Attendance: Tackling persistent absence

Written by: Octavia Holland | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We must address the soaring levels of persistent absence at secondary level. But when the most persistently absent children are so often those with the most complex needs, blunt approaches will not work, says Octavia Holland

For the vast majority of children, attending school has huge benefits beyond academic achievement: social skills, sports and arts opportunities, developing communication skills and building confidence to name a few.

But the number of children persistently absent has been steadily rising and this has worsened throughout the pandemic. In autumn 2020, the number of secondary-age children who were persistently absent (missing more than 10% of school) increased to 501,642 (16.3 per cent), not including Covid-related absence. This is up from 454,167 in 2019. Interestingly, in primary schools, persistent absence has fallen to 9.9 per cent from 11.2 per cent over the same period (DfE, 2021).

Recent government proposals have focused on inconsistent approaches to both sanctions and the management of attendance. A Department for Education consultation, which closes on February 28 (DfE, 2022), has proposed national thresholds at which a fixed penalty notice must be considered.

The proposals would introduce a requirement for schools to have an attendance policy and new statutory guidance on the expectations of local authority attendance services (for an overview, see SecEd, 2022).

This focus on attendance is welcome, but we have to ask if we understand enough about why children are missing school, if proposed measures will go far enough, and what more we can all do to contribute to this important mission.

Why are so many children missing school?

Pupil characteristics are a strong indicator of absence:

  • Almost a quarter (24.1%) of free school meal-eligible pupils were persistently absent in autumn 2020, compared to 9.6% of pupils not eligible for FSM.
  • Persistent absence was higher for disabled children and those with SEN – for pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), the persistent absence rate was 25.6% and for those on SEN Support, it was 19.3%. This is compared to 11.1% for those with no identified SEND.
  • Ethnicity is an important factor. For example. 56.7% of pupils from the Traveller or Irish Heritage ethnic group were persistently absent in autumn 2020 as were 52.6% of Gypsy/Roma pupils.
  • Absence increases throughout secondary school, with 19% of year 11s persistently absent, compared with around 11% of those in year 7.
  • The type of setting is highly relevant, too, with persistent absence in special schools almost three times as high as in mainstream provision.

The government’s proposed reforms come after Ofsted’s recent and thoughtful report, Securing good attendance and tackling persistence absence (2022) (2022). The document sets out some of the reasons children are missing school and what we might be able to do about it.

The report uses survey and inspection information from autumn 2021 and finds that the most common reason for higher-than-normal absences was Covid-related – infection, close contacts, self-isolation.

This was closely followed by parental anxieties and then pupil anxieties. Sources of anxiety include illness, worrying about the risk of illness, stress at home, and other adverse circumstances, such as domestic violence or financial hardship.

What we are less clear about is the intersectionality between pupil characteristics and the factors which may contribute to persistent absence. Clarity and understanding of those issues will be key to designing a successful approach.

Are the proposed measures the right ones?

A recent blog from the Education Datalab – Will the government’s latest attendance initiative work? (Beynon, 2022) – sets out how children who are persistently absent tend not to be clustered within certain schools or local authorities but do tend to have the most complex needs.

Therefore, although measures to ensure the consistency of penalties and fines could be welcome, what is of equal if not more importance is ensuring that the right support is available at the right time on the basis of the needs of individual pupils.

Requirements for schools to have an absence policy should be clear about the need to understand the experiences of individual children; a blanket approach for all children is unlikely to have a consistent impact.

Any uniform approach to penalties needs to be accompanied by a clear pathway setting out what needs to happen before that stage is reached and how individual children will be supported.

To be effective, any approach to attendance needs to get to the root causes of the problem, which the evidence shows are often related to anxiety and mental health, as we have discussed.

More needs to be done at all levels to understand the causes and create a school environment which is welcoming and supportive for all children and which acknowledges that if pupils are missing school there may well be changes that can be made by the school to create a more inclusive environment.

What role can we all play?

Prevention is better than cure, and the National Children’s Bureau’s work through both the Schools Wellbeing Partnership and the Anti-Bullying Alliance offers a range of free support which schools can access to ensure their school environment is inclusive and welcoming to all.

The Ofsted report cited above highlights a range of measures schools have taken to successfully reduce absence, some of them to do with supporting families in the simplest of ways – buying a child an alarm clock because they were not being woken up, for example.

Other examples include supporting a parent who was experiencing great anxiety about being at the school gates. The headteacher was able to set up a different arrangement to allow the child to be dropped off outside.

What is clear from the all the examples is that they started with schools being willing to really listen to the child and the parents to understand what the problems were and to work as a team to solve them.

Perhaps the main takeaway from this is that supporting children to attend school is everyone’s business and ensuring that there is a team around the child which is truly listening to and valuing the child’s voice should always be the starting point.

  • Octavia Holland is the deputy director of practice and programmes at the National Children’s Bureau, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of children. Visit

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