The attendance crisis in English schools – and what to do about it

avatar Author - Andrew Mulholland

In January of this year, the Guardian pointed to a potential ‘cultural shift’ that had taken place since the pandemic that was causing an attendance crisis in English schools.

Some teachers claimed that parents were now more reluctant to send their children to school or were more willing to let them stay home, leading to an increase in unauthorised absences.

This story was then widely propagated in the regional news nationwide.  But what do the Government’s statistics actually tell us?

Renewed effort to regain control over absence rates

Remember that while schools have responsibility for setting their own attendance targets, 100% attendance is the Government’s expected (although unrealistic) target. Attendance of 97% or above is considered to be very good, 97-95% is good, 95-90% is poor and below 90% is deemed to be a serious cause for concern. 

So an absence rate of between 5 and 10% is considered to be ‘poor’. 

Before the pandemic, in the 2018/19 academic year, the overall absence rate in England was 4.7%, down from 4.8% in 2017/18.  In this same period, 10.9% of all enrolments were persistent absentees (defined as those missing 10% or more school time). This was down from 11.2% in 2017/18.

Fast forward to academic year 2021/22, when lockdown restrictions had finally been lifted, and the overall absence rate was 7.6% and the percentage of persistent absentees was 22.5%. This is perhaps inevitable and to be expected, given everyone had been subjected to such uncertainty and many were struggling to come to terms with such prolonged, widespread disruption.

In the current academic year, however (up to May 2023), the absence rate across all schools has jumped to 8.3% (the persistent absence rate remained at 22.5%). While the Government pointed out that regional and national teacher strikes, as well as authorised religious observances, would have contributed to higher levels of absence, it’s certainly something that the Government is taking seriously and improving attendance has become a major, renewed focus for DfE.

“Working together to improve school attendance”

This is the title of the most recent guidance on attendance published following public consultation earlier this year. What’s more, The Secretary of State has committed to it becoming statutory when parliamentary time allows (however no sooner than September 2023, when a further update to the guidance will also be published).

Much of the guidance will already be more than familiar to schools, such as:

  • How parents are expected to notify the school as soon as possible when their child has to be unexpectedly absent (e.g. sickness);
  • That schools are expected to accurately complete admission and attendance registers and have robust daily processes to follow up absence;
  • Put in place processes to contact parents on the first day of absence where a reason has not been provided. If absence continues without explanation, further contact should be made to ensure safeguarding;
  • Identify any absences that are not explained for each session and contact parents  / legal guardians to understand why and when the pupil will return;
  • The need to proactively use data to identify cohorts with, or at risk of, low attendance and develop strategies to support them; 
  • The importance of building strong relationships with families, listen to and understand barriers to attendance and work with families to remove them.

How to achieve and maintain high levels of school attendance

It’s imperative to reassert the importance (to both pupils and parents) of exemplary attendance. Routinely demonstrate the very real impact that absenteeism has on educational progress, grade achievement and life chances.

The top performing schools forge solid relationships with parents. These relationships are built on mutual trust and effective, two-way communications. 

Schools should therefore make sure they have processes and tools in place that make it as easy as possible for staff to communicate – and as easy as possible for parents to receive and digest that information.

Schools should also make it as straightforward as possible for parents to report absences online or via a school app and ensure that attendance information is collated immediately. 

Parents of children who haven’t presented for registration, and whose absence hasn’t been reported should be contacted and asked to provide a reason for the absence and when the student will return. The system should then make it easy to follow-up these absences, as the days progress, so that maintaining communication with parents is efficient, any patterns spotted and safeguarding is maintained.

Visibility of a child’s attendance should be available to the parent at the click of a button – and not necessarily just for morning and afternoon registrations. It can be extremely helpful for parents (and school leaders) to have attendance information available by class; and even have sight of breakfast, after-school or extra-curricular club attendance for their children.

Edulink One has been developed from the ground up to assist schools in their quest to improve attendance levels and minimise unauthorised absences. The up-to-date availability of attendance information, absence notification and effective, streamlined communications between schools and parents makes managing unauthorised absences simpler and less time-consuming.

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