid evidence assessment
A summary produced by the Education Endowment Foundation of existing research on interventions seeking to improve school attendance.

Freya Morrissey is the EEF’s specialist for learning behaviours and a secondary school leader of English and literacy; for more advice from the on the topics raised in this article, visit the EEF’s website

You might also be interested in...