Government statistics have shown that Covid-19 is likely to have had a damaging impact on school attendance.
In the 2021 autumn term, the most recent period for which data is available, 23.5% of all pupils were persistently absent (defined as missing 10% or more of sessions) and 1.4% were severely absent (meaning they missed at least 50% of sessions). In the 2018/19 academic year, the figures for persistent and severe absence were 10.9% and 0.8% respectively.
Disadvantaged pupils are more likely to miss school than their peers. The latest national statistics show that 33.6% of pupils who were eligible for free school meals were persistently absent in Autumn 2021, compared to 20.0% of pupils who were not eligible.
Furthermore, 30.6% of pupils who receive SEND support were persistently absent in Autumn 2021, compared with 21.5% for pupils who are not identified with SEND.
Speaking at the launch of a cross-party enquiry, Education Committee Chair, Robin Walker, said:
“Missing school can seriously undermine a child’s education and future life chances. It is imperative that we take a nuanced and sympathetic look at the reasons why absence has become a growing problem. Not only do children learn and socialise while in school, vulnerable youngsters are also kept out of harm’s way. We must look urgently at ways to reverse this damaging trend that appears to have worsened during the pandemic.
Walker is right: good attendance at school is important because it directly affects a pupil’s academic success, personal development, and future opportunities.
Here are some key reasons why securing good attendance for all pupils is crucial:
- Academic success: Regular attendance helps pupils stay engaged in their learning and ensures they don't miss out on important lessons. Missing lessons can lead to gaps in understanding, making it harder for pupils to keep up. There is no substitute for being present in class when content is first taught, and class debates and discussions are had. Furthermore, there is no substitute for having access to a teacher: attending classes regularly allows pupils to receive individualised help and clarification when needed.
- Curriculum continuity: Most subject disciplines are accumulative; they build layer upon layer of knowledge. New knowledge is learned within the context of prior knowledge; and connections are made that form ever more complex schema in long-term memory. If pupils frequently miss classes, they are likely to struggle to grasp new concepts because they lack the foundational understanding that was covered in their absence.
- Interactions and participation: Classroom interactions contribute to a deeper understanding of subject matter. Pupils who attend regularly have more opportunities to ask questions, participate in discussions, and collaborate with their peers.
- Development of social skills: School is not just about acquiring knowledge, of course; it also provides an environment where pupils can learn important social skills, teamwork, and cooperation. Regular attendance allows young people to build relationships with their peers and develop social confidence.
- Routines and discipline: Regular attendance establishes a routine, helping pupils to develop good time-management skills and discipline. These skills are valuable throughout life, whether in education, work, or personal activities.
- Assessment and feedback: Classroom assessments are designed to gauge a pupil’s understanding of curriculum content. Pupils who attend regularly are better prepared for these assessments and receive feedback that helps them make further, faster progress.
- Preparation for life: Good attendance habits in school can translate into good attendance habits in the workplace and other areas of life. Punctuality and reliability are highly valued qualities by employers and in various life situations.
- Reduced risk: Pupils with poor attendance are more likely to fall behind and become disengaged from their studies, increasing the risk of future failure. School is also the best place for additional needs to be identified and diagnosed, and for vulnerable pupils to be protected. What’s more, a positive school experience contributes to a pupil’s overall well-being: active participation in school activities, social interactions, and learning experiences can have a positive long-term impact on mental and emotional health.
Attendance is particularly important for disadvantaged pupils who are at greater risk academically and personally. And yet disadvantaged pupils often face a range of challenges that contribute to lower attendance compared to their more advantaged peers. These challenges are interconnected and can create barriers to consistent school attendance.
Some of the factors that may lead to lower attendance among disadvantaged pupils include:
- Socioeconomic factors: Disadvantaged families may face financial hardships, making it difficult for them to afford transportation, school supplies, and other necessities. This can impact their ability to send their children to school regularly.
- Health issues: Limited access to healthcare and higher prevalence of health issues in disadvantaged communities can result in higher rates of illness among pupils. Health problems can lead to more frequent absences from school.
- Unstable homes: Disadvantaged pupils may experience unstable home environments due to factors such as housing instability, family conflicts, and poverty. These situations can disrupt a pupil’s routine and make consistent attendance challenging. Disadvantaged pupils might also have limited support from parents or guardians due to various reasons, including work schedules, lack of education themselves, or language barriers. This lack of support can impact a pupil’s motivation and ability to attend school regularly.
