There may be trouble ahead: Getting attendance right

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Poor school attendance can be a key warning sign of more serious problems to come for a vulnerable child. But how can we intervene to re-engage pupils and improve attendance? Darren Martindale advises

Pupils in vulnerable circumstances – including children in care or those with child in need or child protection plans, those with SEND, or those living in poverty – are statistically far more likely to be persistently absent from school (DfE, 2021).

Consider, too, that according to the findings of the DfE’s review of children in need (DfE, 2019), “children who have needed a social worker have poorer educational outcomes at every stage of education than those who have not, and taking account of other factors associated with attainment, are up to 50% less likely to achieve a strong pass in English and maths GCSEs”.

Add to this the range of other poor outcomes for these and other disadvantaged children, and it is clear why good school attendance is a particularly urgent priority.

In these cases, not only is poor attendance likely to harm students’ attainment and progress, it is also a potential safeguarding risk.

Repeated absence from school can, for example, be an indicator a child is being involved with a criminal gang or criminally exploited.
Whenever I have looked at the histories of pupils who have become very disengaged from school (those who have eventually been excluded, involved with youth justice, gone on to attend pupil referral units and so on – you will recognise the scenarios I’m referring to), one of the first professionals involved with the pupil outside of school is usually the education welfare officer.

It seems that concerns over school attendance are a very good indicator of even more serious problems that may be coming down the line for the child.

Recognising this, the benchmark for absence to be classed as persistent has increased over time – from 20% or more when the term was first introduced in 2005/06 to more than 10% since 2015/16.

BACK FROM THE BRINK: This article first appeared in SecEd's recent Back from the Brink supplement. There are many students for whom school is difficult – with many different reasons why. The 16-page supplement offers expert advice across a range of areas for addressing common barriers to education and supporting students at risk of dropping out or falling through the gaps. Download this for free via

Everyone’s responsibility

It is vital that headteachers ensure that all school staff and particularly the senior leadership team fully understand the importance of good attendance and how to communicate this to pupils and families. They need to understand their role in promoting attendance and engagement with school and how fundamental it is to keeping children safe. Staff should receive CPD in the area.

Governors also need to understand their role in helping to ensure good attendance and be clear about how to escalate matters where necessary.

Here are some approaches and considerations which I have found to be key in promoting attendance and tackling persistent absence:
The importance of positive relationship-building between pupils, parents and school staff (more on this later).

Investing time and resources in getting beneath the reasons for absence (again, relationships with parents will be critical in this) rather than leaping straight to punitive measures such as legal intervention by attendance services.

Once you have identified pupils with low attendance and the reasons for it, putting clear intervention plans in place, with timescales and methods for reviewing their impact.

If an intervention doesn’t work, don’t give up, but learn from the experience and change, adapt, try again accordingly.

Whether the curriculum and levels of support are right for children who are struggling and whether disengagement from school is a symptom of widening gaps in learning (do your low-attenders also tend to be low-attainers?).

Does school feel like a safe and welcoming place for all children, with clear routines and expectations that help to reinforce a positive culture of attendance?

Escalating problems where necessary, including the use of outside agencies such as attendance services, early help/social care, educational psychology, mental health support, youth offending or preventative services (e.g. where there is a risk that a child is being criminally exploited), or the virtual school head for young people in care and previously in care and now those with a social worker too.

Attendance champions

It is important to have good attendance champions in school who take a lead in ensuring that pupils get the support they need when they are struggling, that communication with parents is as strong as it can be, and that good attendance is celebrated.

It is important that the right people are in these roles. Thinking about those tenets listed above, it is clear that attendance champions need to have a broad range of skills, experience, and personal qualities. They should have access to quality CPD, supervision and support, and clearly defined responsibilities embedded into the school’s attendance policy and school improvement plan.

They should also have a sufficient level of seniority or at least clear channels of communication with senior leadership to be able to raise concerns and escalate them when they need to.

