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Bradford Research School: Attendance: beyond the percentage

Posted 5th October 2023

We know that attendance is one of the biggest challenges facing schools right now. There are no quick solutions in this blog, but we hope it will give you a better idea of how to understand some of the specific challenges your pupils face around attendance.

Beyond the headlines

Headline figures like attendance percentages and number of days missed are important, but they can be a crude measure and don’t tell us anything more than that.

Let’s consider two pupils whose attendance percentage is less than 90%. One pupil has missed every Thursday and the other was in hospital for a week in September. While they might find themselves on the same list, it is clear that the approaches would need to be different to address these pupils’ attendance.

We need to look beyond the figure and actively look for the specific factors that affect attendance. We can try and address those.

In March 2023, the Centre for Social Justice published their Lost and Not Found report. They combined analysis of attendance figures, with focus groups with 10 local authorities, 10 Alternative Providers and 25 charities working with children who are absent or disengaged from school. They share this list of factors affecting attendance:

Anxiety and Mental Health: includes children and their parents. This may be exacerbated by other issues on this list.

SEND: undiagnosed or unmet needs; (Data from Summer 2022: Persistent absence 32% for SEN need; 37% for EHCP; 20% no identified need)

Disengagement with the Curriculum: catch-up narrative; generational disengagement

Low Income and Social Disadvantage: travel, food, toiletries; hygiene; food insecurity

Disrupted home environments: insecure housing; domestic abuse; young people acting as carers; relationship breakdown, and family addictions

A culture shift following the pandemic: towards absence; routine; illness

Some of these issues may feel familiar to you. With such a complex picture, it can be hard to know where to start, especially when there may be little we can do in schools to directly address some of these factors. But a richer understanding of the specific attendance challenges often helps us to implement effective solutions.

The Institute of Education Sciences1 in the US suggest these factors to consider when thinking about individual pupils:

Student-specific factors: anxiety; illness; chronic health.
Family-specific factors:
parental work patterns; housing; stressful family events; poverty; transportation; generational disengagement.
School-specific factors:
friendships; safety; connectedness with school; relationship with curriculum and learning; relationship with teachers and school staff.
Community-specific factors:
unsafe neighbourhoods.
specific days and times of the year; pupil characteristics.

There are some tools to support better understanding of the reasons behind school absence on the Attendance Works website here. (Be aware these are for a US audience.)

Once we know more about these issues, we can begin to address them. For example, the pupil who misses every Monday morning might be anxious about a particular lesson transition, they might not have been able to wash their PE kit, they may have a regular appointment with a specialist that cannot easily be moved. These specific reasons are easier to address than a number on a spreadsheet.

Much of the time, good diagnosis of the issues will lead to a specific solution. For example, anxiety about lesson transition might lead us to take an individual approach e.g. leaving a lesson earlier or a whole-school approach such as introducing silent transitions.

In our next blog, we’ll look at how to work with parents and carers to tackle attendance.

1Strategies for Improving Attendance in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten: Toolkit for Districts, Schools, and Early Childhood Providers IES