- Transportation issues: In some disadvantaged areas, transportation options might be limited or unreliable. Pupils might have difficulty getting to school if they don't have access to reliable transportation.
- Family responsibilities or lack of engagement: Some disadvantaged pupils might have to take on family responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings or contributing to household income through part-time work. These responsibilities can interfere with regular school attendance. Disadvantaged pupils may also experience disengagement from school due to factors like feeling academically behind, not relating to the curriculum, or lacking positive role models.
Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach that involves schools, communities, families, and policymakers working together to provide the necessary support and resources. Schools can implement strategies such as providing transportation options, offering flexible schedules, and creating a culturally sensitive and supportive learning environment. Communities can work to improve safety and provide social services. Policymakers can allocate resources to disadvantaged schools and address systemic issues contributing to attendance disparities. Ultimately, efforts to improve the attendance of disadvantaged pupils should be part of a broader initiative to promote equity in education.
For school leaders, improving the attendance of disadvantaged pupils requires a comprehensive and targeted approach that addresses the unique challenges they face. Here is a 10-point plan that schools may wish to consider to improve attendance among disadvantaged pupils:
Step 1: Foster a supportive school environment:
- Foster a positive and inclusive school culture that values diversity and addresses the needs of all pupils.
- Provide a welcoming atmosphere where pupils feel safe, respected, and valued by their peers and teachers.
- Offer counselling services and mental health support to help pupils deal with personal challenges that might affect attendance.
Step 2: Engage with parents and families:
- Establish strong partnerships with families by involving them in school activities, meetings, and decision-making processes. Regard parental engagement as a two-way process: involving not just informing parents/carers.
- Organise workshops and provide resources for parents on the importance of attendance, how to overcome barriers, and how to support their children's education.
Step 3: Provide transportation:
- Collaborate with local transportation services or community organisations to provide transportation solutions for pupils who face transportation barriers.
Step 4: Consider a personalised approach inc flexible timetables:
- Consider flexibility in applying attendance policies that consider the unique circumstances of disadvantaged pupils, such as accommodating family responsibilities, including flexible timetables.
- Implement incentives for good attendance, such as rewards, recognition, or extra-curricular opportunities.
Step 4: Address health and wellbeing:
- Collaborate with external agencies such as healthcare professionals to offer on-site health services including counselling, or referral to specialists.
- Promote healthy lifestyles and hygiene practices – including through PSHE – to minimise illness-related absences.
Step 5: Provide academic support:
- Ensure adaptive teaching approaches are employed in lessons to make learning ambitious and accessible to all.
- Offer targeted academic interventions, such as tutoring or mentoring, to help disadvantaged pupils catch up and succeed academically.
Step 6: Ensure the curriculum is culturally responsive:
- Ensure that curriculum and teaching methods are culturally relevant and inclusive to engage all pupils, regardless of their background.
- Offer language support services for non-native English speakers.
Step 7: Institute monitoring strategies and early intervention:
- Monitor attendance data contemporaneously and collaborate with pupils, families, and support services to identify trends and implement targeted interventions.
- Identify pupils at risk of persistent absence early and implement interventions to address attendance issues in a timely manner.
- Regularly analyse attendance data to identify trends, patterns, and areas for improvement.
- Use data-driven decision-making to adjust strategies and interventions based on what is working best.
Step 8: Involve community services:
- Connect families with community services that can help with housing, food, healthcare, and other essential needs.
- Establish a school-based resource centre that offers information and referrals to community services.
Step 9: Peer mentoring and role models:
- Pair disadvantaged pupils with positive peer mentors or role models who can provide guidance, support, and encouragement.
Step 10: Professional development for staff:
- Provide training for teachers and staff on culturally sensitive practices, trauma-informed care, and strategies for engaging and supporting disadvantaged pupils.
For more information about how you can improve attendance for disadvantaged learners, click here.
This article was written by Matt Bromley, an education journalist, author, and advisor with twenty five years’ experience in teaching and leadership including as a secondary school headteacher and academy principal, further education college vice principal, and multi-academy trust director.
Matt is a public speaker, trainer, initial teacher training lecturer, and school improvement advisor. He remains a practising teacher, currently working in secondary, FE and HE settings. Matt writes for various magazines, is the author of numerous best-selling books on education, and co-hosts an award-winning podcast.