However, attendance cannot just be the concern of the attendance champion. The Ofsted Education Inspection Framework states that schools should: “Offer a clear vision for attendance, underpinned by high expectations and core values, which are communicated to and understood by staff, pupils, and families.”

So, if attendance is fundamental to school improvement and all staff have a role in promoting it, good attendance needs to be part of a whole school ethos, consistently driven by school leadership but fully involving all staff and the wider school community.

Parental engagement

The more positive the relationship between schools and parents/carers, the easier it is likely to be to improve pupils’ academic achievement, wider learning and physical, mental and emotional health. For children who struggle with their engagement, behaviour, or emotional wellbeing, those partnerships are even more vital.

And not only will it benefit pupils and their families, but it will also help to make the jobs of teachers and other staff a lot easier.

Whenever I have spoken to educators who are struggling with a certain pupil in their setting – especially in cases where it has reached the point of affecting the member of staff’s own wellbeing – it nearly always transpires that the relationship with parents has broken down.

Mutual respect, of course, is a key factor in any relationship. Some parents may not have had a positive experience of education themselves or positive previous experiences as a parent. They may associate school with stress, blame, rejection or failure. It is important that we acknowledge and understand those experiences.

As inclusion specialist Daniel Sobel puts it: “Reassure them that it is okay to have negative relationships, as long as we get there.” (SecEd, 2019)

We may need to accept that some parents have different priorities to school staff, and compelling reasons for that. Schools need to be as creative and empathetic as possible in rebuilding those bridges – by snatching every opportunity to praise the child, for example, or to bring the parent some good news, rather than the bad news and implied criticism that they have come to expect. A phone call home to report on something positive, as often as possible, could go a long way. It may be the first time that this has happened for them.

How do you reach out to parents or make school a welcoming place for them and their child? Is there someone to greet them (with a smile), and perhaps be available for a quick chat about any concerns they may have when they arrive with their children in the morning?

How easy is it for them to speak privately to the teacher or head if they need to? How effectively do staff listen – really listen – to parents and their points of view? How, and how often, do you conduct parent/carer surveys as a school and what is done with that information?

Reaching out to those parents who you find most difficult to engage with and finding ways of drawing them in can be so powerful and the solution (or at least a positive first step) might be as simple as a regular event that they are encouraged to attend and which is made attractive for them – perhaps something initially unrelated to school matters such as a coffee morning or charity event.

There may already be an existing community hub that the school can become involved in, which allows an opportunity to offer parents advice, information and support, or there may be a need to set one up.

Consider the use of mobile apps, social media and virtual meetings if parents are reluctant to come into school. They may also have practical issues with transport or getting their child into school on time and have come to feel that it is easier to simply keep them away from school rather than tackle that daily grind or expense.

So, look for any opportunity for parents to engage with school staff, and also with other parents (isolation is often a problem for parents in challenging circumstances) in a way that is enjoyable and none-threatening.

Keep your language and attitude positive and solution-focused and remember that these parents may also have strengths that they could bring to school. If you can find a way of involving them in school life and enabling them to contribute in some way that could prove to be transformative.

Think also about accessibility of information. Consider the language used. This includes of course information being translated, or translation services being available if needed, but also think about the kind of language being used. Is it in a style that all parents will understand and relate to? Is it warm and welcoming or complicated and full of jargon? Do you have dyslexia-friendly versions/formats? Do letters, signage and other communication account for the possibility that parents may have other literacy or communication difficulties of their own?

Are your reception staff welcoming and is signage easy to understand and follow? How do you organise support at parents’ evening, if it is needed, and how do you encourage attendance by those parents you particularly need to see (who are possibly the least likely to attend)? If they do not/cannot attend, can you arrange an alternative?

The answers to these questions may look different in every school and in each case, but if we start by responding honestly to each question, then we can identify problems and begin working together to find solutions.

  • Darren Martindale is service manager, vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. Read his previous articles for SecEd via

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